Not Fade Away

Certainly no one can claim that Buddy Holly didn't work fast. In the tragically short span of his life -- a mere 22 years -- Holly (born Charles Hardin Holley in 1936) not only secured a legacy as one of the architects of rock and roll with a string of lasting hits ("That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Not Fade Away," "Maybe Baby," etc.), but his musical influence still echoes today like the reverb of his guitar and the trademark hiccup in his vocals. But the bespectacled, rail-thin boy from Lubbock also worked with haste in other areas of his life. He asked Maria Elena Santiago to marry him the day that they met.

"It was also my first date ever, and I was 25," the amazingly young-looking Maria Elena Holly remembers more than 40 years later, sitting in a booth at Houston's Hard Rock Cafe under a framed shirt of her late husband's. "And when he said that, I just thought that my aunt was right, 'These musicians are crazy.' I thought he was joking, and he said, 'No, I'm serious.' The next day he showed up at my aunt's and said, 'Well, here I am!' He even called his parents from there to tell them the news." The scene -- among many in Holly's life -- is dramatized in the latest Theatre Under the Stars production, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, a musical that premiered in London in 1989.

Holly's career took off in a time when he and his buddies could simply pile in a car in Lubbock and speed west across the time zone to Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, to record their music. They would often play a game in which they would try to beat the clock and arrive before they actually left. Alas, it was Holly's career that would reach its end before it had truly taken off.

Holly's death on February 3, 1959, in a plane crash -- immortalized as "the day the music died" in Don McLean's "American Pie" -- that also took the lives of rockers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper left Maria Elena a widow bride after six months of marriage. "In death, as in his brief life," Phillip Norman wrote in his definitive biography, Rave On, "Buddy remains untainted by vulgarity." We never had to watch Buddy get old, fat, land in jail or limp along on the oldies circuit.

How Buddy Holly and his music would have adapted (or not) to the '60s is one of rock history's great "What if?" questions. But there's no doubt he had barely scratched the surface of his capabilities. "Buddy was a person who was not afraid to take chances with his music and his ideas. He would have taken his composition style to new levels," Maria Elena says. She adds that he also wanted to record duets (particularly with Ray Charles) as well as act and paint -- projects that we almost assume rock stars indulge in nowadays.

"He was an old soul," Maria Elena has said of Buddy. When asked to expand on that, her answer is both practiced and sincere as her gaze turns toward a picture of Buddy on the wall. "He was so responsible and secure. He knew exactly what he wanted, especially with his music. I used to tell him that he was 22 going on 50." But one wonders: Does she ever get tired of telling the same Buddy stories over and over again? "No. Never. And I still get emotional about it sometimes, because I don't think of him as being old. I froze him there in 1959."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero