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Buddy Holly's Classmates Remember The Pioneer 60 Years After 'The Day The Music Died'

Feb 3, 2019
Originally published on February 3, 2019 5:32 pm

On Feb. 3, 1959, at only 22 years old, Buddy Holly left this world as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll. Now, 60 years after the crash that killed Holly, Mexican-American star Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper — or "the day the music died" — Holly's high school classmates from Lubbock, Texas, remember the young musician in the years before his rise to fame.

In the early 1950s, Lubbock High School student Betty Dotts was into music. She sang with Buddy Holly in the school choir and knew he had grander ambitions. However, she was skeptical when she heard him play.

"I thought 'Oh my goodness, that's not very good music,'" Dotts says.

George Nelson, another Lubbock High choir member, also enjoyed songwriting back in the day. "But I didn't have anywhere near the talent that Buddy had," Nelson remembers. "He was just innately endowed with it, and he could play."

In 1953, Nelson and Holly faced off in a song contest. Nelson's tune, "Someday You'll Pay," won. "It's the only thing that I've got in my life that I could brag about," Nelson says with a laugh.

At the time, rock and roll was just starting to shake up the nation. But Holly was "strictly country," according to Larry Byers, a former DJ in Lubbock who heard Holly's early performances live on local radio and at venues around town, "until he saw Elvis Presley and decided that maybe he should change his style a bit."

Rock and roll got an especially cold reception in Lubbock at the time. Nelson remembers preachers regularly smashing vinyl records or using cars to crush them. Local teenagers who wanted to listen to rock and roll would circle their cars out in cotton fields, blast the radio and dance. Nelson recalls that the conservative people in Lubbock "thought the young people were going to hell."

After high school, Holly threw himself into pursuing a music career, but his success was cut short the day of that infamous plane crash in Iowa in 1959. Holly was 22.

Dotts says Holly's hometown was slow to realize who they'd lost. "[He] certainly put Lubbock on the map," Dotts says. "It took them a long time to finally step back and recognize."

It would be almost 20 years when the 1978 movie, The Buddy Holly Story, was released before the city came around. Today, Holly has a park with a bronze statue of him, and a street and a museum named after him in Lubbock. The Crossroads of Music Archive at Texas Tech University also houses the research of the late music historian Bill Griggs, who assembled a thorough accounting of Buddy Holly's life — every day of it.

Lubbock is still making up for lost time. Construction is underway and the Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences in the city's arts district and its slated for completion next year. Not a bad legacy for a guy whose classmates didn't think he'd amount to much musically.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the favorite sons of Lubbock, Texas, died 60 years ago today in a plane crash. Buddy Holly left an indelible mark on popular music and culture. Today in Lubbock, you can find plenty of homages to the rock 'n' roll icon. But it wasn't always that way, as Betsy Blaney of Texas Tech Public Media reports.

BETSY BLANEY, BYLINE: In the early 1950s, Lubbock High student Betty Dotts was into music - classical piano. She sang with Buddy Holly in the school choir and knew he had grander ambitions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY IT'S LOVE")

BLANEY: She was skeptical.

BETTY DOTTS: When I heard him play, I thought, oh, my goodness, that's not very good music (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY IT'S LOVE")

BUDDY HOLLY: (Singing) Sixty seconds of heavenly bliss, one minute of your sweet kiss, then my heart was all a mess. It's love, baby, it's love.

BLANEY: George Nelson, another Lubbock High choir member, felt differently. Today he's an attorney. But in his teen years, Nelson also enjoyed songwriting.

GEORGE NELSON: Never had anywhere near the talent that Buddy had. He was just innately endowed with it. And he could play.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY HOLLY SONG, "BABY IT'S LOVE")

BLANEY: In 1953, he and Holly faced off in a song contest. Nelson's tune "Someday You'll Pay" won.

NELSON: The only thing that I’ve got in my life that I can brag about musically (laughter).

BLANEY: At the time, rock 'n' roll was starting to shake up the nation. But Holly wasn't there yet.

LARRY BYERS: He sang strictly country music back then - country-western music...

BLANEY: That's Larry Byers, a former DJ in Lubbock. He heard Holly's early performances live on local radio and at venues around town.

BYERS: ...Until he saw Elvis Presley and decided that maybe he ought to change his style a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME")

HOLLY: (Singing) Well, if you love me honey, will you let me know? If you really love me then never let me go. Oh, love me, love me, love me. Well, I'm hoping you do.

BLANEY: Rock 'n' roll got an especially cold reception in Lubbock. George Nelson remembers preachers regularly smashing vinyl records or using cars to crush them.

NELSON: The real ultra-conservative people thought young people were going to hell in a handbasket.

BLANEY: Local teenagers who wanted to listen to rock 'n' roll would circle their cars out in cotton fields, blast the radio and dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME")

HOLLY: (Singing) Oh, let's go now, man, go.

BLANEY: After high school, Holly threw himself into pursuing a music career. But his success was cut short in 1959. Holly was just 22 when he was killed in a plane crash in Iowa along with two other up-and-coming musicians, Ritchie Valens and JP The Big Bopper Richardson. Holly's old classmate Betty Dotts says his hometown was slow to realize who they'd lost.

DOTTS: Certainly put Lubbock on the map - places all around the world. And Lubbock, it took them a long time to finally step up and recognize because it's really outstanding what he did. That didn't happen every day.

BLANEY: It would be almost 20 years when the 1978 movie "The Buddy Holly Story" was released before the city came around. Today Holly has a park with a bronze statue of him and a street and a museum named after him. And the Crossroads of Music Archive at Texas Tech University houses the research of the late music historian Bill Griggs, who assembled a thorough accounting of Buddy Holly's life - every day of it.

CURTIS PEOPLES: May 31, 1956, Thursday - the John Wayne movie titled "The Searchers" opened at the State Theatre.

BLANEY: Curtis Peoples, an archivist, reads from "Buddy Holly: Day-By-Day."

PEOPLES: Buddy and Jerry Allison went to see it. The movie cost them 65 cents each. During the movie, John Wayne would mutter, that'll be the day, each time he was disgruntled about something.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SEARCHERS")

JOHN WAYNE: (As Ethan) That'll be the day.

PEOPLES: Buddy and Jerry decided to write a song later that evening. By now you know what the title was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'LL BE THE DAY")

HOLLY: (Singing) Well, that'll be the day when you say goodbye. Yes, that'll be the day when you make me cry.

BLANEY: Lubbock is still making up for lost time. Construction is underway on the Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences in the city's arts district. It's slated for completion next year - not a bad legacy for a guy whose classmates didn't think he'd amount to much musically. For NPR News, I'm Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'LL BE THE DAY")

HOLLY: (Singing) That'll be the day when I die. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.