Musician, songwriter, and early rock-and-roll singer Buddy Wayne Knox was born on a wheat farm northeast of Happy, Texas, on July 20, 1933. He was the son of Lester and Gladys Knox. Buddy and his younger sister, Verdi Ann, grew up during the Great Depression and World War II years with relatives who enjoyed singing and playing country, folk, and gospel music. At a young age Buddy showed his own knack for music, and in his teens bought his first guitar with money he had saved from a summer job with a surveying crew in New Mexico. After graduating in 1951 from Happy High School, at which he lettered in football, Knox enrolled at West Texas State College (now West Texas A&M University) at Canyon. There he was active as a cheerleader and rodeo clown, took part in college drama productions, and in his senior year was elected vice president of his class. In addition, Knox and several of his college buddies began serenading the girls' dorms during after-curfew hours; soon Knox and his "Serenaders" received requests from adoring coeds to perform at dances and other campus functions.
Although he was working on a master's degree in accounting and already had prospects of a steady job with a major oil company, Knox's appetite for the music business was further whetted when he and Dumas natives Jimmy Bowen and Donald Lanier formed a three-man band, which later numbered four with the addition of Dave Alldred on drums. Calling themselves the Orchids after the color of their matching shirts, the combo played area clubs and fraternity dances to help defray their education costs. When Elvis Presley performed in Amarillo during his path-breaking 1955 tour, Knox attended the concert and afterward met the upcoming "king of rock" backstage. Presley further encouraged the group to do some recording, declaring prophetically that rock-and-roll was "fixing to happen." From another aspiring young West Texas musician, Roy Orbison, Knox and the Orchids learned of Norman Petty's recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico.
In 1956, after scraping together sixty dollars, the group arranged with Petty to make their first studio recordings there. With Alldred drumming on a cotton-stuffed cardboard box, Knox on lead vocals, and his sister Verdi and three other WTSC coeds as backup singers, the Orchids launched their session with "Party Doll," a song Knox had written at age fifteen in 1948. He later recalled that they did the song "at least fifty-seven times before we got it right," but the effort paid off. The song was first issued locally on the Triple-D label, which was formed by Knox and his publisher, Chester Oliver, and named after KDDD Radio in Dumas. "Party Doll" subsequently became the first release on Roulette, a new record company formed by New York nightclub owner Maurice Levy. Knox's band became the Rhythm Orchids after executives of Gee Records in Harlem mistakenly assumed that the group was black. At any rate, Levy and Roulette Records signed up the hot new act from Texas, and in 1957 "Party Doll" soared to the top of the charts in the United States. At that same first session in Clovis, Jimmy Bowen had recorded another Knox composition, "I'm Stickin' With You," which rose to Number 14 on the charts, and Knox's Rhythm Orchids were among the guest performers invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show on April 7, 1957.
With his light tenor voice skimming over the insistent rhythms, Buddy Knox thus became the first in a line of young West Texas-born rock singers that included Orbison and Buddy Holly. It was Knox who reportedly coined the term "rockabilly" for his new sound, similar to straight rock-and-roll but with less instrumentation. In 1957–58 Knox and his Rhythm Orchids placed a total of eight songs on the charts that they recorded on the Roulette label, including "Rock Your Little Baby to Sleep," "Hula Love" (a Top 10 hit), and "Somebody Touched Me."
Knox appeared in the 1957 movie Disc Jockey Jamboree, along with other top rock stars of the day, and toured frequently with Alan Freed's package shows. Over time the Rhythm Orchids included several session guitarists, and often some noted guest artists like Bobby Darin on the piano. Since Jimmy Bowen rarely played bass in the studio, Buddy Holly's Crickets were brought in on many sessions, including Holly himself on one song, "All For You." The last Top 100 entry for Knox and the Rhythm Orchids was "I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself" in 1959, a controversial song that was banned on many radio stations. Knox was on tour, performing in a small Iowa town on the night of February 3, 1959, when the fatal plane crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson occurred near Clear Lake, some thirty miles away.
Despite their success Knox and his band often found themselves grossly underpaid (compared to the large salaries of Fats Domino and other big-name performers) by the sometimes-shady Roulette executives. What was more, in the week that "Party Doll" hit number one, Knox was called into the United States Army Reserves for six months to fulfill his ROTC obligation. This turn of events forced the Rhythm Orchids to cancel proposed concert dates in Europe, including a scheduled performance at the London Palladium. Indeed, "Rock Your Little Baby to Sleep" was issued under the name of Lieutenant Buddy Knox. Knox also made a second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in uniform, sharing the billing with another celebrity Texan, actress Jayne Mansfield. While at Fort Hood, Texas, Knox renewed his friendship with Presley, who was also stationed there during his legendary army stint; later Presley invited Knox and his first wife, Glenda, to Graceland, his mansion in Memphis.
Soon after Knox's release from the army the Rhythm Orchids broke up. All the original members eventually achieved success as solo artists. For his own part Knox switched from Roulette to Liberty Records and later to United Artists, but with only minimal success. In 1960 he and Jimmy Bowen moved to Los Angeles. There Knox turned to "teen-beat" numbers such as "Lovey-Dovey" (1960) and "Ling Ting Tong" (1961), his last two big hits, with producer Snuff Garrett, another West Texas native. Garrett also produced Knox's recording of "She's Gone," which in 1962 became a minor hit in Great Britain. During the mid-1960s Knox returned to his country roots, recording in Nashville for Reprise, and in 1968 had a fairly big hit with "Gypsy Man," composed by one-time Cricket Sonny Curtis. This led to movie appearances in Travelin' Light (1971, with Waylon Jennings) and Sweet Country Music (1983, with Boots Randolph and Johnny Paycheck, among others).
In 1970 Knox moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. There he set up his own Sunny Hill label, bought the rights to his record masters, and opened a nightclub called the Purple Steer. He also toured Europe with rockabilly revival shows during the 1970s and early 1980s. In his later years Knox sprouted whiskers and dressed in gaudy country-and-western outfits, a stark contrast to the youthful, clean-cut image of his early career. In 1994 he released his last album, a compilation compact disc entitled Hard Knox and Bobby Sox. He also filed lawsuits in an effort to recover money owed him and the Rhythm Orchids by recording companies such as Roulette "that took us to the cleaners." In September 1994 he was inducted into the West Texas Walk of Fame in Lubbock. In 1997 he moved to Port Orchard, near Bremerton, Washington, where he worked only part of the year. That year he joined Bobby Vee, the Shirelles, and the Crickets at a tribute concert to mark the thirty-eighth anniversary of Buddy Holly's death.
Knox married twice after his divorce from Glenda. He had five children and five grandchildren. His youngest son, Michael, became a successful record producer in the Nashville area. Knox died of cancer on February 14, 1999, at Harrison Memorial Hospital in Bremerton. On March 6 a funeral service was held for him at the First United Methodist Church in Canyon, Texas. Knox is an inductee in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and West Texas Music Hall of Fame.