If you’ve read my book Rock ‘n Roll Heaven, you already know how I feel about Buddy Holly. He’s at the top of the heap as far as my musical heroes go. I don’t know if I’ve explained why, beyond the fact that I just relate to and love his music. I was born on February 3rd, 1960, the first anniversary of the plane crash in Iowa that took the life of the pilot, Buddy Holly, JP Richardson, and Ritchie Valens. That gave me a connection right out of the cradle. Also, I had three older sisters and an older brother who were 10, 12, 16, and 18 years older than me when I was born. That means I grew up in a house with teenagers and their music. The first record I can ever remember hearing is by Buddy Holly & the Crickets. As life has gone on, I’ve left many things behind, but I have never lost my connection with Buddy.
So, getting a chance to tour the Norman Petty Studios, where Buddy cut most all the records you know, aside from his final songs that he cut in New York? Chance of a lifetime. That’ll Be the Day, or Peggy Sue? Check. Oh, Boy!, Not Fade Away, Maybe Baby? Yep.
When you enter the studio, you walk into a room lined with memorabilia, as expected.
In one corner is the original Coke machine that all the artists who ever recorded there used to get their sodas between takes. (Where I’m from, we say, “pop,” but I am aware that I am in “soda” territory now.)
I was already overwhelmed, just standing in this studio, but then I met my tour guides for the day – initially Kenneth Broad, who says he promised Vi Petty that he would keep the studio open for tours, and Jay, who works around the studio as a labor of love. Seeing everything I saw was beyond anything I had ever hoped for, but meeting Kenneth and his wife Shirley, Jay, and David Bigham, (a member of The Roses, who recorded here for many years) was the best part of the day. The four of them took more than an hour out of their day to give me the most insightful, knowledgeable tour I could have ever asked for. Their commitment to the studio and the music, their sheer love for what they do, overwhelmed me. By the time I left, I felt like I had four new friends. By the way, they do all this for free. There is a small “contribution box” in one corner, but they never mention it. Honestly, I was as honored to meet them as I was to see everything I did.
But… the things I saw! And touched! This is not a museum. Everything here is right out where you can touch it, including the headphones that Norman Petty used while producing the songs that constituted The Clovis Sound.
As Jay said, “These are not earbuds like the kids wear today.” Indeed. Then, Jay invited me to come around and sit down at the board (not the original mixing board – that one is at the museum in town) and put on those same headphones. He did not need to ask me twice. For just a moment, sitting in that historic chair (which is original to the era) with a mixing board in front of me, I felt like the disc jockey I once was. The smile, by the way, never left my face all day.
Yeah. That’s me, wearing Norman Petty’s headphones and sitting in his chair. Surreal.
By the way, have you ever wondered who “Peggy Sue” was? She was a real woman, not just a name that happened to fit in the song. Buddy had originally written the song using the name, “Cindy Lou,” after his niece. However, Buddy’s drummer, Jerry Allison, had been having a rough patch with his girlfriend, and future wife, Peggy Sue Gerron, and they changed the title to patch things up a bit. In any case, here’s a picture of the real Peggy Sue:
We left the part of the studio where Norman Petty perfected his on-the-fly producing techniques, and went into the room where so much of my favorite music was recorded. For instance, do you remember The Fireballs’ song Sugar Shack? Jimmy Gilmer and the rest of the Fireballs had cut the song, then left the studio for a few days. When they came back, they found that Norman Petty had added that whistling keyboard sound, using this instrument:
Kenneth said that The Fireballs thought he had ruined their song by adding the keyboards to it. The song went to #1 on the charts and was their biggest hit.
Do you remember the Buddy Holly song, Every Day, with the chiming, music box-like background? That instrument was a celesta, and on this record, it was played by Vi Petty. It looks like this:
Talking to Kenneth and Jay, I learned some things I did not know. For instance, Norman charged the musicians by the song cut, not by the hour. He thought that you couldn’t put a time clock on creativity. Also, like many latter day musicians, they cut their songs late at night. The studio sits right on a fairly busy road, and the traffic didn’t settle completely down until about 10:00 at night, so they typically recorded after midnight.
Also there is a small apartment attached to the back of the studio where the artists could crash in between sessions. It is essentially unchanged from the time when it was a fully functioning studio. Kenneth said that this kitchen table and chairs is the same one that was in the studio in ’57, and that Buddy often sat and drank his coffee or ate lunch in the chair to Dawn’s right.
Here’s one of my favorite shots of the day. In my hand, I am holding a book about Buddy Holly. Behind that book is the couch that Buddy and The Crickets are sitting on on the cover of the book. Note the ceramic train that is visible in both shots. Too cool.
We went back into the master studio, Jay sat me down in the chair again, and played me Buddy’s Heartbeat from the original master tape, through the studio speakers. This is a picture of me, absolutely in heaven, so moved by the music that I don’t know what to do with myself.
And then, we knew it was time to go. Our hosts had a music festival to prepare for and they had already given us more than an hour of their time. Before we left, Jay took one last shot of Dawn and I, standing in the studio.
Dawn beside me, surrounded by some of the greatest music ever made, and wonderful people. Life is very good.
This was an emotional day for me, akin to visiting hallowed ground. There are a few times in my life when I have been in a strange new place and yet felt completely home. That’s exactly how I felt in the Norman Petty Studios in Clovis, New Mexico.
I would like to thank Jay, Kenneth & Shirley, and David for giving so unselfishly of yourselves to keep this incredible, historic landmark alive. You do Mr. & Mrs. Petty and all the musicians who recorded there a great service, and I appreciate you.
We are taking the day off from the blog tomorrow to recharge our batteries and prepare for our assault on Carlsbad Caverns and then Texas. Cheers and safe travels!