On the basis of simply counting heads, rock music surpasses even film as the 20th century's most influential art form. By that reckoning, there is a case for calling Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash 50 years ago next Tuesday, the century's most influential musician. Holly and Elvis Presley are the two seminal figures of 1950s rock 'n' roll, the place where modern rock culture began. Virtually everything we hear on CD or see on film or the concert stage can be traced back to those twin towering icons – Elvis with his drape jacket and swivelling hips and Buddy in big black glasses, brooding over the fretboard of his Fender Stratocaster guitar. But Presley's contribution to original, visceral rock 'n' roll was little more than that of a gorgeous transient; having unleashed the world-shaking new sound, he soon forsook it for slow ballads, schlock movie musicals and Las Vegas cabarets.
Holly, by contrast, was a pioneer and a revolutionary. His was a multidimensional talent which seemed to arrive fully formed in a medium still largely populated by fumbling amateurs. The songs he co-wrote and performed with his backing band the Crickets remain as fresh and potent today as when recorded on primitive equipment in New Mexico half a century ago: That'll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, Oh Boy, Not Fade Away. To call someone who died at 22 "the father of rock" is not as fanciful as it seems. As a songwriter, performer and musician, Holly is the progenitor of virtually every world-class talent to emerge in the Sixties and Seventies. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Bruce Springsteen all freely admit they began to play only after Buddy taught them how. Though normal-sighted as a teenager, Elton John donned spectacles in imitation of the famous Holly horn-rims and ruined his eyesight as a result. Holly's voice is the most imitated, and inimitable, in rock. Hundreds of singers have borrowed its eccentric pronunciation and phrasing. None (except perhaps John Lennon) has exactly caught the curious lustre of its tone, its erratic swings from dark to light, from exuberant snarl to tender sigh, nor brought off the "Holly hiccough" which could fracture even the word "well" into eight syllables.
Unlike Presley and other guitar-toting idols of the mid-Fifties, Holly was a gifted instrumentalist who had grown up playing country music in his native West Texas. His playing style became as influential as his voice – the moody drama he could conjure from a shifting sequence of four basic chords, his incisive downstrokes and echoey descants. The deification of the rock guitarist, the sex appeal of the solid-body guitar, the glamour of the Fender brand: all were set in train by Buddy and his sunburst Strat. Pop music has become an endless recycling, each new generation believing they are the first to discover its repertoire of "cool" and limited palette of sentiments and chords. In the genes of almost every band, Buddy Holly has been there, either by conscious assimilation or via his disciples. "Listen to any new release," says Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, whose first killer riff was on the 1964 cover of Not Fade Away. "Buddy will be in it somewhere. His stuff just works."
Holly's time on the world stage was pitifully short, lasting only from September 1957, when That'll Be The Day became an international hit, to February 3, 1959, when he and two fellow performers, Ritchie Valens and J P "The Big Bopper" Richardson, fatally decided to fly from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Fargo, North Dakota, to avoid a freezing night on a tour bus. The crash of their chartered aircraft into a snowy stubble-field has become rock's most famous tragedy, enshrined by Don McLean's American Pie as ''the day the music died''.
In 16 crowded months, Holly had created a blueprint for enlightened rock stardom that every newcomer with any pretence at self-respect still aspires to follow. He was the first rock 'n' roller both talented and strong-minded enough to insist on the artistic control his musical heirs now take for granted. He was the first not only to write his own songs but also to arrange them, directing his backup musicians to his own exacting standards. He was the first to understand and experiment with studio technology, achieving effects with echo, double-tracking and overdubbing on primitive Ampex recorders which have never been bettered.
He was the first rock 'n' roller not to be a scowling pretty boy like Elvis – to be, in fact, angular and geeky-looking, with bad skin, discoloured teeth and glasses that did not acquire their stylish black frames until the last months of his life. He was the first to make it on sheer ability, energy and personality, appealing to a male audience as much as a female one, redefining the perception of good looks and style much as John Lennon and Mick Jagger would in the next decade.
The years since 1959 have seen many other great talents prematurely snuffed out. But Holly's death has a special poignancy. This was no rock 'n' roll roughneck, hell-bent on self-annihilation, but an amiable (and deeply religious) young Texan whose life had not the least taint of scandal, discredit or unkindness; who had recently married and was about to become a father; who went on tour through the snowy Midwest only because his ex-manager, Norman Petty, refused to pay his royalties; who took that fatal flight with his two colleagues only to snatch a few hours sleep in a hotel and get his laundry done.
His fans are numbered in the millions, and grow in number with each passing year. And dying so young, and so pure, as he did, he left them an extra gift. They can never be disillusioned.