Among the pantheon of golden age rock and rollers, Buddy Holly is in a class by himself. He didn't have Chuck Berry's poetry or riffs. He didn't have Little Richard's erotic, animalistic fury. He didn't have Elvis' slippery voice or demonic pelvis. What Holly did have, however, was an immediately identifiable hiccupy singing style that expressed so much more than the plain meaning of his goofy, teen-oriented lyrics. He also had a choppy guitar technique that, while not as flashy as Berry's, made up for its lack of intricacy with pure, raw emotional force. (For my taste, the chord-based break in "Peggy Sue" ranks among the greatest guitar solos of all time.)
Of course, many people remember Holly for his unique fashion sense, that classic nerdy, horned-rim look that belied the fact that, according to Little Richard, the soft-spoken Texas boy had one of the biggest shlongs ever seen on a white man. The contrast between his dorky appearance and the furious electrical brilliance of his best songs changed rock and roll forever. Every rock icon from Dylan to Lennon to Beck owes Holly a towering debt of gratitude, and, thankfully, most of them know it.
Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story is a musical based on the life of Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash in 1959 at the tragic age of 22, along with fellow rockers Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. First staged in London in 1989, the musical has been a huge success with audiences all over the world ever since.
A new production recently opened at the Albuquerque Little Theatre starring Billy McGuigan of Omaha, Neb. in the lead role. To prepare for the role, McGuigan read Holly biographies and watched several films about the dead singer. He also took lessons to learn Holly's unique singing and guitar playing techniques, and lost 30 pounds to slim down for the role.
McGuigan previously played Holly in acclaimed productions in Des Moines and Omaha. The reason he's equally successful in this Albuquerque Little Theatre version is because he puts his heart and soul into playing the rock and roll hero. Of course, enthusiasm isn't always enough. Thankfully, he's also a pretty damned good musician who's managed to approximate Holly's classic sound both vocally and instrumentally. When the rocker sang "True Love Ways" to his new wife Maria Elena (Desiree Sanchez) in their New York apartment, accompanying himself with some fingerpicked guitar, I succumbed to the illusion. McGuigan looked and sounded just like Buddy Holly to me.
Most of the music in the show is played live on stage by McGuigan and other musicians. The show ends with the Winter Dance Party in 1959 in the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa—the last performance Holly gave before he stepped on a tiny chartered plane to his death.
That last half of the musical is basically a straight-up concert, and all you need to know is that it rocks. Most of the other musicians and performers know their stuff as well, and they're intent on making sure everyone has a good time. The press preview I attended was a bit under-populated, but people hooted, howled and danced to the beat anyway.
Critics have been complaining for years that Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story is a trite, superficial bauble that doesn't offer any true insights into Holly's creative genius. Personally, I disagree. The show is hokey, but in a good way that Holly himself might have appreciated. By focusing on giving fans what they want—a taste of what it might be like to attend a real Buddy Holly concert—the creators have done a fine job of honoring his musical memory.