Norman Petty, record producer and piano player, was born on May 25, 1927, in Clovis, New Mexico. Petty began playing piano when he was five and had a fifteen-minute show on KICA radio while he was still in Clovis High School. He organized his first group, the Torchy Swingsters, as a teenager. To improve their performance, he recorded their shows for playback practice, thus beginning his interest in recording. In 1946, after his service in the United States Air Force, he went to work as staff announcer for KICA. He married his high school sweetheart, Violet Ann Brady, in 1948.
The same year, he moved across the state line into Texas, where he worked part-time as a recording engineer. He formed the Norman Petty Trio, in which he played organ, his wife played piano, and Jack Vaughn played guitar. Petty moved back to Clovis in 1954 and established a recording studio and a new label known as NorVaJak. The trio soon landed a recording contract with ABC–Paramount Records. Shortly thereafter, Cashbox magazine voted the trio the "Most Promising Group of 1954." By 1956 their recording of the Duke Ellington song "Mood Indigo" had sold a half million copies. In 1957 the trio's song "Almost Paradise" hit Number 18 and Petty won his first BMI Writers Award. Another Top 40 hit, "On the Alamo," followed, along with some lesser hits. Petty used the income derived from these songs to improve the studio.
He soon realized that he had the only recording studio in New Mexico and West Texas. Confident in his own technical abilities as both engineer and producer, he went public in 1955. He became one of the first independent producers of rock-and-roll, and one of its most successful. Roy Orbison's Teen Kings were among Petty's first customers. Through a leasing agreement with Roulette Records, the studio's first million-seller was Buddy Knox's "Party Doll," which went all the way to Number 1 in 1957. The most famous of Petty's customers, however, was Buddy Holly, who, along with his band, the Crickets, drove ninety miles west from Lubbock, Texas, to cut a demo on February 25, 1957. Their rocking version of "That'll Be the Day," which rose to Number 1 by September, won them a contract from the New York–based Coral/Brunswick label.
Holly was an innovator, and Petty, who quickly became Holly's manager, encouraged him to experiment with his music. Petty and his wife played on several of Holly's recordings. In addition, Petty took credit for co-writing some of the group's hits. Whether he actually co-wrote all the songs he is credited with has been questioned. However, this was a practice that was common in the music business at the time. In any case, Petty produced forty to fifty of Holly's songs at his studio in eighteen months. Nearly every one of these has since become a million-seller. In the fall of 1958, Holly split from Petty and went to live in New York City. After Holly died (in February 1959), Petty acquired the rights to some of Holly's unreleased tracks. Petty has been criticized for dubbing in parts of these songs and releasing them, but by doing so he managed to make some hit songs from tapes that had been intended only as demos. The Crickets continued recording in Petty's Clovis studio for a short time.
Petty continued to record other groups from the Southwestern United States. His most successful instrumental composition, "Wheels," was recorded by the String-A-Longs. It reached the Top 10 in 1961 and earned him another BMI Writers Award. Another band, Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, had several Top 40 hits, including the Petty-produced Number 1 hit, "Sugar Shack," in 1963. In 1973 Petty, who had retained the rights to all items recorded by Buddy Holly, sold them to Paul McCartney, who purchased the entire Holly song catalog.
Petty operated his famed Clovis studio until his death, of leukemia. He was working on a new Holly overdub project when he died on August 15, 1984, in Lubbock. He was buried in Clovis, New Mexico. His wife Violet died on March 22, 1992. They had no children. After his death, he was named Clovis Citizen of the Year. Petty is recognized as a Legend in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He is also recognized in the West Texas Music Hall of Fame.