Bone to Pick

A voice lost in the shadow of Buddy Holly demands his due. Question is, what took him so long?

When he's not doing freelance work for oil companies, John Pickering is CEO of Picks Records Inc., a tiny label he operates out of the modest ranch-style home in Bellaire he shares with his wife, Vicky. Now that his three kids have grown up and moved out, central operations for Pickering's one-man cottage industry is a makeshift office adjacent to the kitchen, a small room crammed with old LPs, reel upon reel of magnetic recording tape, CDs, snapshots, boxes of old files, magazines, books and assorted Buddy Holly memorabilia (everything from the original Brunswick version of The Chirping Crickets LP to a lottery ticket featuring Holly's grinning face).

The sections of wall not covered by bookcases and teetering stacks of junk are mostly devoted to pictures of the Picks, the Pickering Brothers (John and Bill's ill-fated foray into country music in the late '60s) and the Pickering Family Quartet (mother Beth, father John Sr., Bill and John became something of a regional sensation on radio shows in Texas and New Mexico during the 1940s).

Standing out among the photos in Pickering's tiny warehouse of memories is a framed portrait of Bill, which sits on what looks like a draftsman's table, the only piece of furniture visible beneath the clutter. "It must be awful lonely in that cemetery," says Pickering. "I miss him; we still sing together, though. I know it sounds corny, but I'm also doing this for him."

The "this" Pickering refers to is his quest to revive the memory of the Picks and their role in the Buddy Holly story. They weren't the only vocal group that worked with Holly -- the Roses also sang on a few 1958 singles -- but they are the lesser known of the two. Mention of the Picks in the various chronicles of Holly history has been patchy at best, though the latest biographies on the singer -- the rather seedy Buddy Holly: A Biography and the more reverential Rave On -- acknowledge the group. Though his brother's death in 1985 got Pickering committed to getting recognition for his old group, it took a humiliating incident in 1988 for him to get fighting serious over the issue.

In January of that year, Austin City Limits hosted a Buddy Holly tribute special, assembling many of the key figures in the artist's life, as well as number of the countless musicians influenced by him. Pickering was not officially invited, but managed to attend the taping thanks to some well-connected fans, who reserved a table for him. Lapham, not one for crowds or cameras, did not attend. Between songs, the evening's emcee, Kris Kristofferson, introduced Pickering, along with the widows of Holly and Petty -- Maria Elena and Vi, respectively -- and other family members. Pickering was ecstatic over this turn of events, and he told everyone he could to watch for him on the show.

But when the Holly special aired, Pickering's televised moment of vindication was nowhere to be found; it had been cut in favor of an audience reaction shot. Pickering was devastated. Fuming, he wrote a letter to the show's producer, Terry Lickona, calling the decision to exclude him an "insult" that was "done in poor taste and without the courtesy of advance notice."

"That ripped it," Pickering recalls as he plays back an unedited version of the program in his den. The video shows him rise and smile glowingly to the applause of the crowd. Pickering was a bit heavier at the time, and his receding coif was jet black, as opposed to its current gray. "I was coloring my hair back then," he chuckles.

Fumbling with the remote control, Pickering fast-forwards to the edited TV version, with its shot of the couple in the audience who inadvertently stole his air time. "If I'd had a bad heart, I'd be dead," he says.

In a letter responding to Pickering's scathing note, Lickona was equally blunt. "Your letter only confirms what I have heard about you from those who were closest to Buddy Holly during his lifetime and career -- that you obviously have an overblown, grossly exaggerated opinion of your role in Buddy's music," he wrote. The diatribe continued for more than a page, ending on a sarcastic note by honoring Pickering's request for an unedited copy of the show, "so that you may watch your introduction from Kris Kristofferson as many times as you would like."

Time has blurred Lickona's recollection of those events. Though he admits today that he was probably a little harsh on Pickering, he continues to maintain that there was no ulterior motive in the decision to cut Pickering's time in the spotlight. It was done, Lickona says, only in the interest of brevity and consistency. The complaints from Pickering, he now adds, "ran contrary to the spirit of the tribute."

Eight years on, Pickering is more philosophical about the matter. He claims no beef with anyone near and dear to Holly, and can only assume that, if what Lickona wrote about comments from Holly intimates was true, that one of the instrumental Crickets was the source.

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