A day before what would have been Buddy Holly’s 71st birthday, buddies from his youth remembered the rock ‘n’ roll legend as someone with many of the usual characteristics for a young man.
Jack Neal said being two years older than Holly didn’t make him immune from his jokes.
“He was a prankster,” said Neal, 73, in town to play keyboards during Thursday’s Legends of Clovis concert at the Clovis Musical Festival. “He loved to cut up and loved to kid.”
Neal was one of the first to perform with Holly on radio and television in Lubbock.
“We were just kids having a good time. He picked on me all the time,” Neal said. “I got my driver’s license before he did and I had a ‘48 Chevrolet that had chokes and throttles; it didn’t have any automatic stuff. He’d catch me not looking and he’d reach out there and pull out the choke.
“My car would start jumping and I’d look around thinking it was fixin’ to quit. I’d look, and he’d be over there just laughing,” Neal said.
Neal was one of several musicians with connections to Holly and the Norman Petty studio who arrived in Clovis early to rehearse for the show.
Larry Welborn, 68, who played bass on Holly’s classic, “That’ll Be The Day,” said that Holly was typical of a teenager in his ambition to succeed — but perhaps more driven to do what was necessary to get there.
“He was a go-getter. Buddy was very intelligent. He knew what was going on, although I didn’t realize it at the time,” Welborn said. “He would write letters to high schools, things like that, try to do a fund-raiser for them. He, Bob Montgomery and myself, we had a radio show there for awhile at KDAV in Lubbock, and he was always doing something.”
“When Elvis came to Lubbock, we went up to his room,” added Welborn, who said he and Holly were rock ’n’ roll fans before Holly himself became part of music lore. “(Elvis) was singing in the shower, he come out and we talked — it was really neat.”
Tommy Allsup, 75, was part of the touring Crickets, Buddy Holly’s band, when the tour came to an abrupt end with the plane crash that killed Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Richie Valens. Allsup is famously part of that incident as having been the one that lost a coin flip, giving Valens a seat on the plane that went down in an Iowa cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959.
“He (Holly) was a good ol’ Texas boy, who put his pants on one leg at a time — just like everybody else,” recalled Allsup, who plays guitar. “He was kind of reserved, kind of quiet. I did three tours with him and there wasn’t nothin’ different about him.
“That last tour, we were probably traveling about 300-to-400 miles each night. He had just gotten married and we had a lot of fun,” added Allsup of Holly. “He was an ordinary guy. A good guy.”
Ah, I thought. My new co-worker has discovered the uniqueness of our radio station’s men’s room, courtesy of the late Norman Petty. Had he not decided to open a recording studio in Clovis there probably wouldn’t be a shower in the men’s room or — in all probability — a Clovis Music Festival.
The festival started Thursday and continues today and Saturday. Tonight it’s a Buddy, Roy and Elvis tribute show. On Saturday, it’s Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and Bobby Vee.
It’s music from another time. Folks come from all over for the festival. My brother is even coming in from south Florida.
At past Clovis Music Festivals I’ve met people from England, Australia and other distant places. “You’ve got to understand,” said one English festival-goer, “Buddy Holly was our Elvis.”
Years ago, new, innovative music that turned the rock ’n’ roll scene on its ear came from a quiet, unassuming building just off the corner of Seventh and Hull known to us all as The Norman Petty Studio.
When I first saw the place in 1999 I wondered why there wasn’t more signage, calling out to passersby, “Hey, lookie here, this is a really cool place!”
It was only this past April that I saw the inside of Norman Petty’s studio. It took a visit from my daughter Wendy to get me in. She’s a Roy Orbison fan and wanted to see where he recorded. I was so impressed how, all the way from North Carolina, she arranged an Easter Sunday tour.
The guy who has the keys to the building, Kenneth Broad, met us there. When he opened the door we zipped from the 21st century back to the time when rock ’n’ roll was king in Clovis.
There were no computers, digital equipment or monitors. There were antique boom microphones, turntables, reel-to-reel tape decks, control boards with dial controls. Along the walls were 45 rpm records from the artists who recorded there: Buddy Holly, Buddy Knox, The Fireballs and many more.
There were pictures of Norman and Vi Petty, there was more vintage equipment, guitars and stuff than I could list in a newspaper column. I snapped a picture of Wendy sitting behind the recording console.
As Kenneth closed the door to the building I was envious of all of the nifty, ancient radios in the different rooms. These were top-of-the-line radios from the time when electronic equipment ran on tubes.
They’re made of fine wood and have dials, glowy things, graphs and stuff. They looked futuristic then. They’re really retro now.
There are tours of The Norman Petty Studio during the festival. I’m going to take my brother there.
If you haven’t been in the studio, check it out. It’s interesting. It’s where history was made. The state of New Mexico has finally recognized this and just put up a historical marker there. And why is there a shower in the men’s room where I work?
The story is that Petty thought disc jockeys would like a nice shower after a shift, just like the session musicians at his Seventh Street studio.
There’s no shower in our ladies room; the station was built in the day when female DJs were unheard of. But things have changed. Female DJs are all over the airwaves and radios with tubes are all but gone.
Except when you step into Norman’s studio on Seventh Street.
Grant McGee hosts the weekday morning show on KTQM-FM in Clovis.
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