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Friday, April 06, 2018

That'll Be the Day

by Buddy Holly and the Three Tunes
Year:
1956 (released 1958)
Overall Rating = 10

Best Song: I'M CHANGING ALL THOSE CHANGES

Technically this is the third – and last – LP released in Buddy Holly’s lifetime, but its contents fit right at the beginning. Before demoing “That’ll Be the Day” with Norman Petty and the band that would become the Crickets in 1957, Buddy was a country musician turned rock-&-roller inspired by Elvis and the like in a band initially called the Two Tones, later the Three Tunes. Failure for the two released singles in his brief tenure with Decca proper, – his successful releases being on Decca subsidiary Brunswick –, his contract was not renewed, but as he became successful with the Crickets and solo, Decca attempted to capitalize with a few more singles, including a reissue of his first one, to no avail. Even this LP compiling the 8 single sides released by Decca during and beyond Buddy’s time with the label plus 3 other tracks failed to even make a dent, as far as I can tell, until reissued posthumously, and even then only in the UK. I don’t particularly agree with the music buying public of the time. Nothing here reaches the greatness of his 1957-1959 recordings, but it’s as enjoyable as a bunch of lesser rockers’ works at the time who had more success.

Yet that may have been the problem in the first place. Most of the material is new, with half of side one being written by bandmate Don Guess and one contribution from guitarist Sonny Curtis (yep, the “I Fought the Law” writer), and all but one of side two being Buddy Holly originals, but for the most part, I don’t hear much originality as far as identity goes: what I mean by this is, as far as melodies go, maybe they’re new, maybe they’re tweaked from others’ material, but for the most part they sound like at worst pleasant, but none-too-interesting imitations of the greats of the time and at best, successful impressions. Nearly half of the album sounds like they could have been placed on Carl Perkins’ debut LP without anyone noticing much difference – aside from the fact that Buddy trying to sound “tougher” in the refrains of his compositions “Love Me” and “Don’t Come Back Knockin’” sounds more like Perkins with a sinus infection, and on “Blue Days, Black Nights” Buddy just sounds like himself (although to me this adds more charm than the other two tracks) – and as to be expected, there are a couple of more generic doo-wop numbers, though to their credit they do try to spice them up, like with the fiddle bass instead of regular standup on opener “You Are My One Desire” courtesy of its composer Guess, and on “Girl On My Mind”, there’s this neat little trick Buddy does where he sort of stutters the lines, – the title being sung “gir-hir-hir-hirl o-on my mi-hi-hi-a-ind” –, which certainly rings more like a true Buddy tune than much of the rest of the album, though ironically it’s another Guess composition. But just because these lesser tunes and the yet-discussed superior ones are derivative doesn’t make them enjoyable.

For one thing, Buddy was lucky to have Curtis at these sessions, because his guitar playing is a real high point. His Perkins’ imitations are terrific on the numbers whose overall goal seems to be imitating Perkins, and his own composition, “Rock Around With Ollie Vee", is an obvious highlight here; it’s just a boogie, but one that’ll really get you going, with the rat-tat-tat of the drums, Curtis’ jagged guitar licks and Buddy’s acrobatic vocals, with his trademark hiccup making its debut alongside traditional R&R shifts to baritone and stutters, and any other trick at the time but falsettos basically, to make this an energetic performance. Another highlight in the more traditional rock & roll vein is “Ting-a-Ling”, which rather than being a Perkins offshoot is a Gene Vincent one. I sure can’t be the only one who’s reminded of “Be-Bop-a-Lula” on this one: the nonsensical title, Buddy’s goofy vocals (though his goofiness is slightly different than Gene’s; his was a “bad boy trying to get the girls to laugh” goofiness), and part of the chorus that goes “la-ha-haugh and si-hi-hing" seems melodically lifted right out of Vincent’s hit, but overall the tune is all about personality, and it has it. The song that precedes these two is another highlight for me: “Modern Don Juan”, with its cute two-note sax riff and its interplay with the fuller guitar riff is just a terrific musical hook, and I always love songs where Buddy tries to act suave when his vocals imply nothing of the sort. “I’m Changing All Those Changes” is probably my favorite song overall, since it’s the most “original”. It’s your soon-to-be basic Buddy Holly “rockabilly-pop” fusion, with an adorable melody and the clever idea of having one lyrical verse and another musical one where a soft twangy guitar takes over the very same melody (which you can add to the list of Sonny Curtis-related highpoints). And while it’s not a major highlight, the closing “Midnight Shift” is like a slowed-down “Rock Around With Ollie Vee”, allowing Buddy to try out a number of vocal tricks on a more mid-tempo rockabilly tune, and with a song using the metaphor of the title to tell a friend his girl has been cheating couldn’t be a more suitable setting for this vocal experiment.

You may have noticed I skipped the title track. No, it’s not the familiar hit version, it’s an earlier recording made with the Three Tunes and it really falls flat compared to the classic version: no harmonies, Buddy’s vocals aren’t as acrobatic, and the guitar soloing, both opening and mid-song, isn’t nearly as exciting as I’d expect from Curtis given the rest of the record. Still, despite the weakness of the title track (possibly my least favorite track on the album simply for paling to its later version, when in theory anything more derivative should take its place), the album is okay in my book. A 10/15 might seem high for a collection of pre-fame recordings for a rockabilly artist, but enough of these tunes show that even when he’s not much of a creator, Buddy’s a solid entertainer, and what little bit of creating there is on side two shows promise. If only Sonny Curtis followed Buddy and drummer Jerry Allison to form the Crickets. Then everyone would remember the Crickets’ hit “I Fought the Law” with Buddy Holly backup vocals...

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