Updated: Sunday, September 4, 2016, 1:09 AM
is a former Inquirer copy editor
In the hit song "American Pie," Don McLean mourned the loss of Buddy Holly at 22 in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, as "the day the music died." The crash, which also killed Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, has overshadowed Holly's short, but influential, life and the role Philadelphia played in it.
Holly, who would have turned 80 on Sept. 7, was a rock-and-roll pioneer. He and his band, the Crickets, wrote, arranged, and performed many of their songs, including the hits "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," and "Maybe Baby." In doing so, they created a template that groups from the Beatles to Nirvana would follow.
And it was a Philadelphia radio personality who helped launch Holly's career.
In their book Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography of Buddy Holly, coauthors John Goldrosen and John Beecher credit longtime WDAS disc jockey Georgie Woods with helping "That'll Be the Day" become a hit in the summer of 1957.
"For weeks and weeks, nothing happened. There were no orders," Murray Deutch, of Peer-Southern, which handled Holly's music publishing, told Goldrosen. "And then I got a call from Norman Weinstroer, the sales manager for Brunswick [Records, the Crickets' label]. He said, 'Georgie Woods wants to play the record.' And it busted wide open. Georgie Woods broke that record."
Bob Thiele, who was in charge of scouting and artist development for Coral Records, which included Brunswick, confirmed Deutch's account for Goldrosen. "All of a sudden, the record started to sell. The sales department called, and they had one order from Philly alone for 20,000 copies."
That led to the Crickets appearing on Philadelphia-based American Bandstand on Aug. 26, 1957, miming to "That'll Be the Day" in one of their first appearances on national television.
While the broadcast helped the song top Billboard's singles chart, Crickets drummer Jerry Allison had mixed emotions about the presentation.
"I preferred playing live to miming," Allison told me in a recent interview. "We had to act like a vocal group," he recalled, even though he and bassist Joe Mauldin never sang on Holly's recordings.
Nevertheless, the song's impact was undeniable. For example, almost a year later it would be the first recording by the Quarrymen, featuring a pre-Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison.
Over the next 12 months, Holly and the Crickets would tour Australia and England and crisscross the United States several times, with stops in Philadelphia on Nov. 20, 1957, and April 1, 1958.
In October 1958, Holly and the Crickets toured the Eastern United States. They skipped Philadelphia but played in Scranton on Oct. 16 as part of "The Biggest Show of Stars for '58 - Fall Edition." An ad from the Scranton Times offers details on the show.
Holly and the Crickets, listed in the top left-hand corner of the ad, were the headliners. "I think we played about 30 minutes," Allison told me. They were among a dozen acts on the bill, which included Frankie Avalon and Clyde McPhatter. Tickets for the show at the Catholic Youth Center were priced from $1.75 to $3.50.
After the tour, Holly and the Crickets came to Philadelphia on Oct. 28 to promote their new recordings for Dick Clark on American Bandstand.
Allison recalled a tense moment in the dressing room before the show. Someone from Clark's staff asked Holly to return the check he received as a favor for Bandstand's playing his songs.
"Buddy stood up for himself and refused," Allison says. "He told him, 'If Dick doesn't like our songs, tell him not to play them.' "
The mood was more relaxed when the band went on the air. They mimed to "Heartbeat" and "It's So Easy," their latest singles, and were interviewed by Clark. Holly discussed songwriting, estimating he'd written "about 15 to 20 songs." And Allison talked about his contribution to "That'll Be the Day." "I wrote half, and Buddy wrote half," he said.
While no video of the show has surfaced, a die-hard Holly fan preserved the audio. Watching at home in New York, Val Warren, then 16, captured the segment on his tape recorder and photographed Holly and the Crickets on the show, wearing matching suits and ties.
"There are 10 surviving photos, eight of Buddy and his guitar and two of Buddy with Jerry and Joe," says Holly photo archivist Chris Rees. In 2010, Beecher released the full Bandstand interview along with other Holly/Crickets rarities on Off the Record (Rollercoaster Records).
In early November 1958, Holly, Allison, and Mauldin went their separate ways over differences with manager/producer Norman Petty. Holly and his wife moved to New York City. Allison and his wife and Mauldin stayed in their hometown of Lubbock, Texas.
The American Bandstand show was their final public appearance together and is believed to have been Holly's last interview. For his final tour in early 1959, Holly formed a new band that included future country star Waylon Jennings on bass.
Allison was just 19 when he and Holly split, leaving him to wonder what would have happened if they had stayed together. "That might have been the worst mistake I ever made," he says now, but "American Pie" notwithstanding, the music continues to live on as new generations discover Holly's music.
Read full story: Buddy Holly's Philadelphia story