He was an unlikely star — a rather plain-looking, geeky 20-something in thick-framed glasses. But with hits like "That'll Be the Day," "Rave On" and "Peggy Sue," Buddy Holly became a rockabilly icon. He was a pioneer.
Musicians celebrate him for actually writing and performing his own music at a time when few did, and for playing on his own records rather than using studio players. Holly died at the beginning of 1959 and had an incredibly impressive output for such a sadly brief career. Had he lived, he'd be 75 today, and it's cause for reflection and tribute, including the release of a new album titled Listen to Me. The release features stars of his generation — including Brian Wilson, Linda Ronstadt and Ringo Starr — and younger artists such as Imelda May and Zooey Deschanel.
The producer behind Listen to Me is Peter Asher, who, as he jokes in an interview with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, "if you have a good enough memory," you might know from Peter and Gordon's version of "True Love Ways." It's a song that Holly wrote for his wedding to Maria Elena.
"He wrote these beautiful songs," Asher says. "They're very simple. They're harmonically simple. He wrote them using chords that all of us fans could play, but he would still throw in surprises and take the tune in an unlikely direction. But, at the same time, make them extremely memorable, easy to learn and catchy. Even the lyrics — they're beautiful, but they're slightly odd. I mean, even the phrase 'true love ways' is not something you've heard before. It really grabs your imagination, and we fell in love with him. And, of course, he proved that you didn't have to be Elvis [Presley] to be a pop star. You could, as you said in your intro, be the nerdy guy with glasses."
Asher even wears a pair of Buddy Holly glasses himself.
"I took my favorite Buddy Holly cover around looking for glasses exactly like that," Asher says.
Something New In Something Old
Linda Ronstadt's 1975 version of "That'll Be the Day" re-appears here — originally produced by Asher — and other natural fits are on the compilation, as well. But then there are what Robert Siegel calls "stretches." Like Cobra Starship's synth-laden take on "Peggy Sue."
"They're a terrific band, and I have a particular affection for them because my daughter happens to be in the band," Asher says, laughing.
But there is a test for covers: Would you just as soon hear the covers or listen to the originals?
"I think one of the great things about these songs is that you can try them in different ways and learn something new about the song every time," Asher says. "I mean, some of these versions are quite different.
"Natalie Merchant does a version of 'Learning the Game,' " he says. "To me, what struck me about that song is [that when] Buddy was writing it, he was young and enthusiastic. It's about people who are about to learn the game. And, obviously, when someone with a little more experience sings it — [when] Natalie sings it, it breaks your heart — it's about someone who has played the game and learned a lot from it. It's different."
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
He was an unlikely star, rather plain looking. Nowadays, we'd say geeky, 20-something in thick-framed glasses. But with hits like "That'll Be the Day," "Rave On" and "Peggy Sue," Buddy Holly became a rockabilly icon.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEGGY SUE")
BUDDY HOLLY: (Singing) If you knew Peggy Sue, then you'd know why I feel blue about Peggy, my Peggy Sue. Well, I love you, gal. Yes, I love you, Peggy Sue.
SIEGEL: Buddy Holly died at the beginning of 1959. Had he lived, he would be 75 years old today and it's cause for reflection and for tribute, including the release of a new CD entitled "Listen to Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISTEN TO ME")
BRIAN WILSON: (Singing) Listen to me and hold me tight and you will see our love's so right. Hold me, darling. Listen closely to me.
SIEGEL: Peter Asher produced the CD and joins us now. Welcome to the program.
PETER ASHER: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.
SIEGEL: And thinking of these Buddy Holly songs, and I didn't mention "Every Day" and "Maybe Baby," that is an incredibly impressive output for a very sadly brief career.
ASHER: It is. It's quite amazing. I mean, there's such a collection of extraordinarily good songs and he came up with them in less than two years or something. It's quite astounding.
SIEGEL: We know of you first as the Peter of Peter and Gordon. You covered a Buddy Holly song in your day.
ASHER: And, of course, too, he proved that you didn't have to be Elvis to be a pop star. You could, as you said in your intro, be the nerdy guy with the glasses.
SIEGEL: Did you affect those glasses just as a tribute to Buddy Holly?
ASHER: I did. I did indeed. I actually took my favorite Buddy Holly cover around, looking for glasses exactly like that.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about the performers who appear on the album, "Listen to Me." There is the track of Linda Ronstadt doing "That'll Be the Day," which you produced years ago. That is the old recording.
ASHER: It is. Yes. In '75, I think, or something like that. But, yes, they decided they wanted to use that old one, the only old one.
SIEGEL: And then there are some natural fits. Buddy Holly's fellow Texan, Lyle Lovett, also Chris Isaak, are in some ways from the Buddy Holly cast, their songs seem to come very naturally.
SIEGEL: Then when we get to what I'll call some stretches, groups that I personally am completely unfamiliar with. The Fray or Cobra Starship, which plays "Peggy Sue."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEGGY SUE")
COBRA STARSHIP: (Singing) If you knew Peggy Sue, then you'd know what I feel blue without Peggy, my Peggy Sue.
ASHER: Yeah. They're a terrific band and I have a particular affection for them because my daughter happens to be in the band.
SIEGEL: I see, I see.
ASHER: But they're doing very well. I don't know if you watched the VMA awards the other night. You would have seen them and they're doing terrifically.
SIEGEL: Now, there's a test for an album of covers, even if they're tribute covers, which is - would you just as soon hear the covers as listen to the originals? Well, in the case of Cobra Starship, do they succeed?
ASHER: I mean, some of these versions are quite different, like Natalie Merchant does a version of "Learning the Game" and to me, what struck me about that song, as Buddy was writing it, he was young and enthusiastic and it's about people who are about to learn the game. And obviously, when someone with a little more experience sings it - and Natalie sings it in a way that breaks your heart - it's about someone who has played the game and learned a lot from it. And it's different.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEARNING THE GAME")
NATALIE MERCHANT: (Singing) When you love him and he doesn't love you, you're only learning the game.
SIEGEL: The Natalie Merchant track is remarkable and I have to say that, even though I believe I owned 45s of Buddy Holly, with or without the Crickets, back in 1958 or whatever it was, this is not a song that I knew. And if you played it for me, I would have assumed it was a Natalie Merchant song.
ASHER: Ah, beautiful.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEARNING THE GAME")
MERCHANT: (Singing) When he says that you're the only one he'll ever love, then you find that you are not the one he's thinking of, feeling so sad when you're all alone and blue, that's when you're learning the game.
SIEGEL: She really got into that song.
ASHER: And it was a pleasure working with her because I hadn't worked with her since we did a couple of 10,000 Maniacs albums together many years ago.
SIEGEL: Which you produced, you're saying, as a...
ASHER: Which I did. Yes, yes.
SIEGEL: Did any of the younger performers here have to be told who Buddy Holly was and what you were doing?
ASHER: Zooey Deschanel knew several of the songs already and knew which one she wanted to sing, so it's surprising, but the songs have survived. People do know them.
SIEGEL: Peter Asher, thank you very much for talking with us today.
ASHER: Thank you very much, Robert. It's a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S SO EASY")
ZOOEY DESCHANEL: (Singing) It's seems so easy. Yeah. It's seems so easy. Oh, it's seems so easy. Well, where you're concerned, my heart can learn. Oh, it's so easy to fall in love. It's so easy to fall in love.
SIEGEL: Today would have been Buddy Holly's 75th birthday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.