Buddy Holly & I Had A Mentor (The Untold Story Of Norman Petty)
Many music fans across the world know Buddy Holly as a brilliant 22 year old singer/songwriter but few know the true story between Buddy Holly and his mentor Norman Petty.
Norman was Buddy’s co-writer of choice as you will see if you look at any Buddy Holly records, CD’s or tapes today or yesterday. Much to Maria Elena’s discontent those writing credits remain even after Norman’s death. Norman was also Buddy’s favorite producer/engineer and manager.
When a quick trick was needed on a song like “Peggy Sue”, Norman rode the send control on the rack toms in and out of the echo chamber (live) while the boys layed down the song. That’s what gives the song it’s unique flavor. For the most part people probably assume that J.I. Allison is just some kind of amazing drummer. However time and time again it was little studio tricks like that that gave Buddy’s songs their magical flavor thanks to Norman. Keep in mind this was all done in the late 50’s during the early and mostly primitive period of recording technology. This was all tube gear…all mono with usually only one overdub available thanks to Norman’s pioneering techniques. Yes indeed, Buddy had to be super talented to pull most of this off with his group The Crickets mostly “live” in studio, however, it was Norman’s cool expertise and hands that were on those controls. In those days, the controls consisted of big knobs that turned right or left. They were not faders as most musicians have seen and used today. This took the study hand of a master at the controls of a ship like engineering booth to obtain the clean and timeless recordings that Norman Petty captured with Buddy & The Crickets. Just take a listen today for the proof.
One of Norman’s favorite studio musicians was close at hand to help out Buddy and the boys any time they needed keyboards on a track. Her name was Vi Petty and she was Norman’s wife. Buddy and the boys called her “Aunt Pansy.” The celesta keyboard part you hear on “Everyday” was played by Vi which she later performed for any willing guest to the Clovis, New Mexico studios until her death in 1992. I know because I witnessed many of them myself while working at Norman’s old radio station(s) KWKA/KTQM as a news director.
You may ask yourself at this point…what does this Tim Otto guy know about Norman Petty and Buddy Holly? Please allow me to explain.
In the spring of 1983, I flew into Albuquerque, New Mexico to be greeted by my great uncle and aunt Ruth & Ivan Snipes of Clovis, New Mexico. Actually, I was on my way to Nashville with my guitar by my side. But first, I had a stop to make and an important man to meet back in Clovis. We drove the 200 hundred miles from my hometown Albuquerque where I was born approximately one month after Buddy’s death in 1959.
When I got to Clovis, it took no time at all before my great uncle introduced me to the great Norman Petty. I was only 23 and about half petrified even though Norman was a very kind gentleman. He agreed right away to listen to my tape before I went on to Nashville and so that’s just what happened. Norman spun around in his chair and said: “I’d like to publish three of your songs.” However, I hesitated, although flattered, because I thought I would hook some even bigger fish when I got to Nashville. So, I told Norman we’d stay in touch, thanked him and off I went to Nashville.
Ironically, as some of you probably know, Buddy Holly was also first produced in Nashville (unsuccessfully) before he worked with Norman. They just couldn’t capture the magic of Buddy Holly in Nashville even though they tried. No, not unlike me, Buddy had to learn things the hard way that it wasn’t Nashville that held the magic it was Norman Petty in little Clovis, New Mexico that could do the trick.
So for three months I stayed in touch with Norman as I walked up and down Music Row facing rejection after rejection. One day I called Norman and begged him to come back to Clovis. Not only was I not making any progress in Nashville, but, I hated it there. The dream merchants and myth makers were making little progress with this singer/songwriter.
To make a long story short, I returned to Clovis that summer and Norman published and produced me just like he did Buddy Holly in the late 50’s. It was really almost like paradise for me back there in Clovis with Norman. Then, something I really dislike talking about happened. Norman was diagnosed with cancer and basically my career in the music business was over. Oh, I went on to form some semi successful bands etc. but it wasn’t like the big time. I even returned to Nashville two more times to try my luck there again. Bummer, is all I can say about that!
So, to summarize our little story, Buddy was a big success in the music business who met with a now famous tragic end in Clear Lake, Iowa February 3, 1959. I was heartbroken, for the most part, but I did get to know the famous and magical Norman Petty just like Buddy had. Norman died after producing me. He died in Lubbock, Texas…Buddy’s hometown. And, I can say…we shared the same Mentor and I’m the last artist that Norman Petty produced.
A book containing the true story of Norman Petty is supposed to be in the works but after 20 years remains unfinished. And I would like to add, that I have never read a book about Buddy Holly that gave Norman Petty the credit he was due.