Buddy Holly, rock-and-roll pioneer, was born Charles Hardin Holley on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas. He was the youngest of four children of Lawrence and Ella (Drake) Holley. His father worked as a tailor and salesman in a Lubbock clothing store, and though Lawrence Holley did not play an instrument himself, he and his wife encouraged the musical talents of their children. Buddy made his debut at the age of five, when he appeared with his brothers in a talent show in nearby County Line and won five dollars for his rendition of "Down the River of Memories." At eleven he took piano lessons and proved to be an apt pupil, but quit after only nine months. After briefly studying the steel guitar, he picked up the acoustic guitar and taught himself to play. At Hutchinson Junior High School he befriended Bob Montgomery; the two formed a duo that performed country and what eventually was called rock-and-roll music.
In fall 1953 Holly, Montgomery, and bass player Larry Welborn earned a regular spot on Lubbock radio station KDAV's Sunday Party program. While attending Lubbock High School, Holly studied printing and drafting and worked part-time at Panhandle Steel Products. He apparently never doubted, however, that he would become a professional musician. In 1954 and 1955 he, Montgomery, and Welborn made a few demonstration recordings in Wichita Falls and hoped to land a recording contract, but in 1956 Decca offered Holly a solo contract. Decca was well-known as a country-and-western label and tried unsuccessfully to fit Holly into the country mold. After releasing two unsuccessful singles the company terminated Holly's contract.
Buddy returned to Lubbock and was still determined to make it big in the music business. In February 1957 he, Welborn (who was soon replaced by Joe B. Mauldin), drummer Jerry Allison, and guitarist Niki Sullivan went to independent producer Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, and adopted the name the Crickets. From this point Holly's career took off. Brunswick Records signed the Crickets, while Holly signed a solo contract with Brunswick's Coral subsidiary. The records put out under the Crickets' name had backing vocals, while those put out under Holly's name, with the exception of "Rave On," did not. The arrangement made no difference in their recording technique. All of the records included Holly's unmistakable vocal style, which incorporated hiccups, nonsense syllables, a wide range, and abrupt changes of pitch, and was described by one critic as playfully ironic and childlike. The first Crickets single, "That'll Be the Day," backed with "I'm Looking for Someone to Love," was released on Brunswick Records on May 27, 1957. The record eventually reached Number 3 on the pop charts and Number 2 on the rhythm-and-blues charts.
At first many listeners assumed that Holly and his band were black. In July 1957, when the Crickets flew east, they discovered that they had been booked on various package tours with black artists at such theaters as the Apollo in New York and the Howard in Washington, D.C. Their reception at the Apollo was chilly, until they launched the third day's show with a wild version of "Bo Diddley." The next few months were busy ones for Holly and his band. They appeared on television on American Bandstand, The Arthur Murray Dance Party, and The Ed Sullivan Show and on a number of package tours and concert bills with some of the most famous rock-and-rollers of the day. In late December, Holly's second solo single, "Peggy Sue," backed with "Everyday," reached Number 3 on the pop and R&B charts. The Crickets' second single, "Oh Boy!," backed with "Not Fade Away," was released in October 1957 and sold close to a million copies. Niki Sullivan quit the band, and over the next few months the Crickets toured Australia, Florida, and Great Britain as a trio before Holly asked Tommy Allsup to join as lead guitarist of the group. Their third single, "Maybe Baby," backed with "Tell Me How," also cracked the Top 100.
In the summer of 1958 Holly met Maria Elena Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico who had gone to New York as a child to live with her aunt after the death of her mother. Maria was the receptionist at Peer–Southern Music when Holly and the Crickets stopped in for a business meeting. Holly asked her out that night and, over dinner at P. J. Clarke's, asked her to marry him. She accepted, and they were married on August 15 at Holly's home in Lubbock.
Things were not going well for Holly professionally in late 1958. His last few singles had failed to recapture the success of the early releases. In October, after another tour, he announced that he was moving to New York. Norman Petty, however, convinced Allison and Mauldin to stay in Clovis. Holly reluctantly agreed to the breakup of the Crickets and determined to carry on alone. In New York he took acting lessons and recorded several songs with strings and orchestral backing. In January 1959 he agreed to go on tour again as part of what was billed as the "Winter Dance Party." He was accompanied on the tour by Allsup, bassist and future superstar Waylon Jennings, and drummer Charlie Bunch. The tour promoters rather unscrupulously billed this group as the Crickets.
Holly and his band, along with Ritchie Valens, J. P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson, and several others traveled by bus through the Midwestern winter. After a February 2 show in Clear Lake, Iowa, they were supposed to get back on the bus for a 430-mile trip to Moorhead, Minnesota, but Holly decided instead to charter a plane to fly him and his band to Fargo, North Dakota, just across the Red River of the North from Moorhead. When the other performers heard of his plans, they wanted to come, too, and Jennings and Allsup ended up giving up their seats to Richardson and Valens. The red Beechcraft Bonanza took off from Mason City, ten miles east of Clear Lake, at about 1:50 a.m. on the morning of February 3, 1959. The weather was cold, about eighteen degrees, with light snow, and the plane went down almost immediately; the wreckage was discovered later that morning eight miles from the Mason City airport. The pilot, Valens, Richardson, and Holly, who had been thrown twenty feet from the airplane, all died in the crash.
Shortly after Holly was buried in Lubbock, his widow suffered a miscarriage. (She later remarried and named the first of her three sons Carlos, after Holly.) Holly's last single, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," backed with "Raining in My Heart," had been released on January 5 and entered the Top 100 on the day of his death.
Holly had an incalculable influence on rock-and-roll music. Performers who either recorded his songs or were influenced by his and his band's distinctive style, image, and instrumentation include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello. In 1971 the singer–songwriter Don McLean commemorated February 3, 1959, as "the day the music died" in his Number 1 single, "American Pie."
The city of Lubbock, however, was somewhat slower to recognize its most famous son. Not until the release of the movie The Buddy Holly Story in 1978 did the city begin to realize the tourism potential of Buddy Holly. In 1979 the city hosted a concert by Jennings and the Crickets to raise funds for a statue of Holly. The 8½-foot-tall bronze by Grant Speed, mounted near the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center, was unveiled in 1980. In 1983 the city turned the area around the statue into a “Walk of Fame” honoring West Texas musicians. Three years later the city celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Buddy Holly's birth with a concert featuring Bo Diddley and Bobby Vee.
Buddy Holly was one of the first inductees admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and in 1990 an auction of Holly memorabilia in New York raised more than $703,000. Actor Gary Busey, who portrayed the singer in The Buddy Holly Story, paid $242,000 for his guitar, and the Hard Rock Cafe paid $45,100 for a pair of Holly's distinctive black-framed glasses. In the 1990s the city of Lubbock expanded its focus on its famous native son. The Buddy Holly Music Festival began in 1995 and was held each Labor Day weekend throughout the 1990s. In September 1999 the Buddy Holly Center opened to honor Holly’s legacy as well as provide displays on other Texas musicians. In 2001 the Center, in joint sponsorship with Texas Tech University and Texas Monthly Magazine, began an academic symposium on Holly and other early influential rock-and-roll musicians, titled Not Fade Away: The Life and Times of Buddy Holly. Lubbock had a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 9, 2011, for the opening of the Buddy and Maria Elena Holly Plaza. Located near the Buddy Holly Center, the plaza is the new home of Holly's memorial statue and the West Texas Walk of Fame. Holly was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on September 7, 2011, which would have been his seventy-fifth birthday.