|The original Crickets lineup, Joe Mauldin, Buddy Holly, D.J and concert host Lou Barile, Jerry Allison, and Niki Sullivan,|
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 number one hit and/or the first big hit by White artists covering a Black style.
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.
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-Fifties, 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.
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, 2012, 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 electric bass guitar 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.
They 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 Day.
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.
That’ll 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.
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 to Rock Around With Ollie Vee. It was not a hit, but made it to Holly’s solo LP.