Smash-hit West End musical Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is currently rocking around the country on a major tour, and drops into the Beck Theatre in Hayes for a week in May.
Emma Carter talks to Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, about her memories of Buddy, and finds out what she thinks about the show…
If you remember the golden days of rock ‘n’ roll when ‘doo-wops’ and ‘ah hey, ah hey heys’ rang out from every radio and jukebox, then the chances are that 3 February 1959 will send a shiver down your spine.
The date of the death of Buddy Holly –‘The Day the Music Died’ – is forever ingrained not only on the memory of fans around the world, but also, of course, on the mind of Maria Elena, widow of rock ‘n’ roll legend Charles Hardin ‘Buddy’ Holley (the ‘e’ was dropped after his name was misspelled on a recording contract).
Each year she commemorates the passing of her husband, aged just 22 when he died, in the same way. “I pray for Buddy, like I do every night,” she begins. “I light a candle, I buy flowers, and stay home. If I’m travelling or doing promotion, I just remember him as he was when I met him.”
That was only in June 1958. The couple had been married less than six months when the small plane carrying Buddy, along with 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, JP ‘the Big Bopper’ Richardson (28), and pilot Roger Peterson (21), plummeted from the night sky into a frozen Iowa cornfield.
Though the 52 years that have passed have dulled some of the pain, the shattering impact of the accident still remains with Maria Elena.
“When Buddy died it was so sudden,” she reflects. “Those kinds of deaths are very, very difficult to deal with because you don’t have the chance to say goodbye.” The circumstances surrounding Buddy’s inclusion on that fateful Winter Dance Party Tour of 1959 only add to the sense of tragedy. “I mean, he left home against my will, I was pregnant,” she says. “He said ‘it will be a short tour – I just can’t continue without getting my own money to do what we’re planning to do.’ We had plans to open record companies and our own publishing company and Buddy also wanted to develop new artists, even at that time.”
Folklore has it that Maria Elena had a premonition about the crash before he left for the tour. “Absolutely,” she confirms. “As a matter of fact we were both dreaming. Buddy had a dream about leaving me on top of a building and I dreamt about a comet, this great ball of fire coming down. It came past me and made a hole in the ground. I could see the fire coming out of that hole. The day after Buddy was leaving, and I was packing for both of us but he said, ‘I told you, I can’t bring you with me, you’re pregnant.’ … it was the beginning of the pregnancy… I got sick real fast.”
Maria Elena heard about the crash in the worst possible way: on television. She fell into what she describes as a catatonic state, unable to digest what had happened. She miscarried soon afterwards. It was a tragic conclusion to a whirlwind romance.
Maria Elena Santiago was 25 when she married Buddy in August 1958, less than two months after they first met. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she was working as a receptionist for a New York music publisher when she met the singer from Lubbock, Texas, whose songs (think That’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, Not Fade Away and Maybe Baby) and unique style had quickly made him a worldwide star. There was a dazzling career ahead of him…
Maria Elena Holly today
Now in her 70s (or 29+ as she puts it) Maria Elena has retained the Holly name, and describes herself as a “rock ‘n’ roller at heart” who doesn’t dress her age. And managing Buddy’s estate keeps her young, and more than busy.
The UK is crucial. It was on his 1958 tour of England that the Buddy Holly legend first took shape, and it remained surprisingly relevant into the BritBeat 1960s. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Elton John have all spoken about Buddy’s far-reaching influence and appeal.
“For Buddy and a lot of American musicians, they had to go out of the US to be recognised, then come back,” says Maria Elena. “Buddy was more recognised in the UK, even, than the United States.” More than anywhere else, the UK took Buddy – the tall, lanky kid with the glasses – to heart, and connected with his image as the everyman of the new music called rock ‘n’ roll.
Those glasses weren’t just for effect – “Buddy was as blind as a bat!” laughs Maria Elena. “He wore the metal-rimmed glasses – when he was on stage, [if he took them off] he couldn’t see anything” – but they came to represent everything Buddy Holly stood for. Elvis Presley he wasn’t, with his unconventional look and unique talent. He certainly made an impression on the Brits.
“Buddy loved his fans,” says Maria Elena. “He connected with them because he always said ‘those people are the ones who are making me, they love my music so why should I be distanced from them?’ So he was very approachable and the fans liked that. He was a very giving person.”
It’s arguably in the Beatles, right down to the name, that the influence of Buddy and his band, the Crickets, is most evident. Paul McCartney once said that at least the first 40 songs the Beatles wrote were Buddy Holly-influenced. “I would say that John Lennon and Buddy would’ve been the best of friends,” says Maria Elena. “I know Paul also loved and respected Buddy, but I think John and Buddy would’ve got together to do a duet.”
It was perhaps inevitable then, that it was on the London stage that Buddy’s legend took on a new life, with the first of the big ‘jukebox’ musicals Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, in 1989. A hit in the West End, and subsequently on tour and around the world, over the last 20 years the show has helped to introduce the music to new generations. Buddy’s single-minded determination to push musical boundaries is clear for all to see in the show. Could that happy, smiling, bespectacled face really have been such a rebel?
“Absolutely, that’s very accurate!” Maria Elena enthuses. “Buddy was a very nice, laidback, relaxed kind of person. When it came to his music, no sirree! He always had this to say: ‘Hey, why don’t we try it my way first, and if you don’t like it and you show me why you don’t like it, then I’ll do it your way, how’s that?’ Buddy was so in tune with everything out there and not afraid of trying new things. If you listen to all of his songs none of them are alike. He was a 22-year-old starting his career but his mentality was different. Who would’ve ever thought of a rock ‘n’ roller putting violins in anything?”
There have been numerous actors tasked with filling Buddy’s shoes on stage over the years. “I love to come there and see the show,” says Maria Elena. That must be both terrifying for the actor, and very poignant for Maria Elena, I venture. “Each Buddy has done a tremendous job in the way they portray him,” she says, generously. “I’m sure Buddy would’ve approved.”
Keeping the music alive is important to Maria Elena, and she’s very passionate about it. “I hope the younger people, the aspiring musicians, will take the tenacity, the dedication that he had for his music and that he never gave up,” she says of the show. “They closed one door and he went through and opened another. No matter what. That’s what it takes to make it, then and now, and in the future. To the people of England, who so lovingly accepted Buddy – the people who have come to see the show so many times and love it – that’s what keeps me going.”
Fifty-two years is a long time to mourn your first true love. “To me, it doesn’t seem that long since he’s been gone,” reflects Maria Elena. “To me, he’s still around – not in person of course, but he’s here.”
Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is at the Beck Theatre in Hayes from 9 to 14 May.
See www.becktheatre.org.uk for further information and booking details