Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story The Musical has made a short stop off at The Festival Theatre in Edinburgh to bring back the timeless music of Buddy Holly to the stage. The show bills itself at “The world’s most successful rock & roll musical”, and is now in its 27th year having played more than 23,000 performances worldwide, so you know before you enter the theatre that this production has everything slick, professional and sharp.
This show focuses on the core period of Buddy Holly’s music when he was making a clear choice to move away from country music to the new sounds of rock’n’roll that were inspiring him as he heard the music of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and others who are now music legends. Buddy and Bob Montgomery had also opened a show for Elvis in 1955. Buddy Holly was a very good country music musician and along with fellow friend, musician Bob Montgomery (who co-wrote “Heartbeat” and some other songs with him) and later the Hayriders band, Buddy was being tipped as the next country music star…at least at a local State level.
With Glen Joseph (doing his last tour here as Buddy) pinning down not only that trademark Buddy Holly look, but that classic Tex/Mex guitar sound, this show really starts to take off once the band get that first difficult “Country Style” album recorded at Decca records (a contract that was terminated), and meet Norman Petty (Alex Tosh) in his New Mexico recording studio to record the rock’n’roll music that they want to play. In an incredibly short period of fifteen months, Buddy Holly and the band turn out 10 chart hits including many that went on to become music standards. Their first single with Norman Petty on their new recording label Brunswick, “That’ll Be the Day”, hit number 1 in the USA Billboard charts, and the rest as they say is history.
This show not only covers the music of Buddy Holly, but through fellow original band members of The Crickets drummer Jerry Allison (Josh Haberfield) and bassist Joe B. Mauldin (Joe Butcher) we get an insight into the personal friendships and eventual tensions that led to Buddy Holly breaking away from Norman Petty and the band to pursue a new career and new sounds in New York with his new wife Maria Elena (Kerry Low). Some nice character roles by Alex Tosh as Norman Petty and Celia Cruwys-Finnigan as his wife Vi also give us a little insight into just how much of a home cottage industry some of these early recording studios were. Also in here, that never ending warning to young musicians eager to get a recording contract…look at the details – their financial arrangements and the deal over Norman Petty getting songwriting credits were far from the best in the world (but standard for the times).
Like all good stories, there is a love story in here too...Buddy Holly deciding after only knowing her for five hours that Maria Elena was the girl for him and asking her to marry him. A major American music star deciding to marry a girl from Puerto Rico did not go unnoticed by some people at the time, and there are references to that racial tension in the script which Kerry Low and Glen Joseph handle well. Also of course running all the way through this show and the music is just how much those Mexican and Spanish sounds influenced Buddy Holly growing up right down close to the Mexico border in Lubbock, Texas.
A lot of this show’s success lies in its ability to give the illusion for a while of seeing Buddy Holly perform on stage, and the main key appearances are there…that famous appearance at the black only performers Apollo Theater in Harlem (where they were mistakenly booked as a black music act based on their sound), and of course the final tour by bus (and that fateful light aircraft journey to set up the next show that they took due to bad weather). Here we get to meet the other doomed performers of that tour – The Big Bopper (Thomas Mitchells) with his novely hit “Chantilly Lace” and Ritchie Valens who was having a huge hit with “La Bamba”. Ritchie of course fatefully traded his bus seat for an aeroplane seat. The ever present shadow of a racially segregated America starts to show itself clearly at this point, and it’s worth noting that the band were a hit at the Apollo Theater, and Buddy Holly often slept on the tour bus with the black musicians when they were refused rooms at motels along the way. The fateful plane crash that killed all three performers plus the flight crew became itself the source material for a legendary song – Don McLean’s “American Pie”.
In a short period of little more than 18 months, Buddy Holly left behind a major musical legacy and was with songs like “Raining in My Heart” taking rock’n’roll music in a more sophisticated musical direction. Sadly, Buddy Holly never lived to see that new musical vision of his become a reality, and with his death, Norman Petty released pretty much everything they had on tape, and many songs were re-issued with new backing tracks, over-dubbing and new arrangements…most of these it is doubtful if Buddy Holly would ever have wanted released at the time. Decca of course also made full use of anything in their tape vaults (as did Brunswick Records).
This show concentrates as it should on the core period of the music, and really comes alive in the second half…particularly when Glen and the band get to loosen up with some of the songs towards the end. The show does however leave us all asking “what if”. Buddy Holly was taking rock’n’roll music in new directions and few seemed to have the vision to follow him at the time and that resulted in the music of that era being very specific in sound. Also, with the loss of Ritchie Valens, the first cross over youth music artist that Latin America had, it took decades for that space to be filled.
Buddy Holly may have died, but as this show clearly shows, his music lives on, and has been part of the building blocks for so many musicians over the years…just listen to the drum patterns on “Peggy Sue” and “Denis” by Blondie for one example alone.
Review by Tom King