Buddy Holly and the Crickets performed That'll Be the Day on the Ed Sullivan Show on December 1, 1957.
The history of Rock and Roll
is replete with firsts that really
weren’t. Almost anyone will tell you
that the first rock and roll song was Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets recorded in 1954
and which shot to the top of the charts the next year. Wrong. It can only claim to be the first 1# hit and/or the first big hit by White artists covering a
Some musicologists claim that songs with key rock and roll elements were recorded by Black blues artists as early as 1939. But it took ten years and several technological and economic changes—the introduction of the 45 rpm single and the collapse of the viability of large touring big bands among them—for Black artists to break out with a new sound on the Rhythm and Blues charts. Two 1949 contenders were Goree Carter’s guitar driven Rock Awhile and Jimmy Preston’s Rock the Joint with a driving, blaring saxophone lead. In fact Rock the Joint was covered three years later by Bill Haley and his earlier band The Saddlemen becoming a minor hit.Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats--really Ike Turner and the Kings of Rythm--is one of the contenders for the title of first true rock and roll song.
Another Black contender for first
rock and roll record is Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats—Ike Turner and The Kings of
Rhythm under contract to another label working under a pseudonym—recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis
March of 1951.
By the mid-‘50’s, rock and roll was an emerging genre and picking
up steam, but pop charts were
still dominated by crooners, close harmony vocal groups—the doo
wop sound would emerge from the street corners out of this genre—and
even the surviving big bands. It took Elvis
Presley to send it into the
stratosphere. Presley was the super-nova of a group of Sun Records stars who would infuse Delta blues and gospel sounds into a tight, stripped down country sound. Presley’s
first regional hit, That’s
All Right Momma was recorded within months of Rock Around the Clock. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny
Cash, all recording at Sun along with Presley would define what became known as Rock-a-Billy.
Chuck Berry was among the black artists who were kicking up early rock and roll to an intense new level with a driving, beat heavy guitar.
In 1955 Black blues based performers would drive the beat even harder and introduce a new guitar sound—Bo Diddley,
Chuck Berry, and Little
Richard. And white acts were hard on
their heels cleaning up lyrics and
sanding off raw edges to make their
sound acceptable to white teenagers—and their parents.
By 1957 rock and roll was a cultural steamroller. So why at this late date does a record by some kids from Lubbock, Texas barely out of their
teens which went to No. 1 on September 24, 1957, rate as seminal in rock history?
Because the band, The Crickets, their lead singer and creative dynamo, Buddy
Holly, and a smart record label
assembled at last all of the elements
that would tie together the disparate roots of rock and propel it
into a new era. That was the day that That’ll
be the Day made it to the top.
The Cricket’s line-up—lead, rhythm,
and bass and drums—stripped away
saxes, horns, stride or boogie-woogie
piano, organ, and even the country fiddles and accordions that were part of earlier combos. This quartet
arrangement soon became standard,
capable of delivering a beat heavy, driving sound. The band could sing together in harmony or put Holly out front. They could take the themes of teen age love,
the stripped down substitute for the raw sex of early black rock, and run
with them in new and creative directions. Perhaps most
important, they were the first white act to consistently write and record their own material instead of either adapting it from Black artists or using the talents of professional songwriters like those in
the famous Brill Building. Within a few years bands, as opposed to solo performers, would dominate rock music and they would be expected to produce their own songs.
The Crickets were immediately influential. Within a year other acts were copying their formula. In the early ‘60’s
John Lennon and Paul McCartney would acknowledge
their debt by naming their band
the Beatles, a tip-o’-the-hat to the Crickets.
Influenced by the Memphis Rock-a-Billies, Holly and high school pals were experimenting and making demos as early as 1954. Holly signed with Decca Records in 1956 and recorded several sides under his own name with the backing of Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and Don Guess in Nashville. These records were straight forward Rock-a-Billy and were only moderately regionally successful. One of those sides was a version of That’ll be the
Holly was inspired to write the song
after a trip to the local movie palace
in Lubbock with his pals where they saw The Searchers. The words were something of a catch phrase for John Wayne’s obsessed character.
In February 1957 producer Norman Petty brought Holly and his
band, now consisting of drummer Jerry Allison, bassist Joe B. Mauldin, and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan to Clovis, New
Mexico for a new recordings session for the Brunswick label. Because
Holly was under contract as a solo to Decca, Petty decided to release the
resulting recordings under a band name.
After a brief consultation among
the members, they settled on The
Crickets after first toying with some “bird” names.
Be the Day was released in May with Holly’s
name visible only in the fine print as a composer under the name of The Crickets, as would all of the
subsequent successful releases from that session. It began its slow rise to the top. As it
did so, Decca discovered that their artist was one of the Crickets. They were not overly alarmed, however, because Brunswick was a subsidy. They signed
a new deal with Holly. The material recorded in Nashville would be
released under his own name on Decca.
Anything recorded with the band would be released as the Crickets. Subsequent
solo efforts by Holly would go out on yet another subsidy label, Coral.
The Buddy Holly Center in his Lubbock, Texas home town commemorates the young musician's achievements.
As That’ll Be the Day was nearing
the peak of its climb, Decca released the Nashville version under
Holly’s name on September 7 as a B side
Around With Ollie Vee. It was
not a hit, but made it to Holly’s solo LP.