Heroes (Part 2)
More recording legends: Norman Petty tapes Buddy Holly.
Back to mono again this month as John Morrish sorts out the unusual studio techniques Norman Petty adopted in the mid-1950s with Buddy Holly.
IN THE EARLY DAYS, the spirit of rock and roll was passed from hand to hand like the Olympic flame. Where Elvis Presley went, a legion of imitators would follow. And in those early days he travelled far enough for his influence to be spread across the Southern states.
Unlike Memphis, the town of Lubbock gives us no clues to the understanding of its most-loved son, Buddy Holly. "The Buckle of the Bible Belt" was how one resident described the town, which had prohibition right up until April 1972. It was also a town where race relations were in the fullest separatist tradition of the South, unlike cosmopolitan Memphis. Above all, it was a town where there was nothing much else to do but make music. And what the music people played, despite hefty civic disapproval, was country music — but country music of a highly-rhythmic, hyped-up kind, made for dancing.
Buddy's first acoustic trio played bluegrass, country and the occasional rhythm and blues number, but he was simply following an age-old tradition of borrowing black material and playing it in a white context rather than making any new fusion. For that he had to wait until Elvis came to town. Shortly after the Presley revelation Buddy Holly had the dubious good fortune to be signed up by Decca, a major label that was looking for an Elvis clone to help it take a share of the money that RCA was making out of Mr Presley.
Buddy was glad to oblige, but when he arrived at the Nashville studios he had a few shocks. Firstly, they would not let him play guitar and sing at the same time. Secondly they didn't want any rock and roll drumming on the session. They didn't like his band, and the presence of numerous established country performers and the experienced producer Owen Bradley just made Holly nervous.
The tracks this first session produced were, predictably, nearer to country than to rock and failed to sell in any significant numbers. So in July 1956 they tried again. This time production let them down. Mistakes were not spotted, the balance was all wrong and the use of echo was crude in the extreme. The band was pleased with its recording of a song called "That'll Be The Day", but Owen Bradley told them it was the worst song he had ever heard. Decca would not release it.
Finally Holly tried again, this time with a Decca studio band. He recorded "Modern Don Juan", another flop single, and after a year as a Decca artist the company decided his services were no longer required.
Into the vacuum stepped Norman Petty. For all his obvious failings, Petty is the hero of the Holly story in the same way that Phillips is the hero of the Presley story. With Sam Phillips last month we saw the producer as fan. With Norman Petty we have the producer as Svengali.
When Buddy Holly first came to know him, Petty was the owner of a small studio in Clovis, New Mexico, a town some 90 miles from Lubbock. Starting as engineer and producer, Petty became Holly's manager, artistic director, and at least nominally his co-writer. And then, just as rapidly as he had risen to such a position of dominance, he fell. It was a pattern that would recur throughout rock history.
At one time Petty worked in a small radio station (like Sam Phillips) and it was there that he picked up his engineering skills. But first and foremost he was a musician. With his wife Violet and a friend Jack Vaughn he formed a mood-music trio, the Norman Petty Trio, and got himself a moderate hit with a version of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo". He ploughed the profits into his own studio, intended at first for his own use but later hired out. It was a little more elaborate than some, with a main room, a control room, a spare room that doubled as a vocal or drum booth, a genuine echo chamber, and a kitchen and beds for visiting musicians.
Petty adopted an unusual approach to the business side of things. Rather than charging by the hour, he decided to let the young hopefuls go on until the job was done for a set fee. One side effect of this rather haphazard way of working was that no proper records were kept. The studio was not unionised, so details of who played on what and when are dubious at best. But that's for scholars and pedants to worry about. What we can thank Petty for is his willingness to experiment. He could afford to do it — his studio was costing nothing but his own time.
And as an independent producer, making records and then leasing them to major labels, he was free to innovate as long as he got results. Moreover, he had excellent contacts with the major labels and the New York music scene, acquired through his own success.
But before Buddy Holly, Petty had another Buddy, Buddy Knox. Part of a West Texas band called the Rhythm Orchids, Knox gave Petty a million-selling hit with a curious period-piece called "Party Doll". For the most part it's a rather jaunty singalong — then in the instrumental breaks it quite inexplicably turns into a Sun-style rockabilly number.
Petty says that when he found Holly he thought he was "a diamond in the rough". Now, we all know that to extract that diamond you have to polish it. And that's precisely what Petty started to do with Holly's sound.
Petty's own view of all this is disingenuous. He says: "Many people give me credit for creating Buddy Holly. I didn't. I exaggerated or captured the various peculiar and natural things he did." Certainly it was Petty's idea to put out two separate series of records, as "The Crickets" and "Buddy Holly". This came out of necessity. The group wanted to record "That'll Be The Day" again but Buddy was prohibited under his agreement with Decca. So the group's name was used — and the Crickets sprang into life.
Some writers have created a complicated thesis out of the differences between the Holly discs and the Crickets' releases. Certainly the Holly singles are softer in style and tone, while the Crickets numbers are generally more rocky. The Crickets' songs always feature vocal harmony backing (for the simple reason that people believed they were a singing group) whereas the Holly discs do not. But it seems to be taking it too far to see in the two sets of songs two attitudes, one tough and cynical and directed at male record-buyers, the other soft and gentle and aimed at the female market. Petty has denied any such scheme.
The problem with the lack of real session details is that we don't know how Norman Petty worked, whether he demanded many run-throughs, or whether he liked to work quickly. The former seems more likely, but accounts vary. On "That'll Be The Day" for instance, bassist Larry Welborn recalls spending 12 hours just on the recording of that track. But drummer Jerry Allison says it was only intended as a demo, and consequently they only ran through it twice. Either way, it is an excellent record. The ragged backing vocals seem more appropriate than the smoother sounds on later songs, and Buddy's jangling Fender introduction seems to indicate to the world that a new era of unashamed electrification has arrived.
Very early, Petty showed that he was not the sort of producer who was prepared to make a "photographic" record of a session. He wanted to be active.
On the first Holly single, "Words of Love", he encouraged Buddy's idea of overdubbing the original recording. This was an extremely rare practice in the days before multitrack, although strictly speaking multitrack had been invented and used experimentally by people like Les Paul and Mary Ford slightly earlier than this.
It had to be done by playing the tape back while mixing in new live sounds, recording on to a second tape machine. The result was a disastrous loss of quality, but Holly used this effect to artistic purpose. On "Words of Love" he seems to have laid down drums, bass and rhythm guitar first, then lead guitar and a vocal, and finally the main vocal. The backing almost drifts off into the general recording mush, and the vocals and lead guitar gain prominence.
On "Peggy Sue", Petty really got in on the act. He made drummer Allison go into the spare recording room and fed the drum sound through his echo chamber, fading drums up and down throughout the song. Interestingly, there was no overdubbing here. Holly's guitar is a thin, vaguely electrical hum through most of the disc until it bursts out in a trebly instrumental break.
On "Everyday" Petty introduces and plays the celeste, an instrument practically unique in rock circles. So that it won't be overshadowed by drums, he arranges for the rhythm to be beaten out by Allison on his thighs while a microphone four inches away picked up the sound. To these ears it sounds rather like a cheap drum machine!
"Listen To Me" marked the peak of Holly's experimentation with double-tracking. Here he sings the verses in perfect unison with himself, then breaks into harmony for the chorus. Like another great balladeer, Brian Wilson, Holly had the knack of singing along with himself exactly, so you can barely tell he's done it. Nowadays, double-tracking is usually done electronically and it has lost a lot of its charm as a consequence.
Sadly, after "Oh Boy" Holly's career hit a slump. Petty suggested he try recording with strings. Holly refused. But in September 1958 he agreed, and went with Petty to record in New York under a new producer Dick Jacobs and his Orchestra.
The lush sounds produced at these sessions continue to divide Holly enthusiasts, but to me they sound pleasant enough. The real vexed question, though, is not about the sessions themselves, but what they implied.
Did they mean that Buddy Holly was abandoning rock 'n' roll in favour of a new career as a supper-club crooner? The few songs he recorded between the orchestral sessions and his death suggest that is unlikely, but no-one will ever really know.
One of Holly's final acts before his death was to sever his links with Petty. His new wife worked in the New York music business and she suggested that perhaps Mr Petty's unorthodox business methods weren't so harmless as they seemed.
But all this appeared irrelevant when Buddy Holly, together with Ritchie Valens and J P Richardson (The Big Bopper), was on a plane that smashed into a ploughed field on 3 February 1959.
It was the end of the story for Holly. But there was a strange sequel for Petty. After some legal wrangling he gained possession of all the dead man's unreleased tapes and set about 'polishing' them for release. This necrophiliac opportunism even got him a couple of hits — but it did nothing for his reputation.
It's a pity, because under his guidance Holly clocked up a number of firsts: first artist to use his own material predominantly; first to use lead/rhythm/bass/drums line-up; first to use strings on a rock 'n' roll record. More than that, though, he left as much for his successors as he had borrowed from Elvis Presley, in both his "natural" and "sophisticated" styles.
From the former sprang the whole British beat boom of the early Sixties. From the latter came any number of early-Sixties pop crooners, including in England one Adam Faith, a man who borrowed every last vocal whoop and hiccup from Buddy Holly. And, of course, he helped make a rich man called Paul McCartney even richer. But that was hardly his fault.
Listening: Buddy Holly & The Crickets "20 Golden Greats" (Coral EMTV8)
Reading: "Buddy Holly, His Life and Music" by John Goldrosen.