Friday, April 3, 2009

The Complete Buddy Holly (Purple Chick, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The DVD I ran last night was The Complete Buddy Holly, a half-hour bonus download issued by the Purple Chick entity in connection with their 10 CD’s allegedly offering the entire recorded oeuvre of this fascinating figure in early rock ’n’ roll. The CD’s — apparently only available by download (and it’s shameful that Holly’s record company, Universal née MCA née Decca née Coral, has never seen fit to put out their own comprehensive boxed set with versions of everything Holly recorded, without the posthumous overdubs that were added to virtually all the records that were still unreleased when he died, the way they did with two other artists that had major careers and were similarly influential despite their early deaths, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline) — represent an attempt to be as complete as possible; the first six discs contain the records Holly made under his own name and those of his bands, the Two-Tones (renamed “The Three Tunes” by Decca) and the Crickets.

Discs seven and eight contain the records Holly made as a session musician for other people — and with a few exceptions, they’re among the most God-awful music of the 1950’s. There are a few halfway decent rockabilly artists here — notably Gary Dale (his full name was Gary Dale Tollett, but he used just his first and middle names professionally) and Rick Tucker — and some interesting bits of sessions led by Holly’s sidemen and collaborators (Jack Neal, Ben Hall, Sonny Curtis and his drummer, Jerry “J. I..” Allison under the name “Ivan,” his middle name, doing the novelty versions of “Real Wild Child” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” included on the 1978 Complete Buddy Holly LP boxed set) — but only two performers Holly recorded with were really worthy of him. One was his protégé, Waylon Jennings, who was a disc jockey at Lubbock country radio station KLLL when Holly met him, got him a Coral record contract and produced his first single, “Jole Blon” b/w “When Sin Stops” (and it was startling to hear that “When Sin Stops” was recorded in the modern fashion — the instrumental backing was laid down first, then Jennings overlaid his vocal and the backup singers were added last), and was the only artist represented on these two discs to go on to a major career of his own.

The other was Carolyn Hester, one of the great enigmas of American music history and, to my knowledge, the only person who recorded with both Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan. Hester had a higher-lying voice than Joan Baez’s but was otherwise pretty much in the same style, and her single with Holly was a Coral release of “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair),” which Harry Belafonte had recorded on his second RCA Victor album (and her arrangement is simply his voice-and-guitar one raised to a higher key for her voice) backed with a cover of the old country standard “Wreck of the Old 97” (a song that doesn’t suit her nearly as well). After her Coral release died in the marketplace, John Hammond heard her in New York and signed her in 1960 — and when it came time to record her first Columbia album she showed up with Dylan and insisted that he play harmonica and sing backup on three songs. The rest, as they say, was history; Hammond loved Dylan at first hearing, signed him, and he became a major star while she was almost totally ignored and forgotten (though she still has enough of a folk following that she was invited to one of the Adams Avenue Roots Festivals a few years ago). Discs nine and 10 contain interviews with Holly and the original versions of records he covered.

The DVD — I was going to get there eventually! — is about half an hour of various clips, including home movie footage of Holly and the Crickets on tour, their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show (they did “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” the first time out and “Oh, Boy!” the second — and the sound quality, especially on “Oh, Boy!,” is so terrible, with Holly’s vocal almost drowned out by his guitar, that I could only count the Beatles lucky that their Sullivan appearances took place six years later, and apparently in the interim Sullivan’s sound people learned how to mike a rock band properly). The opening clip was in color and was shot silent in 1955 in Oklahoma City while Holly and Elvis Presley were working the two bottom slots on a country package tour headlined by Hank Snow — and apparently represents not only the earliest film footage of Holly but that of Elvis as well (he’s dressed in a neon-bright green shirt and he’s already a physically commanding figure).

The only clips here with synchronized sound are the Sullivan shows, a brief Holly appearance on an American Bandstand-style program, and a weird bit of a New York local show MC’d by Arlene Francis (“I didn’t realize she’d ever done anything other than What’s My Line?,” Charles exclaimed, forgetting that we’ve seen her 1932 appearance as the street prostitute Bela Lugosi picks up for one of his sinister experiments in Murders in the Rue Morgue) in a patronizing fashion, telling her viewers that even if they don’t think they like rock ’n’ roll they should listen to it anyway or else they won’t “understand” young people. Francis is surrounded by a group of young women in what look like prom dresses, who stand around utterly impassively and offer no visible reaction at all while Holly and his bandmates tear into “Peggy Sue” (a better version, oddly, than the one he did on Sullivan), then applaud politely at the end. Other clips on this disc feature attempts to synchronize silent footage with Holly’s recordings (including one surprisingly effective bit of Holly performing Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy”) or to reproduce his lost British TV appearances (including Saturday Night at the London Palladium, where he’s introduced by an MC who looks startlingly like Robert Morley playing Oscar Wilde!) with still photos of him on the sets of these shows while the soundtrack is the home recordings fans made off the air.

The grimmest bit of footage is a series of shots of the plane crash that killed Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, complete with the dead bodies of the victims lying on the ground in the snow — and what’s most grim about this footage (the soundtrack, by the way, is the undubbed version of one of Holly’s last songs, “Learning the Game”) is that the photographers (almost certainly on assignment from newspapers or wire services) were able to get so close. We’re so used to the sites of plane crashes, especially fatal ones, being cordoned off by FAA investigators determined to recover as much of the wreckage as possible so they can figure out why the plane crashed that it’s shocking that that wasn’t done on this occasion — if there’d been a soul out there sick enough to want to make off with Buddy Holly’s corpse, they probably could have. (Fortunately, the Purple Chick people stuck another five minutes’ worth of footage at the end so we didn’t have to leave with such a downer.)