Crickets Keep Chirping

Posted February 1, 2008
Courtesy: Bill Dahl, Goldmine

Had it not been for the Crickets, there might not have been any Beatles.

At least under that name, for not only was Buddy Holly's legendary band a primary musical influence on the Fab Four, their moniker was a direct inspiration.

"That's what Paul McCartney told us, so we believe it," said Crickets drummer and co-founder Jerry Allison (who prefers answering to J.I.). Allison, bassist Joe B. Mauldin, and lead guitarist Sonny Curtis were calling from Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Mo., where they'd just settled in for a week of performances.

It's unheard of for a rock band to endure for a half century. Yet the Crickets have done it, paying homage to their late comrade Buddy Holly while retaining their own identity. They were West Texas teens when Elvis Presley rolled into Lubbock in early 1955. "When he came through town, everybody really did turn their heads. Buddy Holly wanted to be Elvis there for a while," said Allison. "He changed everybody around, so everybody started doing Elvis songs.

"Wasn't any fishin' holes. Wasn't too much to do, so everybody stened to the radio and played music," said Allison, born August 31, 1938 in Hillsboro, Texas. "We listened to a radio station out of Shreveport called KWKH. There was a rock and roll show, and at night we'd listen to that, Fats Domino and that sort of thing."

"I got started real young," said Sonny, born May 9, 1937 in Meadow, Texas, 30 miles south of Lubbock. "I loved Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. And my uncles, one of 'em, Edd Mayfield, was a great guitar player who had a tremendous influence on me. He actually played with Bill Monroe in like '56, '57, somewhere in there. But he was a big influence on me. My two older brothers played guitar and fiddle, so I learned to play those.

"We were doing mostly country music, and of course we were all playing with various bands in various clubs and all that and whatever in Lubbock with whoever," said Curtis. "Buddy and Bob Montgomery and Don Guess, who was the bass player at that time, and J.I. and me, when Elvis came through town, well, the next day, we started kind of doing Elvis songs. Scotty Moore played kind of a Chet Atkins lick sort of thing, and I was a big Chet Atkins fan. And I didn't know all of his stuff, but I knew how to play that lick. So I had Scotty's lick down the next day. And Buddy, we started playing 'Baby Let's Play House' and 'Good Rockin' Tonight' and 'That's All Right Mama' and all those things."

"I went to a football game when I was about in fifth grade, and I just thought, 'Well, I can do that!'" said J.I. "I started playing in the school band, you know, playing marching drums and all that, so I guess that's the basis. And I tried to copy Little Richard's drummer in that movie The Girl Can't Help It. I just listened to old rock and roll records. I guess everybody tries to copy somebody, but it was part of the marching band feel and high school concert band.

"Joe B. Mauldin and I met in high school, and Buddy and I met in junior high. It was sort of a little music community," said J.I. "I played some joints around Texas that Buddy's folks were a little more touchy about him playing, so he didn't work those joints as much. He'd come out and sit in. Lubbock was a dry county, and you couldn't buy booze in that county or anywhere around there. But people could come to these places and bring their own booze.

"I was playing places like that, and Buddy'd come out and sit in. And we'd just really enjoy playing together. That was the pre-Elvis days, with '40 Cups Of Coffee,' Bill Haley, and some of that kind of stuff. I can't remember what all we did. And we enjoyed playing together and started hanging out pretty regularly, listening to the radio and swapping records and listening to each other's records."

Decca A&R man Paul Cohen signed Holly in January of '56. "Eddie Crandall, actually, who was a road manager for Marty Robbins, heard us play out in Lubbock, and he's the one that sort of got that started," said Sonny. With Curtis and Guess backing, Holly cut four sides at Owen Bradley's Nashville studio, "Blue Days, Black Nights" chosen as his debut. "They mainly just turned on the microphone," said Sonny. Decca brought them back in July, this time with Allison on drums, to wax the Curtis original "Rock Around With Ollie Vee."

"My dad was a cotton farmer out in Meadow," he said. "A guy named Willie Robertson, a black guy that worked for my dad, his wife's name was Ollie Vee. Which had nothing to do with the song, but I just used her name. I was just a teenager, you know. I was just trying to write something that sounded kind of Bill Haley-ish."

Also cut that day was the original version of "That'll Be The Day." "We saw a movie, a John Wayne movie called The Searchers," said Allison. "And John Wayne said 'That'll be the day!' about five times. So it was sort of the hip thing to be saying. And Buddy and I were practicing one day, and Buddy said, 'Let's write a song!' I said, 'That'll be the day!' And he said, 'That might be a good idea!' So we sort of just wrote it. I think it took about 30 minutes."

The Decca brass wasn't impressed. "I think somebody at that session that was in charge said that was the worst song they'd ever heard!" laughed Allison. It was shelved, and neither Curtis nor Allison was invited to Buddy's final Decca date. His second single didn't sell either, and the label declined his option. But Buddy and J.I. weren't deterred. They headed west to Norman Petty's Clovis, N.M. studio in late February of '57. Curtis was gone, Holly taking over as lead guitarist and local lad Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar. "We were just all hanging around the drive-ins, and we'd known Niki from high school," said Allison. "He had a guitar and he liked Chuck Berry. We said, 'Hey, come play along with us!'" Along with Larry Welborn on bass, they cut Buddy's classic version of "That'll Be The Day."

"I sure like the second one better, 'cause Buddy lowered the key," said J.I. "When we recorded 'That'll Be The Day,' we actually rented the studio to do a demo, and he just miked everything, and we just played it. I think we just did it a couple times, 'cause we were gonna send the demo to Roulette and try to get on the same label as Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen and the Rhythm Orchids.

"It cost $15 to record 'That'll Be The Day.'Anyway, we sent that demo to New York. It ended up that Bob Thiele at Brunswick Records said, 'Well, let's just put that demo out!'"

Since Holly had already waxed the song for Decca, he couldn't do it again under his own name for Brunswick. So the boys devised an alias. "There was a group out of New Orleans called the Spiders," said J.I. "They had a record called 'Witchcraft,' and we liked that record real good. And we said, 'Okay, let's be insects!' I think we actually got a dictionary out and looked under insects, or some book of mine, maybe an encyclopedia or something, and went down the list and said, 'Ah, Crickets! They chirp and all that stuff.' And actually, there was a lot of crickets around that year in Texas. So we said, 'Yeah, we'll be the Crickets!'"

Shortly after that historic Clovis session, Joe B. came into the fold. "They were going over to New Mexico," Mauldin said. "They had a job booked over there. And they needed a bass player, and I just happened to have a bass. I was playing with another group at the time. I had bought a bass for myself, and they just came and asked if I wanted to go play a job with 'em. I said, 'Sure!' So anyway, on the way back, going home that night after we had finished the dance that we played, they just asked if I wanted to be a permanent member of the Crickets."

Lubbock rocker Terry Noland had gotten Joe B. started on bass. "I was over at Terry's house one day, and he said, 'Man, I wrote a song last night! You want to hear it?'" said Mauldin, born July 8, 1939. "I said, 'Sure!' So he grabbed his guitar and played the song, and I said, 'Hey, that's really nice, man!' And he had a bass standing in the corner of his bedroom that he had borrowed from the school, and I said, 'Well, shoot--show me how to play that and I'll play along with you!' So he showed me three chords on the bass, and we went through the song.

"I had seen Buddy and J.I. both around Lubbock, and Don Guess was playing bass with them at the time, and Bob Montgomery was playing with them. They were doing shows all around Lubbock. I had seen them work at a lot of different shows there in Lubbock, so I knew them. And of course, J.I. and I met in high school, and we shared some classes together." Mauldin had previously played in the Four Teens with Noland and Welborn. For the Crickets' next Clovis trek, Joe B. brought along his ballad "Last Night." "I had been doing that with the group I was working with earlier," he said. "Buddy liked it, Norman liked it, and they just said, 'Well, shoot, let's record that too!'" "Last Night" ended up on their The Chirping Crickets LP.

Thiele's decision to release material on Brunswick under the Crickets name and on Coral as by Holly meant a lot of great songs emerged in a short time spotlighting Buddy's brilliance as a composer. His "Words Of Love" on Coral made groundbreaking use of overdubbing. "Les Paul and Mary Ford did a lot of that, and Buddy really liked Mickey & Sylvia, like the guitar parts on all of that," said J.I. "He'd sit around and listen to 'Love Is Strange.' He wrote 'Words Of Love' and 'Listen To Me' with it in mind to overdub another guitar part, another harmony."

Coral also marketed the immortal "Peggy Sue" as a Holly solo effort. "I had a girlfriend named Peggy Sue," said J.I.. "Buddy, he had a song started called 'Cindy Lou.' It sort of had a Latin feel. I talked him into changing it to 'Peggy Sue.'" Allison's thundering drums were as integral as Holly's hiccupped vocal and thrashing guitar. "There's a record by Jaye P. Morgan called 'That's All I Want From You.' And the B-side’Äìback in those days, you listened to both sides’Äìshe had a record called 'Dawn.' And there was a tympani. It was playing the same sort of feel," said Allison. "I don't think the guy was playing paradiddles particularly. But paradiddles on drums is just a practice rudiment. So I just played that on that."

For the tender flip "Everyday," J.I. didn't go near his set. "Joe B. was learning the bass part, and I was just sittin' there, I was patting my knees. So Norman Petty just miked that," said Allison. A month later, Brunswick unleashed a killer Crickets two-sider. "Oh, Boy!" was written by Texans Sonny West and Bill Tilghman, while Buddy wrote "Not Fade Away." "We just had a demo that they had recorded at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis," noted J.I. of "Oh, Boy!" "We listened to that and pretty well did it like they did it, with the same feel."

In December of '57, the Crickets guested on The Ed Sullivan Show, tearing through "That'll Be The Day" and "Peggy Sue." "It actually wasn't that pleasant of an experience, because those people were a lot more concerned with how it looked than how it sounded," said Allison. "They didn't like rock and roll." Niki had quit to do his own thing by the time they encored on Sullivan's TV variety program the following month, performing "Oh, Boy!"

Though "I'm Gonna Love You Too" was issued as another solo outing, the Crickets were definitely present’Äìreal ones! "There was a cricket in the echo chamber, and we tried and tried to find it and get it out of there," said co-writer Mauldin. "We went ahead and recorded the tune, and on the end of it, he was in tempo with the tune! Norman left four chirps on the end of it."

"Maybe Baby" made it three Crickets smashes in a row. "I believe that was Buddy Holly's mom's idea," said J.I. "We used to do 'Money Honey' all the time. In fact, I think Buddy Holly taught Elvis Presley that song, the old Clyde McPhatter song. Anyway, I think Buddy's mom liked that and said, 'Hey, why don't you write one called "Maybe Baby?'"

"Rave On" was one of their rowdiest rockers and came out under Buddy's name; co-writer West had already cut it for Atlantic, but Holly enjoyed the hit. Allison co-authored the next Crickets single, "Think It Over." "I think Norman Petty actually wrote part of that one," he said. "We were just sittin' around writing songs, and it got changed up quite a bit from how I had it started. I always liked it, and we sort of went back to the 'That'll Be The Day' swing feel, instead of the straight-eights 'Maybe Baby' feel on that."

Buddy ceded lead guitar duties to Clovis house musician Tommy Allsup on "It's So Easy." "He was from Oklahoma and played in swing bands," noted Allison. "He was a little older than us and played a different way, which changed the feel some from what we was into. But he sure played some good solos." This last Holly-fronted Crickets single inexplicably avoided the charts altogether. The crisp axe of Allsup, briefly a Cricket himself, also graced Buddy's Latin-flavored "Heartbeat," paired on Coral with the sublime "Well...All Right."

"We had been with Little Richard, and he said, 'Well all right, all right, all right!'" said co-writer Mauldin. "So we were just always teasing each other about acting like Little Richard, and Buddy was playing this guitar riff. And I said, 'Hey, that sounds great! Man, we ought to write something with that!'"

Under the sobriquet of Ivan (his middle name), J.I. sang the upbeat novelty "Real Wild Child" with the Crickets and scored a mild hit for Coral. "We did a tour in Australia with Jerry Lee Lewis and Paul Anka and some people in '58," he said. "There was a fellow there named Johnny O'Keefe, and he had a number one record at the time, which was 'Wild Child.' I think he called it 'Wild One.' So we learned it during that period. We got to be good friends. Then we just came back and cut it, with me singing sort of for a joke, just 'cause we liked the song." He's not as charitable towards his Ivan encore "Frankie Frankenstein," terming it "pretty bad."

Holly moved to New York in the fall of '58 with his new bride. "We discussed it with Buddy, and we were gonna stay around Texas and that area and not move to New York and work as the Crickets, and he was gonna work as Buddy Holly," said J.I.. "We had made a deal that if it didn't work out, we'd all get back together. You know, we were all having a good time, hangin' around and playing a few gigs. It got hard when Buddy got killed. We started working with the Everly Brothers and didn't do Crickets stuff for about a year."

Allison's distinctive rolls graced the Everlys' smash "('Til) I Kissed You." "When we were in England in '58, Premier made me a set of drums," he said. "I said I'd like to have a 16 and 18-inch floor tom. Sonny and Joe B. and I were playing, we spent a lot of time in '59 backing up the Everly Brothers. Went to Nashville to record with 'em, and I wanted to use those toms. I think that's probably almost the first set of floor toms, it was the only time I ever had that combination of floor toms. But I was wanting to use 'em. I loved that song. I think between Don and Phil and all of us, we all sort of came with up, 'Okay, you can play those tom-toms in this spot.' So I played that’Äìevery time they said, 'I kissed you,' I'd go 'whomp-whomp!'"

Curtis returned upon Holly's departure, having written Webb Pierce's hit "Someday" in the interim. "I went out on the road with Slim Whitman and played with him for awhile, played lead guitar for a while. Then I moved up to Colorado Springs and joined a little trio," he said. "I got a deal to record for Dot Records in New York. Those records were pretty bad. I just used New York musicians. So anyway, then I came back home. I was always friends and hangin' out with Joe B. and J.I. and Buddy and all that. When Buddy moved to New York, I guess that was summer of '58 or near fall or whenever that was when J.I. called and said, 'Hey, man, how about coming back into the Crickets?' And I said, 'Okey-dokey!'"

The Clovis connection only produced one Brunswick single cut in late '58, a rendition of Holly and Bob Montgomery's "Love's Made A Fool Of You," that featured new Crickets lead singer Earl Sinks (it proved a British hit but missed stateside). In May of '59, they journeyed to New York to begin work on their only Coral LP. They were a little short on fresh material, but Sonny had a little ditty handy called "I Fought The Law."

"I was just sittin' in my living room one afternoon. I was by myself. I remember it was one of those West Texas sandstormy afternoons, and I was just always trying to write a song, just for the fun of it mostly. And I wrote that in probably 20 minutes," he said. "I wrote it as a country song, and when we recorded it in New York for In Style With the Crickets, we needed rock and roll. So I transcribed it to a rock and roll song with that eights feel, and J.I. put those gunshot licks on the front with his triplet lick. All of a sudden, voila’Äìit was a rock and roll song!" His guitar solo was copied lick for lick by the Bobby Fuller Four on their smash remake.

Sonny and J.I. penned both sides of the Crickets' next Brunswick single, "Deborah" b/w "When You Ask About Love." "That was J.I.'s niece we wrote about," said Curtis. "Her name was Deborah." Sinks was gone by the start of 1960. "He sort of wanted to be out on his own, and we were sort of in between jobs at the time," noted Allison. "We moved to L.A., and he stayed in Texas." That meant Sonny would front "More Than I Can Say," another collaboration with J.I. later successfully revived by Bobby Vee.

"J.I. and I wrote that on the way to New York City. Just riding along in the back seat of a car. We always carried a little old guitar with us, a little Guild," said Curtis. "It was kind of funny, because we were driving along, and we'd say, 'Whoa-whoa, yay-yay,' and we'd say, 'What can we put there?' We didn't realize that was our hook. And when we got to the studio, we just said, 'Aw, heck with it,' you know? Went ahead and sang it like we wrote it." Sonny wrote the opposite side, "Baby My Heart," the 45 this time on Coral.

Having relocated to Los Angeles, J.I. and Sonny played on Eddie Cochran's "Cut Across Shorty" for Liberty. "That was actually the last session that Eddie did. He went to England shortly after that, and we were in England after that, in April of '60," said Allison. "We saw Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent just a few days before Eddie was killed." Curtis was drafted that June, but Army life couldn't stifle his creativity.

"I was in basic training, and one Sunday afternoon in I believe they call that the day room or something, they just had a real old bad beat-up guitar, it was from Sears Roebuck, I guess," he said. "I was plunking around that old guitar, and I wrote 'Walk Right Back.' And I actually had the lick in the front, but I just incorporated that lick into the song. It fit real nicely, I thought.

"I was in Fort Ord, Calif., and I went down to L.A. And J.I. was living down there, and he and I went over to see the Everly Brothers. And I sang that to Don. And Don called Phil and said, 'Man, listen to this song!' They kind of worked up the harmony and started singing it. Said, 'Man, write another verse and we'll record that!' I was transferred then to Fort Garden, Ga., and I wrote a second verse during my leave time at home. I went home to Texas and then I wrote a second verse. When I got to Fort Garden, I mailed it to them, and I got a letter after I mailed it to them. I got a letter from J.I. the next day saying, 'Man, the Everlys cut your song yesterday!' So they just didn't get the second verse in time. They sang the same one twice."

Old pal Snuff Garrett was in charge at Liberty. "We had known him back in Texas. He had been a disc jockey in Lubbock," said Allison. "When Sonny and Joe B. and I moved out there, we were hanging out with him. He was working for Liberty, and got us a deal with Liberty.

"I think Snuff really liked those Buddy Holly tunes that (Buddy) recorded at the Pythian Temple in New York with a big string section, like 'It Doesn't Matter Anymore' and 'True Love Ways,'" said J.I. "Bobby Vee and Johnny Burnette split a session. Each of them did two songs. I was playing drums. Bobby recorded one of Sonny's songs called 'My Love Loves Me,' and we recorded 'Dreamin' with Johnny Burnette."

Released in late 1961, the playful Allison-penned "He's Old Enough To Know Better" was the Crickets' Liberty debut. "It had all the strings and all that stuff," said J.I. "Bobby Vee and I and a fellow named Cliff Crofford sang that." Vee contributed the flip, "I'm Feeling Better." "I started out singing a couple of lines, and they finally said, 'Yo! Get in the corner and get away from that microphone!' And Bobby did the singing."

Vee handed the Crickets their encore, "Don't Ever Change," a Gerry Goffin/Carole King opus that proved a huge British hit. Allison provided the B-side, "I'm Not A Bad Guy." "Glen Campbell plays the lead guitar on that," he said. "It was fun back then, 'cause you'd just write a song and go cut it. We probably lived six blocks from the studio or something, and Liberty was pretty lenient: 'Sure, go record if you want to!'" Curtis returned from the service, and singer Jerry Naylor joined the ranks. "He was from West Texas, so it all sort of fit in," said Allison. Also new to the Crickets was pianist Glen D. Hardin.

Liberty paired two of its top acts for the LP Bobby Vee Meets the Crickets; "Someday (When I'm Gone From You)" was pulled as a Vee B-side. Curtis conjured up "Parisian Girl" for the Crickets. "I wrote that because I was stationed in France for 16-17 months," said Sonny, who also wrote their rocking "My Little Girl." "When we recorded it, J.I., I think he kind of used a paradiddle lick, like the 'Peggy Sue' lick, and then I played that real fast Chet lick on the acoustic guitar," said Curtis. "It seemed to work real well."

The Crickets performed "My Little Girl" and its flip "Teardrops Fall Like Rain" in the '63 British film Just For Fun. "J.I. wasn't in it because that was during that Cuban crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, and he couldn't go," said Sonny. "So Glen D. Hardin and Jerry Naylor and I went to England on that Bobby Vee Meets the Crickets tour. And they just got us out of bed early one morning and took us to this recording studio, and we lip-synched our two records."

British fans made the Curtis/Allison-penned "Don't Try To Change Me" another hit there in the summer of '63, but their "April Avenue" and a surging revival of Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue" missed on both continents. With Buzz Cason at the helm, "(They Call Her) La Bamba" fared better in Britain. "Buzz Cason and I wrote that to sort of get in on the surfing craze," said J.I., who returned to Clovis to cut the Crickets' last Liberty 45s with Cason. But "I Think I've Caught The Blues" and "Now Hear This" couldn't lick the onslaught of the British Invasion. "I was in Texas to save my marriage, I think is why I moved there. It didn't work, by the way," said J.I. "Sonny was in L.A. and I was in Texas, and Joe B. was in Wichita Falls.

"Anyway, we sort of quit doing it then. Also, when the British Invasion came, we couldn't get work hardly. We had to go to England to get a job."

Curtis cut his own '64 Imperial album, Beatle Hits Flamenco Style. "Snuff was getting a divorce, and he moved in with me. I had an apartment over in Hollywood," he said. "One evening he came home from work, and I had a little gut-string guitar, and I was playing 'She Loves You.' I just did it flamenco guitar style. And Snuff said, 'That's really good! Let's record it and do an album.'"

Sonny scored a 1966 country hit as a singer with his "My Way Of Life" for Garrett's Viva label. " I wrote 'My Way Of Life' for Dean Martin," he said. "He cut 'Houston' instead. So I went in the studio and got me two violins and a viola, and I did the arrangement. And Snuff said, 'Man, let's put that on a record, and we'll do an album!'" That LP, The 1st of Sonny Curtis, sported nice versions of "I Fought The Law," "Walk Right Back," and "A Fool Never Learns," which had been a hit for Andy Williams (the Crickets cut it in 1964). Three more Viva singles also dented the C&W charts. But it's unlikely any Curtis copyright reached more ears than "Love Is All Around," better known as The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme.

There hasn't been a long stretch when some lineup of Crickets hasn't been in action. Barnaby released their 1971 album Rockin' 50's Rock & Roll. Joe B. returned to the group after working as an engineer at L.A.'s Gold Star Recording Studios, and there was an extended hookup with a Lubbock-connected hellraiser named Waylon Jennings.

"We moved to Tennessee, Joe B. and Sonny and I all moved about the same (time). I moved about '76. We had done some recording with Waylon in L.A. in early '72, I think, along about there. He used to come to town, and we'd get together and record," said Allison. "We never did get the album finished, so he decided to put some of the tunes out on that I've Always Been Crazy album. He called and said, 'Hey, you want to go on the road and promote that album?' We said, 'Sure!' And we ended up being on the road with him for about five years."

Sonny relaunched his solo career with seven country hits from 1979 to '81 for Elektra (notably "The Real Buddy Holly Story," cleverly addressing misconceptions caused by Holly's then-recent film bio), so J.I. and Joe B. hired Gordon Payne as Crickets front man and hit late '80s paydirt with "T-Shirt," featuring the piano and backing vocal of Paul McCartney.

The Crickets are still chirping.

"We still love to do it," said Allison. "Being on the road is harder, of course, than it was 50 years ago.

"It has been and is a good life. Rock and roll has been very good to us."

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