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John Pickering has never been effective at throwing his weight around. He's warm and passive by nature, an amiable East Texan with a wide smile, a healthy laugh and a vivid memory.
"I'm most comfortable singing. I was a professional singer by the time I was five; it's what I grew up with," says Pickering, 63, who is liable to show off his beefy baritone-tenor without warning. "It's talking that I'm not always so good at."
Pickering's awkwardness with words in part explains why he kept quiet for the better part of three decades while his vocal trio, the Picks, was overlooked. Who, you might well ask, are the Picks? That very query has been made by more than a few in the music industry at one time or another, including a top-ranking executive or two at MCA Records who, frankly, should have known better. The label is, after all, in charge of the small but significant catalog of material on which the group sings -- nine songs, at least two of which are milestones in the history of rock and roll.
To answer the question: The Picks were, for a brief period in 1957, the studio voices behind Buddy Holly. John Pickering, his older brother Bill and their friend Bob Lapham supplied the barbershop harmonies for "Oh Boy," "Maybe Baby" and seven other Holly classics. Holly producer/manager Norman Petty, an old friend of the Pickering family, recruited the Picks to spice up Holly's basic tracks, dispatching them to his now-legendary studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where they overdubbed their three-part vocals onto tunes Holly and the Crickets had recorded earlier.
" 'Oh Boy' took us about two hours," John recalls. "Bob had never done harmonies before, so we had to teach him."
The group wasn't paid anything for its time and received no credit on those early Brunswick recordings, which were simply labeled "The Crickets -- Vocal Group with Orchestra." Most listeners assumed that the backup voices came from the mouths of the guys playing guitar, bass and drums. In fact, Holly and the "instrumental" Crickets took home Cashbox magazine's best vocal group award in 1957 based on the Picks's recorded performances. No one but the most informed Buddy Holly enthusiasts knew any better until 30 years later, when MCA re-released the Crickets's first and only full-length effort, The Chirping Crickets, and finally mentioned the Picks's contribution in print.
"If [the labels] had said, 'The Crickets, with vocals by the Picks,' well, that would have been a whole lot better," says Pickering. "And due to the fact that we were already professionals, and due to the fact that we had talent, it would have made a tremendous difference in our lives."
Surprisingly, though, the Picks let the oversight slide. When Holly became a star, they'd tell the story of how they drove the 100 miles from Lubbock to Clovis to record "Oh Boy," laying down the vocals in the early morning hours and finishing in just enough time for John to hightail it home for summer school at Texas Tech; how Buddy was beaming during playback of the finished version of "Oh Boy" in Clovis; how during the Picks's second 1957 session, John drove the 1,300 mile roundtrip between Clovis and his new home in Corpus Christi for a two-day marathon session in which eight other songs were completed. Most of the time, the tales were met with disbelief from all but those closest to the Picks, and, of course, the proof wasn't in writing anywhere.
Maybe at first the group felt a pat on the back from Holly himself was enough. John recalls the singer stopping his car in the middle of a busy Lubbock street one day in 1957 to thank the Pickering brothers, who were sitting in another vehicle nearby. Certainly the Picks believed at the time that they could only benefit from the sessions. Petty made promises of "career enhancement" and eventual credit -- things that, alas, never materialized. In essence, The Chirping Crickets was supposed to launch the career of the Picks; instead, it turned out to be a lone highlight in a series of letdowns beginning with Holly's death in 1959.
"After Buddy died, we didn't want to say anything; we had lived in Lubbock and we knew his family so well," Pickering says. "It just wouldn't have been right. Besides, we didn't know any lawyers, much less anyone who ever sued anybody."
The trio tried a career on its own, even recording for Columbia. But with a sound a little too Ames Brothers-ish, the Picks foundered, and the three eventually went their separate ways. In the years following, Lapham concentrated on journalism, becoming an editor for his hometown newspaper in Abilene, where he still lives and works. Bill, an aimless -- at times, difficult -- sort who had his bouts with alcohol and ill health over the years, was a disc jockey for a while, sharing the airwaves with Waylon Jennings in Lubbock. But he later wound up wandering from job to job until his death from an aneurysm in 1985. John, meanwhile, pursued a career as a geologist, settling in Houston, where he has lived for the last 30 years.
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