Rock groups are senior citizens today…in a way of speaking. Because the first smash hit by a rock & roll band got to #1 this day 65 years ago – the 1957 hit “That’ll Be The Day” by Buddy Holly & the Crickets. Rock was still new back then, something that hadn’t hit the mainstream vernacular or even consciousness perhaps. Elvis was already huge mind you, having spent 18 weeks at #1 already that year. But the idea of a rock group – guitarists, bass, drums – instead of an orchestra or anonymous session musicians behind one singer, was quite fresh. And so far back was it that it pre-dates the “Hot 100” era on Billboard. They compiled lists of top-selling singles as well as plays on jukeboxes, but had yet to start the comprehensive list of top songs that became the industry standard by the 1960s.
Holly was of course, seemingly a major star in the making. A nerdy looking kid of 21– almost the anti-Elvis – with thick glasses, from west Texas who also had a knack for writing a catchy tune and an awkward but real on-stage charisma. He’d signed to Decca Records in 1956 and actually recorded “That’ll Be The Day” there first. It was a song he’d written with his drummer, Jerry Allison, the idea coming to him after they watched a Western in which John Wayne uttered the phrase defiantly.
However, as journalist James Harrison points out, the Decca version was “slower…not rock’n’roll.” Decca couldn’t be bothered releasing it, and cut Holly loose. However, they wouldn’t let him use the demos he’d recorded with them, nor release records under his own name for a certain period of time. So he found producer Norman Petty in New Mexico and recorded some tunes there with him…including a redo on this one. Petty helped himself to a writing co-credit on it but also seemed to get the feeling of the song right and make it marketable. Although his efforts to do so were just that – an effort. Columbia, Atlantic and RCA all turned it down flat. Finally Brunswick Records took a chance with it and released it under the name “The Crickets” owing to the old contract restrictions at Decca.
It took off, rising to #1 at home and in the UK, and as Harrison called it “here was the modern era.” Rock groups had arrived. Not surprisingly then, the Quarrymen (who morphed into a band known as The Beatles) recorded a demo of the song.
Rolling Stone rank it as the 39th greatest song of all-time, and it certainly is one that made a star and pointed the way for so many rock songs to follow, from its catchy, defiant chorus to a bit of a guitar solo and its featuring an entire band instead of just one singer.
Those of a certain age might not be that familiar with Holly’s original however. Gen X listeners perhaps got introduced to the song in 1976, when Linda Ronstadt had a top 20 hit in North America with her version of it which was actually sitting at #21 on this day that year.
As for Holly, his star shone brightly but went out too quickly. He died less than two years later in the plane crash referred to as “the day the music died.”