Charles Hardin Holley didn't have much time in the limelight -- 18 months. But as Buddy Holly, his memory remains, and it is one of the brightest stars in the rock galaxy. Don McLean built his "American Pie" around "the day the music died" in February of 1959 when the 23-year-old Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in an Iowa plane crash.

But the exuberant grace and intimate optimism that defined. Holly's best work are as alive today as they were 22 years ago in "That'll Be the Day," "Heartbeat," "Rave On," "Everyday," "Love Ways" and the prophetic "Not Fade Away." Linda Ronstadt and Mickey Gilley have scored recent hits with Holly covers; Paul McCartney even spent some of his millions purchasing the rights to all of Holly's songs.

Holly's influence extends from the Beatles and Dylan to the new energies of look-alike Elvis Costello. Holley and the Crickets created the mold for all the self-contained, guitar-oriented bands to follow. His work has survived despite the post-mortem exploitations of his record company, Coral (now part of MCA). When Holly died, Carol scoured the shelves for unreleased studio masters; then they went to demo tapes, rehearsal and test tapes, anything to put out more. Holly product. The label spent the next 10 years releasing frequently inferior Holly originals and covers, most ineptly overdubbed years after the original taping and few even intended for release.

Now the definitive Holly compilation has arrived -- from England. Despite his influence, Holly was never as respected in his homeland as he was in Britain, where he toured in 1958. The vapid, thoughtless stateside packaging of his recorded legacy over the last 22 years attests to that. It took an Englishman, John Goldrosen, to write the definitive Holly biography and Englishmen to put together "The Complete Buddy Holly" (MCA 6-80,000). The six-volume set has been available as an import for several years, the domestic version just released shows the reverence and historical insight that only the English and Japanese seem capable of bringing off on such a large scale.

Put together by John Beecher and Malcolm Jones, the set includes all Holly recordings in existence (120, of which 47 had been released before his death), snippets of interviews and a beautifully constructed 64-page "memorial booklet" of rare photos, letters, news clips and remembrances. And though the set necessarily includes all the exploitative Holly material, it is annotated, explained and accepted in truly reverent fashion -- Buddy Holly without tears.

Thus, the compilers can maintain perspective on Holly's own influences -- country-western and rockabilly, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, Buddy Knox. They can chart the growth from Holly's early and highly conventional country-style duets with Bob Montgomery in Lubbock, Tex., through the primitive rock energy of some early Nashville recordings to the increasingly assured pop sensibility of his last sessions in New York. The albums are arranged chronologically, a telling portrait of the young artist whose time would soon run out -- a good son, husband and friend and a writer whose songs projected a genuine warmth and honesty.

Beecher and Jones have also, for the first time, provided the original versions of Holly's last six consignments to his tape recorder in New York before leaving on the fateful final tour. For contrast, there are the two sets of over-dubbed versions done by separate producers. Hearing the compelling unadulterated solos -- Holly and acoustic guitar -- makes one despair, not only for Holly's interrupted promise, but of what survivors have done to his music in attempts to "legitamize" it. This is evident in his sequel song, "Peggy Sue Got Married," as well as on one of his eclectic covers, Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'", which Holly turns into a slow-paced, mellow ballad that still maintains the spirit of the original. The overdubbed versions are atrocious, obsecuring Holly's intent as well as over-whelming his voice with drums, guitars, strings and vocal groups.

The set provides a graphic example of how a performer's approach can define a style. Holly first recorded "That'll Be the Day" in Nashville in 1956, with an indifferent producer who was looking for a country singer. The heat was overly rigid, there was no vocal backup and Holly sang harshly in an obviously undercomfortable high pitch. The song was a mess and was never released -- until his second version became a hit for another company seven months later. With Norman Petty at the console in Clovis, N. Mex., Holly breathed original life into the song he so strongly believed in. This time, the Crickets sang behind him, his own lead vocal was comfortable lower, the pace was less strained. The song became Holly's first hit and, for a year and half, the life and the art were fully realized.

In one of the interviews at the end of the 12th side, Holly talks to the legendary deejay, Alan Freed, mentioning that a few days earier he'd been spooked landing at an airport where a plane had recently crashed. Four months later, Holly was dead, but people like Goldrosen, Beecher and Jones have refused to let his music -- or his spirit -- pass away.