Bone to Pick
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.
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.
"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.
That may be fine as far as some Holly fans are concerned. It's only in recent years that Holly has been treated with respect in America; MCA was notorious in the '60s and '70s for adding vocal and orchestral "sweetening" to the tunes Holly had recorded in his short career, and that particular sacrilege soured many on the idea of tampering with the original takes. Pickering recalls getting one of his Holly/Picks discs back from a disgruntled listener who had taken a knife and slashed an X on the record sleeve. Still, of the thousands of letters he's received from people who have heard the new versions, Pickering says, very few have been negative. And even McKaie, who as an MCA executive is particularly sensitive to charges of butchering "what's already been butchered in the past," admits that he "wouldn't mind hearing" the new Picks-augmented tunes.
On the latest Holly collection from MCA, Greatest Hits (compiled by McKaie), the Picks are listed -- individual members and all -- on the CD sleeve, which offers Pickering some consolation, though not much. He claims to have sunk the bulk of his savings into his Picks project, and has yet to break even. So while he continues to stress that financial gain was never his intention, making a little money, he admits, wouldn't hurt.
"Right now, I'm still in a creative mode, and I don't want [MCA] to get their tails in the air," says. "But being bought out by MCA would be nice."
More than anything else, perhaps, Pickering's dream embodies a need for assurance -- some tangible proof that his singing career has amounted to more than a name in a CD's liner notes. He plans to write a book about his group and its ties to Holly, the working title being simply, Buddy Holly and the Picks. Where to go from there, he's not sure.
But before he can do anything, it seems, Pickering must dig himself out from under a mountain of memories.
Picks Records Inc. can be contacted at P.O. Box 722306, Houston, TX 77272-2306, or phone (281) 498-5249.
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