On this day in 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash in Clear Lake Iowa. Buddy Holly was only 22 years old when he died.
Video: About day of the plane crash
Obviously, since I was born in 1963, I never met Buddy Holly. I have, however, met quite a few people who were important in Holly’s life.
Among the people who joined us on the John Landecker Show over the years was the original guitarist of the Crickets, Niki Sullivan. He came to Chicago in the 90s as part of The Buddy Holly Story stage show. He was kind enough to get up real early one morning while he was in town to spend the better part of an hour on the John Landecker show.
We could have listened to Niki’s stories all day long. One of my favorite stories, because it involves two of the biggest stars in rock and roll history, was the story about the day Elvis Presley came to Lubbock, Texas. Buddy had won a contest as the best vocalist in Lubbock, and the prize was performing as opening act for Elvis. Niki was there that day too, and described what happened.
“Boy, Buddy was excited. You have to understand, it was 1955, and Buddy was already pretty well known in the Lubbock area at the time, but just hadn’t been able to break through nationally. Well since he was the opening act, he had access to the backstage area, and he approached Elvis—who had a couple of hit songs at the time--and asked Elvis if he had any advice. Elvis said sure, and invited Buddy into his dressing room. Well, he and Elvis went into that dressin’ room, and when Buddy came out a few minutes later—he was a different person. We asked him what they talked about, but he wouldn’t say. He just smiled. Whatever it was, and he never did tell us, after that night he was even more driven to succeed. It wasn’t too long after that he did.”
Recently, a home movie of Elvis backstage at that concert surfaced. Take a look at this clip, and you’ll see Buddy at the very end. This is supposedly the very first known footage of Elvis.
Niki was there for the recording of Buddy’s first big hit: “That’ll be the day.” He’s the other guy with the funny glasses playing the guitar in this video from those days.
He toured with the band the whole year of 1957, including a famous show at the Apollo Theatre. The black audience there that night had no idea what to think when they saw this group of good ol’ white boys, but the band won them over. It was a critical moment in Buddy Holly’s career, and was
featured in the movie The Buddy Holly Story starring Gary Busey. Unfortunately for Niki, it wasn’t portrayed accurately in the film because it shows only three men on stage that night. The Cricket they omitted was Niki Sullivan.
“It’s because I didn’t talk to the guy who wrote the first biography of Buddy. I was at the hospital because my kids were being born, so I wasn’t around when he came to town. Well, sure enough, when that book came out, I wasn’t a part of the story anymore.”
Sullivan was still part of the Crickets when they performed “Peggy Sue” on the Ed Sullivan Show. He told us what happened when Sullivan met Sullivan.
“He talked to Buddy before the song, but then during ‘Peggy Sue’, I heard him yell ‘Hey, Texas boy, do it!’ So I did a little dance. If you ever see that performance, watch the reaction of our bass player Joe.”
I never saw that performance until I listened back to the tape of our interview to write this column. In the 90s when we talked to Niki, YouTube didn't exist, and it wasn't so easy to track down some of that old TV video. Now you can, and here it is.
Niki Sullivan left the group just a few weeks after this performance in December of 1957, because he couldn’t take the rigors of touring anymore, and he wanted to be home with his family. He wasn’t part of the band for their biggest year of 1958, and he wasn’t part of Buddy’s tour in 1959. That turned out to be a lucky break.
“But I’ll still never forget that day,” he told us, his voice still choking up nearly forty years later. “I’ll never forget it.”
Niki Sullivan died in his sleep in 2004, 45 years after his good friend Buddy Holly perished in that Clear Lake Iowa cornfield.
Stories like this one (and many, many more) are available via Allworth Press--in my How-To-Guide for producing radio shows (co-written with fellow radio producer John Swanson)
Click on this link to order your copy: The Radio Producer's Handbook
If you were reading this blog last year, you might have seen Bob Dearborn’s famous assessment of the Don McLean song “The Day the Music Died”, which was inspired by the death of Buddy Holly. If you missed it, click here.
I’ve since found a pretty good video of Don McLean singing the song. If you watch the visual images, you'll see that whoever put this together, probably read Dearborn’s analysis from 1972. Don McLean himself still refuses to explain it.
Here’s a few more video clips for Buddy Holly fans. Some of these are pretty old, and some are pretty odd…
VIDEO: Buddy Holly & The Crickets: "Oh Boy"
VIDEO: Olivia Newton John, Andy Gibb, Cliff Richard and Elton John doing “Oh Boy”
VIDEO: Interview of the real Peggy Sue
VIDEO: John Denver & David Essex doing a Buddy Holly medley
VIDEO: Leo Sayer and Justin Heyward of the Moody Blues doing a Buddy Holly medley