Still Chirpin’ After All These Years
Originally published in Metro Mag 1986 (Metro was a stand-alone weekly, a predecessor of Nashville Scene)
by Michael Snow
The Crickets have been part of my musical sensibility for almost thirty years, since first hearing “That’ll Be The Day” and seeing the cover of “The Chirping Crickets” with its impossibly blue-skied backdrop and the four young men posed almost formally in neat grey suits and skinny red ties. Arguably the first white, self-contained rock ‘n roll group, their Stratocaster based sound was the prototype for much that followed. As I had also known them casually since 1978, I was naturally delighted when Metro asked me to write a piece on them. I have always thought that the group has been too long ignored in print, the emphasis being increasingly on Buddy Holly as the years have passed.
The preparation for the story coincided with the spate of interest in the Rock ‘n Rock Hall of Fame for which Bernie Walters has labored long and hard, only to be upstaged by a New York consortium who are soon to announce their first list of inductees, which at the time of writing includes Buddy Holly but not The Crickets. There is a serious miscarriage of justice in the works which must be addressed, for not only were the bulk of the records which form Buddy Holly’s legacy issued simply as “The Crickets,” but the writing of those timeless songs was usually a collaboration between group members – this well before Lennon and McCartney. The group has survived for thirty years with occasional hiatuses and with a surprising number of alumni, but they have always had that distinctive sound, no matter the line-up, and Jerry (J.I.) Allison has always piloted the band from his drum kit. It is especially unfair that the group may be ignored by this “Hall of Fame” now, since the line-up from 1977 until the present has been virtually the original: J.I. Allison on drums, Joe B. Mauldin on upright bass and Sonny Curtis on guitar. While Holly’s untimely demise eventually gave him the status of an international cult figure and Pop icon, it served to diminish the stature of a seminal rock ‘n roll band, a state of affairs that should not be allowed to continue. So, what started as a biographical piece has become an apologia for the restoration of The Crickets to their rightful place in the rock pantheon.
The all-too-brief “Golden Age” lasted just eighteen months and has been documented exhaustively, with varying degrees of accuracy, in print, on film, and most joyously on vinyl, where they truly live on forever young. They were the first white group to play the Apollo Theater in Harlem, J.I. and Joe B. were a yardstick by which fledgling rhythm sections measured themselves and the thunder of J.I.’s drums on the intro to “Peggy Sue” remains one of the great moments in rock ‘n roll. Four young Liverpool musicians were so much under their spell that they named themselves the Beatles in homage to their similarly insect-named idols (and that’s a fact).
Buddy’s death and the disarray caused by the draft, with Joe B., Sonny, and J.I. all being inducted at different times over a five-year period, would have finished a lesser group, but somehow the records kept coming, including “Love’s Made A Fool Of You” and the evanescent “Please Don’t Ever Change,” both of which stand tall with their other classics, despite being made with shifting personnel.
A List of Cricket’s alumni is a revelation. At different times, Earl Sinks, Jerry Naylor, David Box, Ernest Hall, Niki Sullivan, Buzz Cason, Glenn Campbell, Cliff Reynolds, Mike Curb, Trini Lopez, Tommy Allsup, Joe Osborne, J.J. Cale, Steve Kerkorian, Ric Grech, and Albert Lee have passed through the ranks, and the band had fruitful collaborations with the Everly Brothers and Bobby Vee along the way.
Certainly that is some array of talent, but they were usually on board one or two at a time with J.I. and usually Sonny as a nucleus. Glen D. Hardin was also a regular member for several years before settling in with Elvis.
Joe B., although a charter member, spent the longest time away from the fold, not leaving the army until 1965 and then spending ten more years in L.A. as a music publishing operative, session contractor, and as a studio engineer at the famed “Gold Star” where he worked on tracks with Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, The Baja Marimba Band, John Lennon, Burt Bacharach, and Bobby Russell, among others.
J.I., while always acting as keeper of the flame, managed stints on the drums with Johnny Rivers, Roger Miller, John Stewart, and Ray Stevens during periods of hiatus, and continued to husband his publishing interests.
Although Sonny’s connection with Buddy Holly pre-dates even the formation of The Crickets, and his involvement with the group began immediately after Buddy’s death, he has always maintained a successful solo career. As early as 1959 he had penned “Walk Right Back” for the Everly Brothers, and in the early Sixties he had major writing successes with “More Than I Can Say,” “I Fought The Law,” “When You Ask About Love,” and “Baby, My Heart.” 1964 saw major solo hits with “The Straight Life” and “Hung Up In Your Eyes.” He also provided the theme for the blockbuster Mary Tyler Moore series, “Love Is All Around.” The Seventies saw him making waves as a very successful jingle writer and an early Eighties pact with Elektra resulted in three solid country hits, “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” “Love Is,” and the top-tenner “Good Ol’ Girls.”
By the middle of 1977, J.I. and Sonny had arrived in Nashville, acquiring farms to the west of the city. Joe B. accepted an offer from Bobby Russell to join him in a studio venture in Nashville soon after, and so the stage was set for a remarkable resurgence which I was able to witness first hand, having been hired by Russell to work in his publishing company and arriving at the same time as Joe B.
The sequence of events had an inexorable quality. Paul McCartney, having acquired the Holly/Crickets catalogue, launched an annual “Buddy Holly Week” in England and contacted J.I. to see if The Crickets would attend. J.I. ran it by the others and, lo and behold, a few weeks later The Crickets was reborn (for one performance, they believed) on the stage of London’s Kilburn Gaumont Theater. Returning to Nashville, pleased with the reaction in London, they were approached by Bill Justis to appear at the NARAS benefit, and were the hit of the evening. Soon thereafter the news came that Waylon Jennings was going to include a Crickets’ medley (which had been cut with Sonny and J.I. back in ’72) on his upcoming album “I’ve Always Been Crazy.”
He had the notion to debut the medley in concert with the guys and asked if they would consider going on the road “for a few day.” Those few days turned into five years of solid touring with Waylon and introduced a whole new audience to the irresistible sound of The Crickets.
I had a chance to witness the chemistry first hand while working the board on the first recording session they did after re-forming. At first they were tentative, J.I. and Joe B. probing for that groove, a little rusty perhaps; Sonny calm and patient, willing to wait for the sparks to fly. They were working on a new song of J.I.’s called “Cruise In It”, and they had made a few passes that no one was happy with. Maybe it had been too long. Then suddenly something happened – I still don’t know what – and they fell into a sublime, streamlined rockabilly groove. The years fell away and they sounded young, slick, and SO good. (Incidentally, “Cruise In It” backed with “Ollie V.” was only issued on a limited scale in England. Some enterprising company should re-release it – it’s a rockabilly masterpiece.)
Their live shows, nostalgic but not nostalgia, became a highlight of Waylon’s revue, with very strong audience response. Complementing the situation, “The Buddy Holly Story,” starring Gary Busey, went into general release, becoming a hit movie and fanning the flame. The guys have mixed feelings about the film. It obviously helped business, but was made without their permission, probably violating their trademark rights (the name is jointly owned by J.I and Joe B.) and certainly violating their privacy as the on screen portrayal of the fictional Crickets was wildly inaccurate, and there were major inconsistencies in the delineation of Buddy’s character too. Although the film was loosely based on John Goldrosen’s book Buddy Holly: His Life and Music, on which they had collaborated, the movie was more fiction than fact, and they were snubbed by the producers, not even being invited to the premier in their home state of Texas.
To add to the intense activity, M.C.A. issued “20 Golden Greats/Buddy Holly Lives” in the U.K. in 1979 and the album rampaged to the top of the album charts, giving the band surprisingly their first gold and platinum records. The following year the album duplicated its performance in the States and continues to sell heavily worldwide. They returned to London in 1979 and were joined onstage for a show-stopping jam by Paul and Linda McCartney , Denny Laine, Moody Blues’ Ray Thomas, Ronny Lane, and Rik Gretsch, then with Blind Faith.
That ill-fated super group’s only album included a cover of “Well…Alright,” co-written by J.I., Joe B., Buddy, and Norman Petty. Other acts who had big hits mining The Crickets’ catalogue include Linda Rondstadt with smash version of “That’ll Be The Day” and “It’s So Easy,” Blondie with “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” and Leo Sayer with “More Than I Can Say.”
1983 saw the end of the most intense period of Cricket activity since the early days, with Waylon coming off the road and the group taking a sabbatical to follow individual interests. J.I. is working his 185 acre farm, hunting and fishing and writing with ex-Waylor Gordon Payne and Sonny. Joe B. and his wife Jane are heavily involved in real estate, and Sonny has formed the Karat Corporation and Steem Records. There have already been two releases in the U.S. and U.K., and Sonny is excited about developing the company.
But, true to form, there are rumblings of activity in The Crickets camp. The classic “Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets” was recently re-released in England to strong response, and there are plans for a second volume of unreleased cuts, and a brand new Bobby Vee/Crickets album. Vee recently returned from a successful European tour with an offer for a Bobby Vee/Crickets tour in the spring of this year. It is probable that the next edition of the band will be minus Sonny as his contractual obligations make it difficult, but Gordon Payne has been tapped to occupy his slot. In addition, the BBC has completed a documentary history of Buddy Holly and The Crickets, and so the stage is set for the next phase.
But right now the guys are concerned about the possible omission of the band from the projected Hall of Fame. Now, there’s no way they could ever be accused of being glory-seekers or petty-minded men. They are good old boys in the best sense and even their complaints are couched in self-deprecating humor, but they do have a sense of their history and they feel, rightly in my opinion, that there has been a distortion in the perspective of the band’s importance vis-a-vis Buddy Holly.
While never attempting to diminish Buddy’s massive impact, they point out that The Crickets came first, it was a co-op band, and The Crickets had more hits than Buddy Holly, although the only difference in the records was the labelling. They have been on the receiving end of injustices before, from the Norman Petty era through the film situation, to their omission to date from the “Walk of Fame” in their home town of Lubbock. (There’s a statue of Buddy, Waylon, saxist Bobby Keyes, and a lady who sang with Lawrence Welk have sidewalk stars, but The Crickets are nowhere mentioned.)
The powers that be (who are they?) of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can redress some old inequities and prevent a new one by elevating The Crickets along with Buddy Holly. Whether they do or do not, one thing is certain: The Crickets will survive, as they have for thirty years. Don’t be surprised when that old West Texas groove machine fires up again.