There’s a scene in the 1985 sci-fi comedy 1985 classic, “Back to the Future,” that’s still a howler of controversy. The context: Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly travels back to a 50s high school dance. His purpose is to ensure that his parents get together on the dance floor so that he can beef-block the smarmy Biff Tannen from hooking up with his mom first otherwise Marty’s existence would be obliterated.
He goes about his task by taking the guitar of an injured black guitarist and begins riffing Chuck Berry’s 1958 “Johnny B. Goode.” Except it’s 1955. The implication is that Marty is responsible for Rock music as we know it. Blame it on Robert Zemeckis’s excusably dissonant poetic license.
It can be fun to conjure similar scenarios about the real-life rock and roll pioneer and legend Buddy Holly who, in his 18-month career (yes, that’s all it was), left an imprint like few others. If the then 22-year-old Holly had died just as unexpectedly two years prior to his February 3, 1959, plane crash—also responsible for killing Richie Valens and J.P. “the Big Booper” Richardson—who knows where the genre would’ve gone. After all, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan all admit to the profound influence Holly had on them. That day, with the help of singer-songwriter Don McLean, became collectively known as “the day the music died”
Buddy’s music and name live on. Friday (February 13) the legend will land at the Flagler Auditorium with “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” for one show only. It’s almost sold-out already, an indication of the name’s enduring power on a town whose demographics are drenched in 50s nostalgia.
According to the show’s director Steve Steiner, Holly is still omnipresent. “We hear Buddy’s music in elevators now,” he says. “Everyday it’s on commercials. We hear his music really everywhere. That’s not because he died early. That’s because it’s just good music.
“John Lennon and Paul McCartney, independently of each other, have both said that the first 50 songs they wrote together were influenced by Buddy Holly’s style,” Steiner says. “Everybody emulated Buddy Holly and the way that he played in a very specific style.”
Act one starts in Lubbock, the Panhandle Texas town when Holly switches from country music to rock and roll. “Holly was very particular about the music that he wanted to play,” Steiner says. “Buddy had a lot of talent but they were all trying to steer him into country and he just flat didn’t want be a country star. He wanted to play rock and roll—even if he didn’t get to be a star,” and even if that music was considered by the stupider ears and wagging fingers of the time “devil” or “race” music. (Holly happened to be white.) “He was a respectful Southern boy, but he was very determined about his music.”
The next scene moves to Clovis, N.M., where he hooked up with music producer Norman Petty. From there the action heads to the Apollo Theater in Harlem which Steiner describes as one of the more interesting sections of the show.
That was actually a “mistake booking.” The bookers thought Buddy and his group at the time, the Crickets, were a black act because of their sound. “In those days you didn’t often have pictures. It was just what was on the radio,” he says. “The band thought they were going to get killed. The artists backstage didn’t want anything to do with having these white musicians on their stage. But they went through with it and won the audience over.”
Steiner continues, “I think Buddy knew what he was getting into. I think the rest of the band did not.”
Act Two begins with Holly’s introduction to his soon-to-be-widow, followed by The Crickets breakup. Finally comes the poignant Holly performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. His last.
The crash, which happened the following day, is conveyed through a quick radio announcement about the downed plane. But things don’t stay dour for long. The performers jump right back into some encore rock and roll music. “So it ends certainly on a high note,” Steiner says. And it’s not quite contrived so much as a reflection of Buddy Holly’s continuing presence in so many ears, beats and other musicians’ echoes.
Todd Meredith, 31, plays the bespectacled rock and roller himself. He first took the role in 2007 when he was 23 or 24, so he was just a couple of years older than the 22-year-old Holly. He grew up in Albany, N.Y., a long way from Holly’s Lubbock in every sense of the term.
Nonetheless, Meredith was raised on oldies rock and roll, though more into 60’s rock and roll–a Beatles, Beach Boys guy. He was named after Todd Rundgren, the 1970s American multi-instrumental, songwriter, and producer, as his father had unfulfilled musical dreams. Meredith didn’t know a whole lot about Buddy, other than a few of the basics hits.
With Holly’s influence being what it was on those same groups, there was another conclusion to draw. “I’ve always been a big fan of Buddy’s without really knowing it,” Meredith says. “And doing the show has made me an even bigger fan.”
One of Holly’s greatest musical assets is his simplicity, Meredith says. He points out that Holly would employ the same three chords repeatedly in conjunction with really catchy melodies and an extremely unique vocal style—with a “shaky” quality that hung on the end of his phrases and the words flowing disjointedly.
Then there was Holly’s distinct style of guitar playing. Holly would down-stroke everything, almost like “a kind of precursor to punk, all the way back in the 50s,” Meredith says. He points out that Holly was one of the first artists to form a band that wrote and produced their own music, which the other groups took note of, too. One artist who had a huge influence on him was Elvis, “but Elvis wasn’t writing his own songs. He was just performing them.”
So where would the genre known as rock and roll have drifted if not for Holly? That’s a difficult question, Steiner says, the crux of all time travel stories. “It’s really hard to take something out of the equation. When you have a time machine and alter the past everything changes. If you pull Buddy out of the equation, it’s hard to say.”
While The Beatles were “brilliantly talented,” Steiner says, the full impact of the British Invasion had a lot to do with Buddy’s influence on the mega-groups that enjoyed musical hegemony in his absence. “Would they have been as popular in the United States, had had they gone a different way musically?” Paul McCartney, after all, really wasn’t the rock and roller that John Lennon was. “He had a much wider musical influence and he may have gone down a different path. Who knows? When you think of songs like ‘When I’m 64,’ it’s almost vaudevillian.”
“It’s amazing how many songs he created in such a short period of time,” Meredith says of Buddy Holly. And rather than just wondering what if Buddy never happened, Meredith wonders “what he could’ve done if he hadn’t died in the plane crash.”
“Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story” comes to the Flagler Auditorium for one show only, Friday, February 13, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 for adults and $38 for children. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or by calling the auditorium at 386-437-7547.