In 1958, Buddy Holly was 21 and skinny, with horn-rimmed spectacles and white socks. He had a peculiar singing voice that ranged from a throaty come-on at the lower and to a reedy, piercing falsetto. He played straightforward guitar, nothing too fancy, and he wrote songs about falling in love and unrequited love and passing love. It all seemed fairly ordinary; but in exploring the No Man's Land, between the sensuality of "black music" - beer-bar music, backroom rhythm and blues - and the ostensibly clean-cut white high-school ponytail bop, Buddy Holly discovered the intoxicating, uneven terrain of rock 'n' roll.
He was a prolific, almost profligate, writer. In 18 months , he produced 9 top-ten rock 'n' roll classics - "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "True Love Ways," "Not Fade Away," "Rave On." He was one of the first great popular superstars, and his plane-crash death in 1959 caused a nation-wide wave of teen-aged grief - but rock 'n' roll was new and exciting and there were other idols to be worshiped.
Elvis Persley, who grafted an over-blown Southern raunchiness onto the pristine tree of the love ballant became the symbol of the new music, and Buddy Holly became the singer on the oldie goldie radio programs. To the children of the "permissive" Beatles generation, the appeal of Buddy Holly and his loafers and falsetto was even more obscure than Presley's D.A. and pelvis.
Holly's influence remained dormant, or rather underground for some 15 years while the permutations of British rock 'n' roll were explored and extrapolated. His followers - Roy Orbison (who would later pass along a dilutte strain to his admirer Bruce Springsteen), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (who were also busily tending the flame of Hank Williams). Linda Ronstadt and surviving Cricket Waylon Jennings, for examples - bided their time, slowly subverting the mainstream of popular music with an infusion of the '50s.
There were signs of a Buddy Holly resurgence at the beginning of the '70s. Paul McCartney, a Holly fan, bought the publishing rights to the Holly catalogue. Both Ronstadt and the Dirt Band were turning Holly compositions into signature numbers in concert; Don McLean's reputation still rests on his evocation of American musical history, "American Pie," which describes Holly's death as "the day the music died." When first "That'll Be the Day" and the "It's So Easy" became major hit singles for Ronstadt, the stage was set for what is always called a major motion-picture biography.
Now we have not only a film called "The Buddy Holly Story," opening in Washington Aug. 18, we have a sound-track album, featuring Gary Busey as Buddy Holly. It is not only not a major album, it's not even minor. As evocation, it's a clear miss; as imitation, its embarrassing. Like the new "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" soundtrack, it realize the gap between the original and the copy.
Most of the cuts apparently are intended to reproduce "live" (in the movie) performances. Busey seems to think that in the excitement of a concert, Holly would forget how to enunciate, be unable to make it through a line without gasping for breath, and be in too much of a hurry to get off a clear guitar riff. Busey has memorized the places in various songs where Holly changed to a huskier voice or a more nasal sound, but his attempts to imitate them are crude. He talks or shouts rather than really sing - and even at that he's occasionally off-key.
The worst travesty - and of course, with its current high recognition factor, it shows up on the soundtrack twice is Busey's version of "That'll Be the Day." The playing is amateur, the pace is too fast, and the voice shrill. "Day-ay-ay" becomes "Day-hey-hey." Another annoyance: The lyrics have been puzzlingly changed in the chorus of "Rave On" - from "I love you" to "You love me."
Busey has been receiving favorable reviews from film critics, so his acting must be more convincing than his singing. But seeing the movie is likely to whet Holly fans' appetites for the real thing, in which case they're in luck.
MCA Records has recently re-released "Twenty Golden Greats" of Buddy Holly and the Crickets (MCA 3040), joining "A Rock 'n' Roll Collection" (MCA 2-4009), and "The Great Buddy Holly" on its budget Coral label (CB-20101). They're all recommended - even for those of us who didn't like the oldie goldie radio shows 10 years ago.