Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Mystery of Talent Part I: Buddy Holly

What interests me is the organic origin of art.

Toward that end I've been listening to the recordings of 50's rock n' roller Buddy Holly. What I've discovered is that he wasn't just some guy who died in a plane crash. He was phenomenally talented.

Striking about many of the recordings is his guitar playing. Buddy Holly was not only the best songwriter, next to Chuck Berry, of the early rock era. He was not only one of the most ambitious and versatile vocalists, along with Elvis, Jackie Wilson, and one or two others. Buddy Holly was also one of the era's best lead guitar players.

In 1956, at the beginning of his career, when he was, what-- 19?-- Holly was effortlessly covering the licks of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. When co-producing recordings of his own songs a year or two later, he used his guitar to help create a wall of sound, pre-dating Phil Spector. (Drums were used prominently. Note "Peggy Sue.")

Holly overdubs his guitar on "Listen to Me." It's spellbinding. One can hear his clean bright playing on other songs like "Words of Love" and "Heartbeat."

Buddy Holly should've been as big as Elvis. At the time he had enough trouble just making the charts, overshadowed by lesser lights like Ricky Nelson. Nelson had the best rock-pop songwriters crafting his material. His band included legendary guitarist James Burton. Buddy Holly had more talent than Nelson and Burton combined. (Note the explosive guitar solo in "Peggy Sue," as fine as anything James Burton or Chuck Berry did.) Buddy Holly had as much talent in his person, as singer, guitarist, and songwriter, as whole bands of the later "British Invasion," including the Beatles.

At his death at age 22 he may have been more advanced in these categories than the best later talent at the same age. This includes Lennon, Dylan, McCartney, Jagger, Keith Richards, George Harrison-- the lot of them.

Buddy Holly was a true phenom-- a natural talent. Why he wasn't bigger in his lifetime was because in the charisma department he was the anti-Elvis. You've seen the photos, the nerdiness and large eyeglasses. This was before subcultures like punks and folkies embraced nerdiness.

Would Buddy Holly have taken his art to another level? Some of the last songs he wrote, "What to Do" and "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" indicate he could have. He had moved with his new wife Maria Elena into New York City's Greenwich Village in 1959, right before his death. It's fascinating to speculate about Holly meeting the young Bob Dylan when Dylan moved into the neighborhood a couple years later. What a meeting of young minds that would've been!

The two best Buddy Holly songs-- and recordings-- are "Well . . . All Right" and "Learning the Game." They're timeless and poignant, up there with the best of Bob Dylan and John Lennon-- the highest praise I can grant Buddy Holly. Where did these songs come from? What was the source of his art? This is the mystery to figure out.

(To be continued.)

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