Classic Tracks: Buddy Holly "That'll Be the Day"

Feb 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Ron Skinner


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There are two lessons to be learned from this month’s “Classic Track”: First, persistence pays off; and second, sometimes the master is the demo and the demo is the master.

In the winter of 1956/57, Buddy Holly was an artist in transition. After being discovered by talent scout Eddie Crandall in the fall of 1955 and signed to Decca Records in Nashville, by late 1956 Holly found himself without a hit and without a contract. Prior to this, Holly had had three separate recording sessions for Decca between January and November 1956 with legendary country music producer Owen Bradley at his Quonset Hut studio on 16th Avenue in Nashville.

For Holly’s first Decca session, he was told to put down his guitar and concentrate on his vocal, and his band was filled out with Nashville session men. His first single, “Blue Days, Black Nights,” garnered some positive reviews, but it didn’t sell. On his second visit to Nashville in July 1956, Holly insisted on playing guitar and singing. He also insisted on having members of his band back him and on recording original material. It was during this session that a master take of “That’ll Be the Day” was recorded. When the Decca executives heard the fruits of this session, they were unimpressed—so much so that, according to drummer Jerry Allison, one of the execs proclaimed that “That’ll Be the Day” was the worst song he’d ever heard. “The people in Nashville didn’t like it at all, which hurt my feelings, of course,” says Allison more than 50 years later.

When Holly returned for what would be his final Decca session in November 1956, Nashville session musicians once again backed him, and Holly was again told to set down his guitar. After the failure of Holly’s first single and the disastrous “That’ll Be the Day” session, Decca was not taking any more chances. At this session, the Holly single “Modern Don Juan” was recorded—it flopped.

While Holly was going through his trials and tribulations with Decca, another development was under way: Musician/composer Norman Petty had set up a recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico, a small town just west of Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Petty financed his studio with royalties he had earned from his trio’s hit recording of the Duke Ellington song “Mood Indigo.” At first, the studio was intended to be for private use, but word quickly spread and it became a hot spot for recording local talent.

While still signed to Decca, Holly decided to record some demos in Clovis with Petty. Holly was in search of his sound and perhaps a more comfortable place to record. His first attempts were a seven-song session of mostly original songs in the spring of 1956, followed by a session of two cover songs that winter. At this point, Petty shied away from further developing Holly’s music—possibly because of Holly’s recording contract with Decca or because Petty didn’t feel that the material that Holly brought to the sessions was strong enough. Either way, by the time Holly showed up for a third demo session on February 24, 1957, both of those circumstances had changed.

Petty had suggested that Holly get some more original songs and a band together. When they were well-rehearsed, he should come back and cut a demo that they could pitch to record companies. After being released from his contract with Decca in December ’56, Holly was determined not to fail; he had developed strong ties to many musicians in Lubbock, and by the time of the “That’ll Be the Day” session with Petty, he had put together a cohesive group. On the session were longtime friend and bass player, Larry Welborn, and guitarist Niki Sullivan, who also sang backing vocals for Holly with husband-and-wife team Gary and Ramona Tollett. Holding it all together on drums was Allison, Holly’s best friend and co-writer of “That’ll Be the Day.”

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