The separation point between the two states tends to get blurry out on the eastern plains. With no visible points of demarcation other than license plates and road signs. The Spanish named this region "El Llano Estacado" (The Staked Plains) to the first European explorers the vastness was unsettling, As Spanish Conquistador Francisco Coronado described it; "With no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea ... there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by" The area's Hispanic settlers call it "El Llano", other New Mexicans contemptuously refer to the flat lands, east of the Pecos River as "Little Texas." New Mexico and Texas have long been uneasy neighbors, too often the arrival of Texans to the Land of Enchantment spelled trouble. Starting in the mid-1950's that would change, as young Texas musicians made the journey to Clovis, New Mexico just west of the Texas border. In many ways it was a modern day gold rush with Norm Petty's non-descript recording studio serving as the portal to riches. The funny thing is, nobody got rich except for Petty, but more on that later. Norman Petty was born in Clovis, a natural musician and entertainer, he was working as a disc jockey by the time he was fourteen years old. In the early 1950's Norm and his new bride, Vi, started performing in Clovis and the surrounding area. This led to a job in Dallas with the Liberty Network, which led to the young couple playing at various venues throughout North Texas and Oklahoma. The Norm Petty Trio was formed when Jack Vaughn joined them, this was followed by their first hit, a recording of the standard "Moon Indigo." They then followed up with two hit songs composed by Petty, "Almost Paradise" (which was covered by Roger Williams) and "The First Kiss."
While the Trio's success was moderate, Norm did make enough money to return to Clovis and open his own recording studio. The original idea was to record The Norm Petty Trio, eliminating the expense of paying for studio time, a pennywise Petty described his feelings about commercial studios; "You keep watching the clock and realize that every extra minute you take is costing you money." The irony of Norm's statement would not be lost on the rock and roll musicians under his thumb in the near future. News about the studio in Clovis spread word of mouth, before long young musicians from the plains region would beat a path to Norm Petty's recording studio. Amongst the first to find their way to Norm's doorstep were The Teen Kings, from Vernon, Tx., they were led by Roy Orbison, who would come to be regarded as one of the greatest vocalist in popular music. The band recorded "Ooby Dooby" and a cover of the Clover's "Trying to Get to You." A West Texas record dealer with contacts in Memphis, played"Ooby Dooby" over the telephone for Sam Phillips, who immediately signed Orbison to Sun Records. Before leaving for Tennessee, Roy Orbison recommended Petty's studio to another group of young Texas rockers, The Rhythm Orchids. This was a talented bunch that featured both Buddy Knox of Happy, Tx. and Jimmy Bowen ( who was born in Santa Rita, N.M.) The group recorded three songs at Petty's studio, including "Party Doll" by Knox and Bowen's "I'm Stickin' By You", Petty released the tracks as a double-sided single. Roulette Records signed both artists, split the single, with both songs then selling over a million copies. Norman Petty was now a force to be reckoned with in the music business.
At the time that Norman Petty and Buddy Holly crossed paths, it can be said with certainty that Holly needed Petty more than vice versa. Norm was riding high on his own musical success and that of the artists he had recorded and produced, Buddy was still a work in progress. Born in Lubbock, Buddy had started in music at an early age, by the time he entered high school he was part of a successful music duo with Bob Montgomery. Buddy and Bob played what they called "Western and Bop", with Montgomery handling the lead vocals. In 1955, Buddy teamed up with Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and Don Guess, opening shows in Lubbock for Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. Towards the end of 1955, he caught the attention of Nashville talent scouts and was offered a recording contract with Decca Records. In January,1956, Holly arrived in Nashville to work with famed country producer Owen Bradley. Buddy recorded a number of tracks including an early version of "That'll be the Day" and "Cindy Lou" later renamed "Peggy Sue". His first single "Blue Days, Black Nights" tanked and he rapidly lost his enthusiasm for the Music City. The Nashville way of doing things had rubbed him the wrong way, for starters, Owen Bradley would not allow Buddy to play the guitar while singing and the session players did not click with Holly or his band. The sessions held at the famed Quonset Hut were chaotic with Webb Pierce popping in at one point to offer his opinion. To add insult to injury, his last name "Holley" was misspelled on the record label as Holly, although Buddy would continue to use Holly for the rest of his career.
So it was that Buddy found his way to Clovis to record for Norm Petty, at first they were a good match, as both loved to tinker with different sounds and effects. Buddy and the band now made up of Niki Sullivan (guitar), Joe B. Mauldin (bass), and Jerry Allison (drums) recorded tracks at Petty's Studio including a new version of "That will Be the Day." However, there was a slight legal problem, Buddy had signed an agreement with Decca not to record or release new versions of the songs he recorded in Nashville for a period of five years. Norm Petty came up with a way to get around this, he credited the song to "The Crickets" (they chose this over The Beetles) He then offered the masters to Roulette Records, who passed, saying that the group sounded too much like Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen who were already on the label. Roulette did however offer to have Knox record "That'll be the Day." Holly quickly nixed any deal with Roulette, allowing Petty (now working as their manager and producer) to negotiate separate contracts for The Crickets with Brunswick Records and for Holly (as a solo artist) with Coral Records. Ironically both labels were subsidiaries of Decca, which had dumped Holly the year before and as mentioned, still held the rights to some of his songs. (At this point, I'll remind the readers that a few years later, Decca would also pass on The Beatles)
"That'll Be the Day" topped the charts in 1957 and made Buddy Holly an international music star. Holly and The Crickets toured extensively including concerts in the U.K. and Australia. His influence on the next generation of British musicians would become apparent in the following decade. Buddy then hit the charts with "Peggy Sue" followed by "Oh Boy" "Maybe Baby", "Rave On" and "Listen to Me." While most of Buddy Holly's songs are now considered hits or classics, in his lifetime he made it to number one just once with "That'll Be the Day" By early 1958, Buddy sensing that rockabilly was just a passing fad, was already moving towards a more mature style. The Crickets, who favored a more rocking sound were soon at odds with their lead singer. Holly's relationship with Norm Petty, became strained as they butted heads over Petty's failure to account for a large portion of Holly's earnings. Petty kept an apartment behind the studio that only the best selling acts could use, however there was a catch, in return they had to do chores for Norm and Vi. One day while Holly and The Crickets were between sessions at the studio, Norm Petty summoned them outside, there he handed Buddy a rake and told him to clean the yard, Buddy angrily threw the rake back at Petty and told him "I've made you enough money, you son of a bitch, so hire someone else to do it." their relationship quickly soured after that. The last straw would come when Norm insisted that Buddy include him as co-writer on songs Petty felt had been improved through his efforts
Buddy left for New York City, where he got married and continued to work on developing a new sound. Evidence of which can be heard on the tracks he recorded during his final recording sessions (with Dick Jacobs producing). The songs included "Early in the Morning", "Moondreams" (first recorded by the Norm Petty Trio) Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" and "True Love Ways" (on which Norm is credited as co-writer). Shortly after that Buddy broke from Petty and the Crickets. (who wanted to stay in Lubbock) Norman Petty never one to let a dollar slip out of his hand, soon hauled Buddy into court for breach of contract. It was this pending litigation that left Holly strapped for cash, forcing him to hit the road in the middle of a terrible winter. Signing on as a headliner for the ill-fated Winter Dance Party, Buddy reached out to Lubbock for a back-up band, Tommy Allsup (guitar) Waylon Jennings (bass) and Carl Bunch (drums) met up with him for the start of the tour. Touring the mid-west in the dead of winter in buses with little or no heat took a toll on the musicians. When they reached Clear Lake, Iowa Holly chartered a Cessna to fly himself and the band to Fargo, N.D. after the concert. Waylon Jennings graciously gave up his seat to J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson who was sick with the flu. Tommy Allsup was to be the third person on the tragic flight, but after being pestered all day by Ritchie Valens to give up his seat, he agreed to flip for it, with Valens winning the toss. Allsup then informed Buddy that Ritchie was going in his place and handed Buddy his wallet, so he could pick up Tommy's mail at the Moorhead, Mn. post office. The plane went down in a cornfield shortly after take-off, pilot error and inexperience plus poor weather conditions were cited as the primary factors in the crash.
Carl Bunch was suffering from a case of frostbite that landed him in the hospital, so Valens sat in on drums for Holly after Buddy sat in on drums for Valens earlier that fateful evening at the Surf Ballroom. For years afterward Waylon Jennings blamed himself for Buddy's demise. After he gave up his seat on the plane, Holly remarked to Waylon "I hope your old bus freezes up" to which Waylon responded "Yeah, well I hope your old plane crashes." Tommy's wallet was found in the wreckage, thus the initial reports of the accident listed him as a passenger. Buddy's handgun was also found, leading to wild speculation that a struggle had taken place on board, when in fact the pilot Roger Petersen, attempting to fly by instruments in the dark, simply flew the plane straight into the ground.
With Buddy Holly the music truly had died, while The Big Bopper was just a gimmick act, Ritchie Valens, like Buddy was a musical visionary, who was just starting to get a sense of what he could accomplish. Eddie Cochran who successfully mixed high energy rockabilly with tales of teenage angst, would also die within a year. (Gene Vincent was seriously injured in the same accident) Elvis had been drafted and was in Germany with the U.S. Army, the Beatles were still human jukeboxes in Hamburg while Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard were already on the south side of success. Payola had reared it's ugly head, taking down Allen Freed, the disc jockey who was in part responsible for the rise of rock and roll. Meanwhile, across the country a backlash against rock and roll music was starting to pick up speed. However, it was business as usual for Norm Petty, only now he was faced with the task of finding another artist to work with. One of the first to answer the call was a Mexican-American singer from Dallas, Trini Lopez. Trini had met Buddy Holly the year before and had taken Holly's advice to "Go see my producer in Clovis" Lopez and his band piled into a station wagon and motored west. Once they arrived at Petty's Studio much to Trini's dismay, Petty told him "He wouldn't put out any records with a greaser singing vocals." Norm also refused to put Trini's name on the label, the group did record some instrumentals, which Petty released as "The Big Beats." Once back in Dallas and still seething from the slights he incurred, Lopez took his band mates to task for not supporting him, he then fired them and formed a new band. Trini of course would go on to sell millions of records, including huge hits with "If I Had a Hammer", "Lemon Tree" and "Never Make a Pretty Woman Your Wife." Norm's racist views cost him dearly in that case, but many people also feel that his racism drove a wedge between Buddy Holly and himself after Buddy married Maria Elena Santiago. Not that Petty was concerned with such trivial matters, he was looking for something new to push on the music buying public and he would soon find it.
Hailing from Raton,N.M., The Fireballs were a precursor to the surf and hot rod instrumental groups that would soon dominate the American music scene. George Tomsco, the lead guitarist and vocalist Chuck Tharp were the creative force behind the band. In the fall of 1958, The Fireballs drove to Clovis for an audition with Norm Petty. He liked what he heard and penciled them in for a recording session that produced "Fireball" and "I Don't Know" (with vocals by Tharp). Released on Kapp Records in January, 1959, the single fizzled out, but it did earn the band a return trip to Norm Petty's studio. The following sessions would produce a string of hits for The Fireballs, all instrumentals. "Torquay", "Bulldog" and "Vaquero." Next Petty negotiated a contract with Top Rank Records, a British based label looking to break into the U.S. market. Released in 1960, all three of their singles would chart, culminating with their first appearance on American Bandstand. Their next single "Quite a Party" released on Warwick Records in 1961, would be the band's last chart hit for two years. The Fireballs continued to work with Petty, in fact they stayed with him longer than any other artist or band. In 1963 Norm Petty took a song written by Keith McCormack (of the String-A-Longs) and carefully crafted it for The Fireballs and their new vocalist Jimmy Gilmer. That song "Sugar Shack" released on Dot Records was a monster, it shot up the charts to number one, where it stayed for five consecutive weeks. "Sugar Shack" would sell over 1.5 million copies (the best selling single of 1963). Most of the credit goes to Norm Petty, who took a band that was more or less a poor man's version of The Ventures and re-invented them as a sunshine pop group. But Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs weren't done yet, after a long dry spell, Norm got them back on the charts with a raucous cover of Tom Paxton's "Bottle of Wine" which made the US Top 10 when it was released on ATCO Records in 1967. Thus capping a great run of success for a band that started out playing at a high school talent show.
By 1960 instrumentals were all the rage, and The String-A-Longs an instrumental group from Plainview, Tx. was the perfect vehicle for Norm to cash in on this new fad. He had them record "Wheels" (a song he had written) and the song took off, peaking at #3 on U.S. charts. The song was also an international hit, selling over a million copies and was covered by numerous musicians, including Billy Vaughn (who also had a huge hit with it). The group toured tirelessly but received no money from Petty to stay on the road. Aubrey deCordova a member of the group explained their situation; "We paid all our expenses on tours, yet he got 50% of record sales. He would not let us buy a new station wagon to tour in, but made us take my car on our first promotion tour" The band members waited for their big payday, but it never came, de Cordova would later lament: "We were under age, and he had our power of attorney, so I don't really know what all went on, but I know we had a record that was a hit all over the world, and we received very little money for it." Keith McCormack (who had the unlikely job of lead vocalist for an instrumental band) talked about the lack of compensation; "He (Norm) bought jewelry stores, radio stations, and spent a ton on a new studio that was hardly recorded in while the artists went without." The group would continue to labor for Petty, but never managed another hit on the scale of "Wheels." After their label Warwick Records, which still owed them thousands of dollars went bust, Norm landed them a contract with Dot Records, but for the String-A-Longs, the hits had dried up long before that.
Norman Petty has his detractors and his defenders, his skills in the studio and his knack for finding talent cannot be denied. Keith McCormack knew the man was gifted: "He was a musical genius and very creative, though stubborn. He could have had even more hits had he been willing to follow the trends a little closer; however, the hits he did have were giants." Unfortunately, his tendency to mistreat musicians bordered on the pathological. He routinely left them waiting outside in their cars for hours, he even had outhouses behind the studio for them to use. When asked by an interviewer if Petty treated musicians fairly, Keith McCormack answered emphatically: "No! Norman was not fair to anyone" McCormack who is very candid in his opinion of Petty added: "Personally, I think he walked that thin line between a genius and an idiot. Some days he would be on one side of the line, the next day on the other." Aubrey deCordova of the String-A-Longs observed that "In the beginning, he was very respected in the industry, but toward the end I'm told, he couldn't get an appointment with hardly anyone in the business." Norm Petty always seemed to hold the artists he worked with in contempt, for the most part he didn't see them worthy of making large amounts of money. Through the time tested method of including himself in the songwriting credits and other dubious business practices, he had padded his bank accounts at the expense of the musicians he was producing and recording. Ultimately, history will be much kinder to Norman Petty than he was to the young men that helped make him rich and famous.