1957 was the year in which Buddy Holly became the rock & roll star that we got to know and love. But as this triple-CD set from El Toro amply demonstrates, there was more to know about Buddy than the hits, and a lot more to love than the records that charted -- and on that level, this set fills a gap that's needed filling for decades. Among record collectors and rock & rollers, a "Complete Buddy Holly" is the holy grail of dream CD reissues -- and even more so in an era when Hip-O Select is reissuing virtually every note that Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley recorded for Chess, and RCA Victor and various licensees are plumbing the depths of the Elvis Presley tape library. It only hurts worse that there was a Complete Buddy Holly box issued on LP in 1979, just three years before the debut of the CD format and roughly ten years before the great CD reissue boom (it was released in the U.S. in 1981). Ten years later, complete box sets of rock & roll were a rule, not an exception as they were in 1979, but Holly's work didn't make the jump to digital -- nor did it arrive in the next two decades as box sets proliferated promiscuously, since Holly's catalog was caught in some kind of murky legal limbo.
Such legal niceties evaporated in Europe once the deadlines for copyrights passed 50 years after the original recording, thus paving the way for legal -- but not authorized, or compensated, in terms of royalties paid to Holly's widow or family -- complete collections such as Not Fade Away: Buddy Holly 1957: The Complete Recordings. This triple-disc set contains all known surviving Holly recordings from that seminal year, and on its face would seem to be essential listening -- and it is, depending upon one's perspective. It also has to be said that this is not the first time that there has been unauthorized yet loving assembly of Holly's complete recordings. Toward the end of the '90s, the bootleg company The Purple Chick assembled a mammoth ten-disc set of Buddy, collecting all the demos and masters, outtakes, live cuts, interviews, sessions, and songs given away, creating their own stereos mixes and even compiling a "Buddy's Record Collection" CD. This drifted into obsessive territory, especially as there was scant annotation about whence any of it originated -- but such compulsive collecting is not only the nature of this kind of project, it also comes hand in hand when an artist so major has such a small body of work: it lends itself to combing over minute details, as that's all that's left.
Not Fade Away: Buddy Holly 1957: The Complete Recordings, like the same label's preceding Hollybilly: Buddy Holly 1956: The Complete Recordings, mimics the approach of the bootleg The Complete Buddy Holly, rounding up all known existing tapes from that pivotal year of 1957, including master takes, alternates, demos, undubbed tapes, live shows, interviews, and promo tapes, plus studio sessions featuring Buddy supporting other singers; unlike Elvis Presley, whose time and talent from 1956 onward were considered far too valuable by his management to put into the service of other performers, Holly was a working musician and not just a star, and -- whether out of personal interest, or as a job on behalf of manager/producer Norman Petty -- participated in recording sessions for Gary Dale, Billy Walker, Fred Crawford, Carolyn Hester (the latter providing the one-degree-of-separation between Holly and Bob Dylan, who played on one of her Columbia Records), Sherry Davis, Jim Robinson, Jack Huddle, and Charlie Phillips, among others, all of which are represented here. Needless to say, there is some amazing music on this set -- this is the year of "I'm Lookin' for Someone to Love", "That'll Be the Day", "Maybe Baby", "Words of Love", "Not Fade Away", "Peggy Sue," and "Oh Boy!", after all; but this is definitely not the place for the casual listener to hear these songs, or even the place for the latter to appreciate Holly's astonishing artistic growth, because it can seem too cluttered with what appears -- to the uninitiated -- to be ephemera, of the sort that is primarily of interest to fanatics or scholars. A scratchy demo of "Not Fade Away" or "Words of Love" followed by the actual release take the kind of sequencing that hardcore fans can absorb in stride, but will annoy many less devoted listeners, who just want to hear the songs they know the way they know them, or discover what the big deal was about Holly. That's the simple warning for those who are deciding between this set and a 12-song compilation.
But what you do get here is a fuller picture of Holly in his first year of success than most of us who never knew him will ever have, musically and otherwise; and it has the potential of turning the casual listener into a fanatic. There are some amazing first-hand sources here on pivotal moments, musical and otherwise in Holly's career, and not just early demos of songs that became hits and classics. The most amazing instance of pivotal "ephemera" pops up in the middle of Disc One, with a recording of the actual February 28, 1957 telephone call between Buddy and Paul Cohen of Decca Records' Nashville office -- Buddy had recorded for Decca in 1956, without any real success and little happening at that point with the sides that he had cut; but he felt the sessions hadn't captured the songs, especially "That'll Be the Day", very well, and he'd recut the latter and saw it as a potential hit. This is the call on which Holly tried to get a release on his original contract, which barred him from re-recording within five years any of the material he'd done for the label. Cohen comes off as conniving, unsympathetic, and unhelpful, eager to see what Holly would do with the songs -- so that he would presumably get first crack at anything he thought worthwhile -- but unwilling to give an inch in what was already, very obviously to all concerned (including him), an unproductive relationship. It was because of that call that Holly ended up in a contractual tangle over the signing of "the Crickets" (a group name devised to protect him from immediate legal action when he started recording anew); and he ultimately signed away all rights and royalties to those Decca sessions in order to be able to record for Coral and Brunswick -- which, ironically, were all part of the same company as Decca, a situation that any court today would probably nullify, if it ever got anywhere near a judge). This phone call is followed by Holly's work with Gary Dale, a much more conventional singer also signed to Petty, with a smoother approach to rock & roll -- Buddy's guitar playing is impossible to mistake. His work for Billy Walker, Jim Robinson, and Jack Huddle follows, all more generic country artists, but they do fill in holes in terms of what Holly was doing in between his own recordings and performances -- and Holly's and Jerry Allison's playing on Robinson's rendition of "A Whole Lot of Lovin'" is similarly of a piece with their work together in the Crickets. The Carolyn Hester demos on Disc Two are more in a folk vein, and not as distinctive, but they do allow us to get a more complete picture of the musical world in which Holly moved, and there are some interesting guitar flourishes on "Scarlet Ribbons". The Charlie Phillips sessions are more like the Crickets sound we know, and Sherry Davis's sides offer us a sample of what might have happened if Holly had ever crossed paths with Jean Shepard (and it would have been lovely, if not exactly rock & roll).
And that's how this set advances, across alternate takes and demos, sessions for other musicians, and his own work, with the occasional interview and live performance
(most notably from The Ed Sullivan Show and The Arthur Murray TV Show). The fidelity is sometimes highly uneven, and there are, at times, as many as four different takes of a song in a row. There are even moments of Holly and company clowning around in the studio, as when they cut a promotional recording of "That'll Be the Day" aimed specifically at Bob Thiele at Coral Records. The average listener might not take to it easily, or at all, but for the handcore fan -- or the potential hardcore fan who wants to move past the hits and the extant albums -- it can not only be enlightening but spellbinding (as on the rehearsals of "Mona," which are almost worth the price of this set by themselves); and also seriously, emotionally draining to the point of tears. The sessions for other singers constitute a musical side of Buddy that we hardly knew, and are an interesting revelation in themselves. But the whole picture created in the listening is of a Buddy Holly that we hardly had time to get to know before he was gone. And while the most serious fans have heard most of what's here in lots of different places and at different times, getting it all delineated in one place, in a unified way, is a wonderful experience -- a lot of the joy that went with his music comes up new and fresh in this setting and combination, and also a lot of the grief over the way it ended, and the inherent unfairness, that we're here to love this music in 2009, and Buddy's been gone 50 years and counting, and hardly had time to glimpse how wonderful his work was.
No, it isn't meant for casual listening. On one level, it's a clearinghouse of Holly, and for those who want to dig deep, it's great to have it in wide circulation instead of a bootleg. But it could also make converts into the hardcore category of a lot of people -- after all, it was the proliferation of even those poor and questionable Elvis Presley reissues of the '70s that helped set the stage for the comprehensive vault raids on the latter's library in the '80s and beyond, that put everything he did in context and enhanced his musical reputation to probably its peak in history. A similar treatment to Buddy Holly's work could get the same result for Holly in a new generation and a new century. And in the absence of an effort by Universal in this direction, this set, and its preceding volume represent a good beginning.