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Bone to Pick

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

"They're still embarrassed that they didn't do the singing," he says. "People nowadays will say, 'Oh well, that's okay. Backup vocalists, they don't get mentioned.' But those backup vocalists are not presented as a group. Say, for instance, with Elvis Presley, the Jordanaires did his backup vocals. They're on the labels, and we were supposed to be."

A source close to the Holly/Picks issue who preferred not to be named admits that Pickering does tend to be pushy about the whole lack-of-recognition issue, but that his intentions are sincere and don't center around getting rich off the Crickets association. Indeed, Pickering contends he never had any designs on making a fortune off the Picks.

"I just want to get the music out there," he says.
The way Pickering has managed "to get the music out there" is hard to believe. Back in 1984, he somehow convinced MCA Distributing Corporation's Steve Hoffman to part temporarily with safety copies of some of Holly's master tapes from 1956 to 1959. He claims it took only one phone call to Hoffman, who was a big Buddy Holly fan, and the tapes were on their way. The package that arrived at Pickering's Bellaire home contained recordings both of familiar classics and a pre-Crickets LP Holly cut in Nashville that his then-label, Decca, chose not to release.

Pickering called the other two Picks together, and the reunited group took the tapes to producer A.V. Mittelstet at Houston's Sound Masters Recording. In February '84, the Picks started with nine songs that Pickering selected from Holly's Nashville sessions. The sound from the original recording was enhanced with some studio tinkering, and the Picks overdubbed backup vocals. From there, they moved on to the hits "True Love Ways," "Everyday," "Peggy Sue" and other lesser known Holly tunes.

Pickering estimates that the Picks overdubbed 60 tracks in all before sending the master duplicates back to Hoffman. The vocal additions ranged from discreet and pleasantly welcome ("True Love Ways," "Love Me") to oddly curious ("Everyday," "Reminiscing") to awkward and intrusive ("You're So Square," "Peggy Sue"). Whether fans can tolerate such messing about with near perfection will likely depend on their opinion of the Picks's original 1957 contributions, and on their thirst for fresh takes on Holly's work. For his part, Holly historian Bill Griggs says he has no problem with the new overdubs.

"I like the Picks," says Griggs. "I like what they've done. Go get a bootleg copy of 'Oh Boy' un-dubbed. It's a very empty song, and it's empty because all these years in our minds we have heard those background vocals. Sure, they sound dated, but it's still a classic."

The question remains, though, given the value of the Holly catalog, why did MCA hand over its tapes to Pickering? "Maybe they have a guilty conscience," Pickering shrugs. "Maybe they think I've got a trunk full of evidence."

Evidently, there's a little more to it than that. The Picks recorded their new vocals in the hope that Hoffman would release the material, in one form or another, on MCA. That didn't happen, and evidence suggests that Pickering wasn't supposed to have been given access to the tapes in the first place. Apparently, Hoffman -- who failed to return phone calls from the Press -- had his own agenda. Soon after his correspondence with Pickering, he was fired by MCA after, among other things, some rare masters unearthed from Norman Petty's Clovis vaults found their way into the wrong hands and he was blamed for it.

Pickering, meanwhile, found a small market for his music overseas, where some of the new Picks-augmented tracks can be found on Holly compilations in England, Holland, Germany and Japan. In America, about a third of the redone tunes are available on two Picks Records releases -- 1986's vinyl-only The Original Chirping Sound and 1992's The Voices of the Crickets, both of which include Pickering's anemic present-day tribute to Holly, "Buddy Holly Not Fade Away." Pickering originally turned to Viceroy Records to arrange the national release of the Picks's 1992 CD, but alleged threats of legal action from MCA forced the New York-based label to scrap the idea.

"They told me that, in no uncertain terms, [that Pickering] didn't have the rights [to the Holly songs], and that there was potential legal cause if we put the record out," says Viceroy's chief operating officer, Anthony Roger.

Andy McKaie, MCA's vice president of catalog development, claims to have no knowledge of Viceroy's plan. "I haven't heard anything. I talked to Pickering probably six years ago, and he told me that he'd like to [get national distribution for his Holly/Picks recordings]," says McKaie. "He should just come to us and ask for a license, simple as that. But you can't go around selling something you don't own."

Pickering says he has neither the money nor the stomach for licensing hassles or lawsuits. So for now, the music is available by mail order only from Picks Records. If Pickering had his wish, MCA would come around and buy up the work he's done for inclusion on later Buddy Holly compilations. But at this point, the chances of an MCA buyout look small.

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