Charles Hardin Holley, known professionally as Buddy Holly, had one the most influential and tragically brief careers rock ’n’ roll has known. The singer, songwriter and guitarist from Lubbock, Texas, died Feb. 3, 1959, at the age of 22, having released just two albums under his name and one more under the name of his band, The Crickets. Holly died in a small plane crash that also claimed the life of the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and the pilot after a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
What Holly might have done has become a tantalizing proposition considering what he actually accomplished in his innovative artistic life as he combined the energy of rockabilly with a polished accessible pop songwriting sensibility.
Posthumously his life and music became the subject of one of the earliest jukebox musicals, “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Musical,” a national touring production of which comes to Sacramento for eight performances Friday through Jan. 2.
Todd Meredith, who stars for the 14th time as Buddy in the production, goes all out to impersonate Holly. This is the first time out on a national tour for Meredith, a singer and guitarist who lives in New York City and grew up loving “oldies music.” He’s started a Buddy Holly tribute band called The Rave-Ons with other “Buddy” castmates.
“I was always a big fan of that type of stuff,” Meredith said from his home on break from the tour. Meredith was a Beatles fan growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., and studied theater and music at Siena College. He even played in a Beatles request tribute band, having to learn more than a hundred songs. Getting cast in “Buddy,” though, opened Meredith’s eyes to one of rock’s earliest pioneers.
“I did the show for the first time at a small theater in upstate new York in 2007, and that’s when I really started to delve into Buddy’s career,” Meredith said. “I didn’t really know his music that well. I knew ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘That’ll Be The Day.’ Those were the popular ones I had heard on oldies stations every day.
“Once I got to delve into his entire catalog, I really fell in love with his music and really discovered how much he influenced those bands that I loved so much from the ’60s,” Meredith said.
Paul McCartney, a big Holly fan, bought Holly’s song catalog and produced a documentary film on the singer’s life and career called “The Real Buddy Holly Story.” The title references the 1978 film “The Buddy Holly Story,” which starred Gary Busey as Holly and took creative liberties with his life, which many who knew him objected to.
The documentary sought to set the record straight. McCartney also supported the creation of the musical “Buddy,” which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and ran for more than 12 years. There was also a brief Broadway production – 225 performances – in 1990 and numerous national and international tours since.
The show essentially follows the chronological arc of Holly’s musical career, which began when he recorded some country sides in Nashville as an Elvis Presley-influenced 19-year-old. Holly had seen Elvis perform early in 1955 and then opened for him later that year.
Holly had in a sense seen the future of music and wanted in on it. The Nashville country sessions didn’t go well for Holly, who realized he needed to have more creative input into making his music.
He soon got what he needed from producer Norman Petty, and in 1957 “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” entered the national consciousness. The first act of the play ends with Holly and the Crickets accidentally becoming the first white act to play the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
“The second act is more of a love story with Buddy and how he meets his wife,” Meredith said.
The story goes through the Crickets breakup and the big concert in Clear Lake, and includes appearances by the Big Bopper and Valens.
“The end is my favorite part of the show, and I think it is for most people who come see the show as well,” Meredith said.
“It’s one big concert at the end. It’s a lot of fun. We’re constantly communicating with the audience, asking them to participate, get up and dance, scream and shout.
“They don’t have to just sit there in the chairs with their arms folded – we really want to them to get involved.”