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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I Sat on Buddy Holly’s Couch

By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service

CLOVIS, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- Two rock and roll movies made a distinct impression on me as a child.

Buddy Holly

The first was a TV movie entitled “Birth of the Beatles.” If I remember correctly, it came out in 1979. The other movie, “The Buddy Holly Story,” premiered a year earlier in 1978. I was enamored by both films. As a pre-teen, I wanted to be a rock and roller because of these movies.

As cool and amazing as The Beatles were, they seemed larger than life to a kid growing up in New Mexico. These four Liverpool pop stars were from a far-off country and had throngs of people chasing after them. They were handsome and talented -- an almost fairy tale group.

Buddy Holly, on the other hand, was altogether different.

Buddy was rooted in my part of the world: the southwestern United States. He was a real guy who played in roller skating rinks and fairgrounds.

True, Buddy looked funny to me (remember: this was the fashion horrid 1970s), but somehow this odd-looking fellow was hipper than most -- he succeeded in creating a look entirely his own.

The Nixon kids sitting on the Buddy Holly couch

And when it came to Buddy’s music, I couldn’t believe that one kid could create so many hits in such a short time. When you think about it, Buddy wrote several rock and roll masterpieces in only a year and a half -- all before his tragic death on February 3, 1959, following a performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

He, Richie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and the pilot, were killed in the early morning hours in terrible weather en route to Moorhead, Minnesota, when their plane crashed soon after taking off from nearby Mason City.

Of his three albums, “The Chirping Crickets” (November 1957), “Buddy Holly” (March 1957), and “That’ll be the Day” (April 1958), Buddy had ten Top 40 hits. Pretty amazing.

Buddy was also unique because he wrote his own songs. In a day when most pop singers used material from song factories, this kid from Lubbock, Texas, penned or co-wrote (with engineer, Norm Petty) songs we still sing today.

And his songwriting ability hasn’t gone unnoticed. Bob Dylan remarked on Holly’s influence in his 1998 Grammy Award acceptance speech for “Time Out of Mind,” when Dylan said: “And I just want to say that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him... and he looked at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was -- I don't know how or why -- but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”

Likewise, Paul McCartney credits Holly for inspiring his songwriting pursuits. McCartney went on to host the documentary, “The Real Story of Buddy Holly.” And today, McCartney owns the Buddy Holly song catalogue.

I didn’t know most of this in 1978. I just knew Buddy was a fascinating guy.

But there was something this New Mexico kid did know about Buddy Holly: He recorded many of his early hits in New Mexico-- in Clovis, to be exact.

Sadly, I never had the chance to head out to the Norm Petty Studios on the eastern edge of New Mexico before my family moved to California in 1983. If we had, maybe I would have met Mr. Petty. He died of cancer in 1984.

In California, I pursued my own rock and roll ambitions, but I never forgot the influence that the singer with those famous black-rimmed glasses, had on my early life.

Now, 28 years later, I found myself at Norm Petty Studio’s -- somewhere I have wanted to see for years.

I was in Clovis on business, making sure the new radio station, KKCJ, that I oversee, was up and running.

Caretaker and Host of the Norm Petty Studios, Kenneth Broad

I made an appointment to see the Norm Petty Studios with Kenneth Broad. As I waited outside of the studio with my kids in tow, I pondered the different people who have recorded at this location on 7th Street: Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, and later -- at a different site -- LeAnn Rimes.

As Ken Broad got out of his truck, he had two folks from Australia with him, fans that have spent three years of their lives going to various Buddy Holly sites throughout the United States. It turned out that one was the former drummer for one of Bon Scott’s (AC/DC) first bands.

Together, we walked through rock and roll history.

In all, six of us toured the facility. We saw where Roy Orbison stood while singing the song “Ooby Dooby.” We heard the original tracks for Buddy Holly’s song “Heartbeat” played on an Ampec Ľ tape machine. I was able to play the piano, B3 organ, and Celesta that Mrs. Petty used on all of the Buddy Holly tunes. Likewise, I played a Stratocaster through the amp Buddy Holly used in all his recordings.

For a musician, this was pretty cool indeed.

Sutherland Nixon playing the celesta used on the song, “Everyday”

But where it got real for me -- and my kids -- was the backroom where Norm Petty’s guests stayed while they recorded. Ken Broad (who did an amazing job telling us stories, giving us details of recording techniques and unveiling hidden treasures throughout the studio) told us that Norm Petty liked his guests to feel comfortable, and felt that one couldn’t “rush creativity.” So Mr. Petty elected to allow as much time as the recording artist needed to make great records.

In the back apartment, I saw the bed where Buddy Holly slept, the kitchen table where he ate, and the famous couch where the Crickets took an early photo. I sat on each one.

So why all this talk about Buddy Holly?

As I was sitting at Foxy’s, the restaurant Buddy Holly frequented, I asked myself, “What was Buddy Holly’s spiritual life like?”

Sadly, there is very little documented in this area, other than testimony from Fundamental Baptists who felt Buddy had slipped from the faith.

According to material culled by David Cloud, “Buddy's older brother, Larry, who is still a member and a trustee at Tabernacle Baptist, believes Buddy was saved but backslidden -- and the Lord took him home because of his stubborn rebellion (Amburn, p. 54).”

Furthermore, “The late Pastor Ben Johnson, who baptized Buddy, testified to E.L. Bynum, the current pastor of Tabernacle, that not long before he died, Buddy told him that he intended to get out of the rock and roll business after he made enough to get out of debt. (Related in a telephone conversation with Pastor Bynum, August 9, 2000).”

In a short article written for Phantom Tollbooth (a Christian website dedicated to pursuing music with Christian themes), Terry Roland wrote, “Buddy Holly was still sending 10% of his income to his Baptist church in Lubbock, Texas. Holly didn't womanize or do drugs; instead, he got married to a woman his own age. For Buddy Holly, the Christian ethic and worldview were a given, without question. It was such a part of his life; he never thought to doubt the faith of his fathers as neatly woven into his career.”

All this to say is that it is difficult to determine how much of Buddy Holly’s faith influenced his music. In all, Buddy seemed like any twenty-something: He was interested in girls, love, and having fun.

Yet I need to pause after remarking on Holly’s pursuits. Is the search for love and fun antithetical to the Christian faith? Hasn’t Christ promised joy? Has not the apostle Paul esteemed the value of marital love? Is not the Christian faith a blast?

The answer to each of these questions is: Yes. Christ promised joy. Paul waxed eloquent about love. And the Christian faith—contrary to many ideas -- is fun!

True, Buddy didn’t write hymns -- that we know of. Nor do we have any public record of his testimony of faith.

Rather, we have songs written by a creative youth discussing themes relevant to young people.

This being so, it’s important to note that creativity is a gift from God. God is the Master Artist. He alone gives us the ability to create. So whether Buddy knew it or not, his Fender Telecaster had a way -- albeit uncommon -- to proclaim God’s goodness and love by allowing the world to sing:

Everyday it’s a-gettin' closer
Goin’ faster than a roller coaster
Love like yours will surely come my way
A-hey, a-hey-hey

Everyday seems a little longer
Every way love’s a little stronger
Come what may
Do you ever long for, true love from me

Everyday it’s a-getting’ closer
Goin’ faster than a roller coaster
Love like yours will surely come my way
A-hey, a-hey-hey
Love like yours will surely come my way

As Buddy sings, in this classic song “Everyday,” that “love’s a little stronger,” and we are reminded that our core responsibility as Christians is to love. Love is the grand theme of the Christian life -- and Buddy reminds us to sing it with gusto every day.

Sometimes we may do well to sing along with Buddy Holly.

And if you like to do that right now you can do so by going to:

Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man. You may contact him at

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