I don’t think you could definitely say that there is a curse associated with 1950s rock-n-roller Buddy Holly; you could probably safely karaoke “Peggy Sue” or “That’ll Be the Day” and not wind up dead the next day. (Note the definitely and probably. Those adverbs clear me of any liability if you sing any of his songs and get stabbed by a crazed karaoke hater.) However, there have been a number of unfortunate incidents associated with Holly, so let’s sprinkle a ring of salt around us and get started, shall we?
I suppose some background is in order. Buddy Holly was born Charles Holley, on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas. I spent almost two years in Lubbock. It’s dusty, windy, and full of dirt. There’s a Buddy Holly statue in a park, and you can see his grave in, uh, a graveyard. Buddy was his longtime nickname; Decca Records, who first signed him, misspelled his last name, and it stuck.
Holly and his band, the Crickets, started actively recording in 1957. Despite the busy schedule, Holly found time to marry Maria Santiago in June 1958. (He saved time by proposing on their first date.) He was also offered a spot in the Winter Dance Party, a 3-week tour across the midwestern United States that opened on January 23, 1959. (I have been to the Midwest, and as I experienced, it is extremely friggin’ cold that time of year.)
Shortly into the tour, Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, had to leave the Party, because he suffered frostbite on his feet. Add to that the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson, “Chantilly Lace”) and Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba”, Lou Diamond Phillips) coming down with colds, the tour bus constantly breaking down, and it was a pretty miserable experience. You can’t blame Buddy for thinking “Fuck this” and chartering a plane to take him from the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, to their next stop.
Richardson and Valens, though, weren’t supposed to be on the plane. Waylon Jennings (the guy who sang the Dukes of Hazzard theme) gave his seat to Richardson, and Valens won his through a coin flip with Tommy Allsup, a member of Holly’s backing band.
On February 3, 1959, the plane went up, and then came back down shortly after take-off, about 5 miles from the airport. There was a snowstorm, and the pilot wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments only, something he neglected to tell his passengers.
And here’s where the curse, or maybe just the unfortunate happenings associated with Buddy Holly, begins.
Singer Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) was supposed to be with the Winter Dance Party, but he dropped out shortly before it started. On April 17, 1960, Cochran was in a car wreck while driving to London’s Heathrow Airport. His two passengers lived, but Cochran was thrown from the car and died the next day of massive head injuries. The last single released by Cochran before his death? “Three Steps to Heaven”, a song backed by Holly’s old band the Crickets.
Singer Ronnie Smith stepped in to replace Holly for the rest of the Dance Party. On October 25, 1962, he hanged himself in a hospital bathroom; he’d been committed to a state hospital in Texas for drug abuse.
The original Crickets decided to draft a new singer; 17 year-old David Box sang with them for a few years, recording the song “Peggy Sue Got Married” (thus the title of the Kathleen Turner/Nicolas Cage ’80s movie) before moving on to a solo career. On October 23, 1964, the Cessna plane he was riding in crashed, killing him and the pilot. He was 22, the same age as Holly when his crash occurred.
Bobby Fuller idolized Buddy Holly; he sent a demo record to Holly’s parents, who forwarded it to their son’s former producer. Fuller and his band, the Bobby Fuller Four, were signed and recorded some songs, including “I Fought the Law”, which was written by one of the Crickets. On July 18, 1966, Fuller was found dead in his car, which was parked in front of his house. He’d been severely beaten and drenched in gasoline. Fuller reportedly had been in trouble with local mobsters, due to his dalliances with a mob dame. The police ruled his death a suicide. (Because, you know, if you want to do yourself in, punching yourself in the face and then pouring gasoline over yourself–and you gotta make sure to swallow some of it–is the best way to go.) Fuller’s connection with the Holly curse, beyond the Cricket-penned song? He recorded “Love’s Made a Fool of You” right before his death, a song that had been written by Holly.
All right, so, a few unfortunate occurrences, but this is rock-n-roll, baby. You pick up a guitar or a set of drum sticks with the knowledge that you may die young. Plane crashes, car crashes, drugs, drinking, suiciding. Blame it on Robert Johnson and his deal with the devil at the crossroads.
But now we come to Hollywood. The movies, I meant. But still, check that out. Hollywood. Buddy Holly.
In 1978, Gary Busey was not the addled, could-be-your-weird-uncle-who-does-PCP-and-makes-his-own-moonshine-in-his-toilet guy we know today. Back then, he was a singer turned actor, with an okay resemblance to Holly. Thus, he was cast in The Buddy Holly Story, a biopic covering the singer’s life from Lubbock to that plane in Iowa.
He garnered an Academy Award nomination for his role, and did all the singing in the movie. But somehow, his career just never took off. And in 1988, he got in a near-fatal motorcycle wreck and fractured his skull, because helmets are for pussies. And now we have quotes like:
“Imagine the peace symbol. The peace symbol has three pieces in it. One piece
is emotion, that’s your body. Another piece has spirit in it, that’s your
fuel. Another piece has intellect in it and that’s your steering wheel. You
can never overdo the fuel that goes into the body, which is the emotions and the
steering wheel to drive it.”
All right, but so what? An actor rides a bike without a helmet, and does it 10 years after that movie, and maybe he never became a big star, that might have something to do with cocaine, but there has to be more to it than that, right?
Excellent point. Want to guess what happened to Robert Gittler, The Buddy Holly Story‘s screenwriter?
He killed himself right before the film was released.
As I mentioned earlier, not conclusive stuff. Nothing happened to Don McLean (“American Pie”, come on, you’ve heard it) or Madonna, when she made that demon miscarriage of a remake.
Still, though, don’t think I’ll be singing “That’ll Be the Day” aloud anytime soon.
Terrific Trivia Time! Holly’s song “That’ll Be the Day” was inspired by John Wayne, who said the line several times in The Searchers (1956).
And if I wanted to blow y’all’s minds, I could add that Natalie Wood played the abducted girl, the object of John Wayne’s character’s obsessed hunt, in The Searchers. And we all know what happened to Natalie Wood. Either she was the victim of the Holly curse, or the Rebel Without a Cause curse . . .