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TERRY GROSS, host:

On February 3rd 1959, a plane crashed in an Iowa field, ending the lives of three performers onboard: Disc jockey J. P. Richardson who'd had a novelty hit under the name the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens, a 17-year-old Mexican-American rocker from Los Angeles were just starting their careers. But the third rocker, Buddy Holly, had begun to emerge as the biggest star since Elvis. After a long wait, Decca Records has just issued a memorial collection, a three disc career-spanning survey of Holly's work and two more discs of rarities, which gives some hints of what might have happened had he lived. Listening to these CDs has gotten our rock critic - rock historian Ed Ward thinking about Holly and his music.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh Boy")

Mr. BUDDY HOLLY (Musician): (Singing) All of my love - all of my kissin', you don't know what you've been a-missin', oh boy - when you're with me - oh boy, the world will see that you're meant for me.

Mr. ED WARD (Rock Critic): Buddy Holly probably needs no introduction to most rock fans, no matter what their age is because his legend has been kept alive by a film and a song by Don McLean, "American Pie," which was a hit not only for him but also for Madonna. It's important to note, though, that it is, indeed, a legend, bearing very little relation to the actual story of Charles Hardin Holley - the skinny, glasses-wearing kid from Lubbock, Texas. The film "The Buddy Holly Story" not only casts his parents as ignorant redneck fundamentalists who opposed his music, which they certainly were not, but totally ignores Norman Petty, who ran the only recording studio for miles around and who helped Holly and his band, the Crickets, refine their sound until it was good enough to take to the big leagues.

As for "American Pie" well, any fool who's got ears knows that music didn't die in 1959. But Buddy Holly did, and it's fair to wonder what would have happened if he hadn't. His recording career, after all, had lasted just under two years - from an early, unsuccessful trip to Nashville in 1956, to New York City, where he was living on lower 5th Avenue with his new bride when he went on that last tour.

For years, I've always assumed the worst because of the products of his last recording session.

(Soundbite of song, "It Doesn't Matter Any More")

Mr. HOLLY: (Singing) There you go and baby here am I, well you left me here so I could sit and cry, well golly gee what have you done to me, well I guess it doesn't matter anymore.

Mr. WARD: "It Doesn't Matter Any More" bore all the hallmarks of disaster, written by teen idol Paul Anka, with a syrupy string arrangement by Dick Jacobs, who also produced the session. It fit well into the pop landscape of the time where proponents of so-called good music, of which Jacobs was the pillar, were getting the upper hand on the unruly rockers with carefully selected young crooners with teen appeal. Buddy Holly could have been the next Paul Anka or Bobby Darin or maybe not. The Dick Jacobs session was at the end of October 1958. But a month later, Buddy got a new toy: a tape recorder and a microphone.

From early December to January 20th, he fooled around with it, and also recorded new songs he'd written. After his death, the so-called apartment tapes were overdubbed by Norman Petty, using both the Crickets and a local band called the Fireballs as backing. And these new singles came out through 1960. Now that the complete, undubbed tapes are available, though, a more complex Buddy emerges. For one thing, his lyrics, which had never been so good, continued to improve.

(Soundbite of song, "Learning the Game")

Mr. HOLLY: (Singing) Hearts that are broken & love that's untrue, these go with learning the game, when you love her & she doesn't love you', you're only learning the game, when she says that you're the only one she'll ever love, then you find that you are not the one she's thinking of, feeling so sad and you're all alone & blue, that's when you're learning the game.

Mr. WARD: For another thing, he was thinking about rock and roll as if he was trying to figure something out. Recording acoustic versions of current hits like Mickey and Sylvia's "Love is Strange" and the Coasters' "Smokey Joe's Café," the latter of which strips away some of the song's comedy, but somehow leaves it still funny. Most telling, though, are three versions of a song by Little Richard — one fast, two slow, recorded both on electric and acoustic guitar — as if he were looking for something the tempo would reveal.

(Soundbite of song, "Slippin' and Slidin")

Mr. HOLLY: (Singing) Slippin' & a-slidin', peepin' and a-hidin', been told a long time ago, slippin' & a-slidin', peepin' and a-hidin', been told a long time ago, I've been told baby you've been bold, I won't be you're fool no more, Oh my Linda, she's a solid sender, know you better surrender, oh my Linda, she's a solid sender, you know you better surrender, slippin' & a-slidin', peepin' & a-hidin', I won't be you're fool no more.

Mr. WARD: We'll never know what Buddy was looking for while Maria Elena did the dishes, but I'm confident now that he'd probably have found it. If it gave him the strength to stand up to the suits who wanted to make him a teenager's Sinatra, and make recordings which built on his already impressive past, American rock and roll might have been very different. I wrote a friend of mine after I got the memorial collection" and rarities with some of these speculations. And he wrote back, imagine what we'd think of John Lennon if the Beatles had all died in a plane crash after their first album. Lennon and Holly would have been the same age after all.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Southern France. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org.

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