His tragically short career provides probably the greatest “what if” in the history of popular music. Not for nothing did the Beatles name themselves in homage to Holly’s band, the Crickets, and not for nothing was Holly’s one of the first music catalogues to which Paul McCartney bought the publishing rights. He was just 22 on February 3, 1959, when he took that fateful plane ride with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, and had been releasing records for a scant two years when he and the others lost their lives on what became known as The Day the Music Died. Think about that – in just two years, all those terrific songs, Peggy Sue, That’ll Be the Day, Every Day, It’s So Easy, Not Fade Away, Maybe Baby, Heartbeat, Rave On, Oh Boy, Words of Love, simple, tuneful little pop gems that really weren’t so simple, and pointed the way to a new sort of rock ‘n roll, buoyed by melody, clever time signatures, and a sense of the possibilities inherent in studio recording. Those revisiting the catalogue expecting to find dull, hiss-filled artifacts of the Stone Age are always taken aback at the pristine clarity and fidelity of the masters, which, thankfully, have been lovingly repackaged over the years into a number of compilations that continue to sell – essentially, the record labels put everything he ever recorded into one box set, and call it his “greatest hits”.
Holly was, despite his youth, already on his way to joining the pantheon, and the attached, my own favourite, is a prime example of his accelerating sophistication. It’s a love song, yes, but with a defiant edge, and a stark arrangement for acoustic guitar that makes it sound right at home among the songs released by the greatest of the decade that followed him. Who knows, had he lived, he might well have produced a body of work to rival that of the English kids who cut their teeth playing his songs, and who, having learned his tricks, continued far down the road he’d just begun travelling when his journey was cut short.