The singer's legacy is still alive and well on the 58th anniversary of his death.
Texas Tech University alumnus Randy Steele has been an avid Buddy Holly fan for nearly as long as he can remember. He still recalls hearing, as an 8-year-old in 1971, the line that would immortalize Holly's tragic death on Feb. 3, 1959.
"I think there's certain moments you can turn to and say, " This is when it happened.' For me, it was probably when Don McLean's song " American Pie' came out," he said. "There's a particular lyric in there that says, " I can't remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside the day the music died.' I was fascinated by term of " widowed bride.' That song has a plethora of references in it, but that particular part refers to Buddy Holly."
Thanks to McLean's song, Feb. 3 is known as The Day the Music Died, but Steele prefers not to think of it that way.
"I've never been one to refer to that song as " The Day the Music Died,'" he said. "That phrase has been put on a pedestal. It references Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) and pilot Roger Peterson, but that's a phrase most other people use. It's not a big one to me, because the music didn't die; it lives every day."
That's what Steele focuses on: the life of Buddy Holly. His fascination with the singer led him to start what he terms a "small but significant" collection of Holly memorabilia, ranging from a receipt for Holly's high school choir fee to the overnight bag Holly carried onto the plane on the last night of his life.
After "American Pie," one other bit of pop culture helped solidify Steele's interest in Buddy Holly.
"In 1978, the movie starring Gary Busey came out, " The Buddy Holly Story.' There's a lot of fans who love that movie and there's a lot who don't; it's pretty polarizing," Steele said. "For me, it made the music come to life on screen. I saw it and all I wanted was to know more about his music."
Five years later, Steele arrived at Texas Tech to study marriage and family therapy. For him, it was a bonus just being able to go to college in the hometown of his music idol. Never would he have dreamed what was about to happen.
One day, Steele's roommate was out riding his bicycle and got a flat tire. Because those were before the days of cell phones, the roommate walked up to a house and asked to use the telephone to call Steele for a ride home. The homeowner led the young man to the hallway, where the phone was located. As Steele's roommate dialed the number, he looked up and saw on the wall a gold record for "Buddy Holly's Greatest Hits." He asked the man how he came to own such an important item and the man dropped a bombshell: "Buddy Holly was my brother."
Buddy was born Charles Hardin Holley, but when his last name was misspelled on his first recording contract, he changed it to Holly. The man talking to Steele's roommate was one of Buddy's older brothers, Travis Holley, who passed away in December at the age of 89.
Stunned, the young man told Holley, "Oh my gosh, you've got to meet my roommate."
"Before I could even think about it, we were over there having dinner," Steele said. "It started a friendship that lasted more than 30 years."
Starting a collection
Around the same time, Steele was introduced to Bill Griggs, known around the world as the authority on Buddy Holly. Thanks to their shared interest, they hit it off.
Griggs told Steele that with his passion, he should start collecting Holly memorabilia.
"That conversation transcended into him saying " I've got a check that Buddy Holly signed that I would sell to you,' and he showed me what it was," Steele said. "It was written June 18, 1958, from Norman Petty to Buddy Holly for $100. I turned over the back of the check and it had Buddy's signature on it. When I saw that, it felt like a bolt of lightning was in my hands, to know that Buddy had held this piece of paper and had signed it with his pen. That just started something; it did light a fire in me."
Steele began collecting paper memorabilia because it was easier to store. He found all kinds of documents from Holly's life and career: receipts for union dues, personal checks, professional checks, recording contracts, songwriter contracts, performance contracts and more. Over the decades, the collection has expanded to include some clothing and other items.
That feeling of holding a lightning bolt still remains.
"When I look at that stuff, when I pick it up even today, it still means a lot to me, knowing Buddy handled this," he said. "I have receipts from when he paid 25 cents for his choir fee in high school and for work he did for people around Lubbock or things he may have signed or a note. Most passionate collectors feel the same way when they hold whatever it is, that piece of paper or that article of clothing. You can get the feeling that most people don't. That's what makes it a fun hobby.
The hard part
It's not always fun though. Some of the things Steele has acquired are heart-wrenching.
"I own a tie bar, a pocket knife: just small things. I am now the owner of his overnight bag that was in the plane crash. Buddy carried it on the plane," Steele said. "It's surreal. There are items in there: a toothbrush, toothpaste, tanning lotion, deodorant, athletic tape, a broken comb and a brush that still has Buddy's hair in it. I don't know that it surprised me for those to survive the crash, but it saddens me in a way. There are photographs that show that bag in the snow near the plane wreckage.
"There is one item I have – a note from Buddy's mother to Buddy – that is probably the most meaningful; I can't imagine that I would ever part with it. It's a personal note written after his passing. That's really the most important part of the note. You can tell by the context of it, he was on her mind and it was written from a grieving mother to her deceased son."
The note came from the Holley family, who Steele has counted as friends for decades. It makes sense that they would keep such a sentimental family item. But for other pieces in the collection that hold less emotional attachment, such as the choir fee receipt, it can be surprising to find they still exist after so many years.
"In Buddy's case, we know he had an amazing but very short life, and it had a tragic end," Steele said. "These items – be it his guitar, his glasses, his receipts, whatever – he lives on through those. The fact that we're having a conversation about it almost 58 years to the day after his passing, it means that we've carried it on. We're keepers of the flame. Buddy lives on not only through his music but through these collections and through the conversations of fans."
Steele has traveled to Clear Lake, Iowa, to the Surf Ballroom – the site of Holly's last performance – for that very purpose: to meet, interact and enjoy the music with fellow Buddy Holly enthusiasts.
"I feel honored to be one of the keepers of the flame, but there are many of us," he said. "There are people in England, Australia, all over the U.S. and all over the world. When they play Buddy's music, they, too, are keepers of the flame."
There's one Holly-related location Steele doesn't plan to visit again.
"I have been out to the crash site, and I know people who like that pilgrimage," Steele said. "I say this with all love and respect: for me, the Buddy Holly story is not how he died; it's how he lived. That's really important to me, and that's what I like to concentrate on.
"Sonny Curtis has been a member of the Crickets for over 50 years; he knew Buddy and was friends with Buddy. Sonny said, " The levee ain't dry and the music didn't die, because Buddy Holly lives every time we play rock " n' roll.' I don't think it could possibly be said better."