JERRY ALLISON isn’t just one of the most influential drummers in rock ’n’ roll history — he was also a contributing songwriter to some of rock’’s greatest early songs, “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” co-written with Buddy Holly. Allison also co-wrote “Not Fade Away” with Holly, though it was credited to others.
Rolling Stone considers Allison one of the most innovative and copied drummers of all time — you can hear shades of Allison in Ringo Starr’s drumming for the Beatles and in Keith Moon’s chops for the Who. Allison was a trained percussionist who blended perfect timing and groove with Joe Mauldin on bass and Buddy Holly on guitar, creating the power trio. Never afraid to try something different, Allison played tom-toms, boxes and even his knees on some of the Crickets’ legendary hits. Allison now lives on a ranch in Nashville.
You were born in Hillsboro in 1939 and lived in Plainview for years.
I was actually born in Hill County. We moved near Plainview when I was 6 weeks old and lived in that area till we moved to Lubbock when I was 10.
When did you start playing drums?
I started in the fifth grade in Lubbock. I joined the grade school band, then junior high, then high school. I went to Texas Tech for 14 weeks and played in the college band. Buddy got us a job backing Hank Thompson and George Jones and others for two weeks. We traveled 6,000 miles in two weeks. I couldn’t stay in college.
How did you meet Buddy?
I saw him while I was in junior high, he was playing a show with Bob Montgomery as “Buddy and Bob.” We really didn’t meet till I was in high school.
Did Buddy have a natural talent for guitar?
I think he originally took guitar lessons from a guy over in Lubbock named Dunegan, who taught Hawaiian steel guitar. He taught Joe Ely guitar also.
Who were your drumming influences? When I see an old video of you playing, I see Gene Krupa.
Oh yes, he was a main influence. We didn’t get a TV till I was a senior in high school, so I didn’t see many drummers. My big influence was Charles Connor, Little Richard’s drummer. Buddy and I went to see the movie The Girl Can’t Help It, and when I saw Connor playing with Little Richard, I flipped out. I copied many of his licks, and seeing that movie convinced Buddy and I to play rock ’n’ roll.
How did you transition into rock ’n’ roll? Did you listen to many records, or did it just happen?
We jumped right into rock ’n’ roll. We opened for Elvis, and Buddy had opened for Bill Haley and the Comets. The first record I bought was “Going to the River” by Fats Domino. I had a little 45 rpm record player that plugged into my radio. I had a bookcase headboard and would play records at night.
Would you mind recalling once again how you and Buddy wrote “That’ll Be the Day”? The song revolutionized rock ’n’ roll — it’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Grammy Hall of Fame, listed on the National Registry, was on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 most important rock songs — at No. 39 — and was ranked by Texas Music as the greatest Classic Texas Song of all time.
My bedroom in Lubbock was real big — in fact, it had a piano in it. Buddy and I rehearsed for hours, day after day. We’d been to see the John Wayne movie The Searchers. Wayne kept repeating the line, “That’ll Be the day.” Buddy said, “Let’s write a song,” and I said, “That’ll be the day!” We worked on it for about half an hour. When Buddy got a record deal, we went to Nashville to record with Owen Bradley. Owen was a nice fellow, but he didn’t understand rock ’n’ roll — he was all country. So when he heard “That’ll Be the Day,” he said, “That’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.” We came home to Lubbock and formed the Crickets. We just looked at insect names in the black. We went to Clovis to record with Norman Petty, and “That’ll Be the Day” was a demo — we recorded it in 30 minutes. Bob Thiele was the A&R man with Brunswick Records. He took the demo home and heard his kids playing it over and over. Bob released it, and it became a monster hit. We owed our success to Bob.
“That’ll be the Day” went to No. 1 and sold a million copies, and the Crickets made only $40,000 on the record?
I couldn’t tell you. Norman handled the money. We were all young and dumb and signed contracts that gave Norman power of attorney. Buddy and I wrote “Not Fade Away,” but Norman put his name on it instead of mine. He never put my name on the copyright to “That’ll Be the Day.” He put his name on quite a bit of stuff.
The next record, “Peggy Sue,” in some ways eclipses “That’ll Be the Day.” Your drumming on the record is considered a landmark performance in rock ’n’ roll history.
Buddy had much of the song written — it was called “Cindy Lou.” I was dating and later married Peggy Sue Gerron. I asked Buddy to change Cindy Lou to Peggy Sue. I practiced constantly, and I was playing paradiddles, a drum exercise. Buddy asked me if I could play this the entire song? You can’t play paradiddles quietly — I was overpowering the song, so they moved me to the doorway of the studio. Norman came up with switching the echo on and off.
“Peggy Sue” is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and NPR called it “one of the 100 most important musical works of the 20th century. It’s sold over 7 million copies. How does that make you feel?
I’m so lucky. I don’t want to complain, but Norman released this record and put his name and my name on it and left off Buddy! After Buddy got killed, we were all in a lawyer’s office with [Holly’s widow] Maria Elena, and she said, “I know Buddy co-wrote ‘Peggy Sue,”’ and I said, “Of course he did.” Norman said, “I need to see you in the hall.” Norman tried to talk me into leaving the credit alone. I said, “I can’t do that.” When we went back in, I said, “Buddy wrote half the song.” Norman said, “I’m not giving up my half.” I said “Take my half.” After it was over, Norman got half the song, Buddy got 40 percent, and I got 10 percent.
You played some of the most copied drum licks in history. On “Not Fade Away,” you played cardboard boxes. You played tom-toms, and you even played your knees. On “Well, Alright,” you played a cymbal on the floor, which Ringo later copied.
I can’t take credit for the cardboard boxes — I copied that from “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox. A session guy from Clovis named Richard Allred played boxes. It was all new — everything was new, and we kept trying different ideas.
What caused the tensions in the group between Norman and Buddy?
The marriages first. Maria Elena thought Norman didn’t do enough for Buddy. She wanted Buddy in New York. My wife Peggy Sue and Maria Elena didn’t get along. When Buddy went to New York to do an album at the Pythian Temple [the session where Holly recorded “True Love Ways” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”], Joe B. and I were confused why we were left off the session. On the way back to Lubbock, Joe B. and I were afraid of what would happen with Maria Elena, especially since she didn’t like Peggy Sue. The Crickets never had an issue over money. Maria Elena started with petty stuff, like who owned our group station wagon. Looking back, I wish I’d gone back to NYC. I’m sure I could have talked Buddy out of taking that plane that night. When he died, I was devastated. Waylon Jennings told me that Buddy told him, “When I get off this tour, I’m getting back with the Crickets, and we’re going to tour England again.”
The Crickets are one of the most influential bands in history. It seems as if so much talent came out of the Lubbock/West Texas area in those days.
Someone asked me this question 50 or 60 years ago … about the talent out of Lubbock. Well, there’s not much to do there. There’s only one lake, and if you didn’t do sports back then, you did music. I’ve been blessed. The deaths of so many friends still bothers me. I miss Joe B. Mauldin every day. We were good friends from high school on. He was a nice person, a gentle soul. I miss all my friends who’ve passed on. It’s hard.
Lubbock has been criticized by music writers for ignoring Buddy, the Crickets and other popular acts who originated there. The city now has a nice museum with your childhood home on the grounds. How does that make you feel?
It’s a real compliment they did that. A guy named Don Caldwell had a lot to do with getting that done.
Why did it take so long for Lubbock to recognize Buddy? I mean, the state of Texas seems to fail to fully recognize its musical heritage to the extent that Tennessee and Mississippi do. There are two statues of Buddy in the state but none of the Crickets.
Well, we were before the Grammy awards, before the big awards shows. I mean, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame put Buddy in and didn’t even invite us! Then, to rectify that, they put us in later. It was an afterthought. We were a group! When we first started, rock ’n’ roll was not considered respectable. It was the devil’s music, and Lubbock is a very religious town. We had to pave the way, take the hits.
Do you still consider yourself a Texan?
Oh, it doesn’t matter where you live — you’re always a Texan. I’m proud of it, too. It’s been a long, fun trip. I remember playing the Bamboo Club back in Lubbock. Tommy Hancock owned it. It was 1954, and I was working at a grocery store making 40 cents an hour. I played drums at the club and made $5 for three hours! I decided then that I wanted to be a musician … play drums for a living. My parents always supported me. They wouldn’t come in the clubs I played because of the liquor, but they’d show up, sit outside in a hot car and listen to me play. Their support meant so much to me. My mama was really great.
SONNY CURTIS, born May 9, 1937, near Meadow, Texas, met Buddy Holly in 1954 through a mutual friend, and, within two minutes, they were picking on their guitars. Curtis and Holly became fast friends and bandmates. They formed a group called the Three Tunes that toured with Hank Thompson and Sonny James and opened for Elvis.
But Curtis leaned toward country music. He left Holly and the Crickets to DJ, write songs and play on the Louisiana Hayride. Curtis continued to stay in touch with Holly, Joe Mauldin and Jerry Allison. In fact, he was set to join the Crickets when Holly was killed in the plane crash. In deep grief, Curtis bought Holly’s Ariel Cyclone motorcycle and gave it to his friend, Waylon Jennings. Curtis then joined the remaining Crickets, and his songs written for the Crickets, “I Fought the Law” and “More Than I Can Say,” are rock ’n’ roll classics.
Curtis played with the Crickets off and on for six decades. In between, with his impressive solo career, he became one of the most versatile singer-songwriters to come out of Texas. Curtis wrote the theme song for The Mary Tyler Moore Show (“Love is All Around”) and co-wrote the 1987 CMA song of the year, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” (sung by the late Keith Whitley). Curtis’ songs have been covered by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Andy Williams. He’s in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Musicians Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He lives near Burns, Tenn.
How is your health these days?
Pretty good. I had esophageal cancer four years ago. It was tough for 18 months, but my oncologist says my checkups lately have been clear.
You played with Buddy Holly before the Crickets?
We had a group called the Two Tones. It was me, Buddy and Don Guest. I’d spend the night with Buddy, and we’d get up at midnight to go listen to the car radio. We loved Lonnie Johnson, Leadbelly, Big Mama Thornton. Buddy liked Little Richard more than I did. We were trying to be a group like Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black. We went to Nashville on Jan. 26, 1956, and recorded four tunes. We toured with Sonny James, Wanda Jackson, Carl Perkins and Faron Young. When we hit Oklahoma City, we didn’t have any stage outfits, so we bought white pants and blue and orange shirts. The orange and blue was two-tone, so Buddy said, “We’ll call ourselves Buddy Holly and the Two Tones.” When the record came out, they misspelled it and called us the Three Tunes.
You knew Buddy well as a teenager. How would you describe him?
I met Buddy through Bob Montgomery. Buddy and Bob were playing school assemblies, and Bob introduced us. Buddy could really play the four-string banjo. I was playing a local TV show with an organist. We connected and became really good friends.
When you came home from the Nashville sessions [which Holly did with Owen Bradley in his barn], why didn’t you stay with Buddy and become one of the original Crickets?
Buddy was more of a visionary than me. I came home and toured on the Phillip Morris country tour with Slim Whitman. The scene in Lubbock back then was unbelievable. Buddy wanted to play lead guitar, and you don’t need two lead guitarists. Buddy knew the sound he wanted — he could be goofy, but not about music. He knew our sound wasn’t working. We still hung out and double-dated, but I leaned more toward country music. Buddy was focused on rock ’n’ roll.
Why was there so much talent in Lubbock at the time? Jerry Allison says it was because there wasn’t much else to do?
[Laughs] Well, that’s sort of right. People back then had radio programs to listen to, but mostly you’d socialize together. We had 42 [dominoes] parties. Someone was always singing. We’d set up a little stage, and anyone with courage could get up and sing.
What was it like opening for a young Elvis?
Elvis was a nice person. Buddy opened for him several times. I first met him in January 1955 while I was still in high school. He had an orange shirt, red pants and white shoes. I’d never witnessed anyone dressed like that! He played a local Pontiac dealership. Got on the dealer’s floor and did two or three songs. I guess the big revelation for Buddy and us was the way the girls flocked to Elvis. We didn’t really associate music with girls. But after we saw Elvis, we realized, Hey, there’s sex involved in this!
After Buddy and the Crickets went to Clovis [N.M.] and had success recording with Norman Petty, you also recorded quite a bit at Clovis. What were your feelings about Petty?
I’m not enamored with Norman. I went over there with Buddy, then on my own to record demos. Norman had some success with his group, the Norman Petty Trio. He had some hit records, organ-type music. He built the studio next to his father’s garage. He started Nor-Va-Jak records. Jack Vaughn, Norman’s guitar player, quit the group when his wife got pregnant in the spring of 1956. Norman called me and asked me to take Jack Vaughn’s place. He offered me $150 a week. In 1956 that was a lot of money! Buddy said, “Sonny, don’t take that deal — you’ll hate that Mickey Mouse music!” He said, “We’re all gonna make it!” Buddy was right! I hated that mood music. I turned Norman down. You didn’t turn Norman down. He never liked me after that. He never forgave me.
What about Norman and the business side? He took songwriting credits for songs he didn’t write. He claimed it was for money owed the studio.
I always paid Norman for my demos. Listen, I’m not enamored with Norman, if that’s the right word. When Buddy went to New York and left Norman, J.I. [Allison] called and said, “We want you to be the lead guitarist for the Crickets.” When I got to Clovis, Norman had me sign a contract giving him power of attorney and 50 percent of everything I made! We sat around Clovis for months, and Norman never got us a gig. When I left, Norman said “You’re a very wishy-washy person — you’ll wind up in this business with a big goose egg!”
Right about that time, Buddy was killed. How tough was that?
J.I., Peggy Sue and I were living in Clovis. The night before Buddy got killed, we drove to Lubbock. We were staying at J.I.’s parent’s house. J.I. tried to call Buddy the night he got killed. I slept on the couch. The next morning I was at the breakfast table about 7:30 a.m. talking to J.I.’s mother, Mrs. Allison. A woman across the street, Oleta Hall, came over and said, “I just heard on the radio Buddy was killed in a plane crash.” I went in and told J.I. We both were jolted. When you’re young, you think you’re immortal and your friends are immortal. It was [pause] wow! I was a pallbearer at Buddy’s funeral.
Tell me how you wrote “I Fought the Law.”
I used to write if I didn’t have anything to do. It was summer 1959. I was living in Slaton, Texas, near Lubbock, just sitting in my living room. There was one of those west Texas sandstorms. Coy, I’ll tell you, it just came to me. It didn’t take me 20 minutes. We [the Crickets] were going to New York to do the In Style album. We needed one more song. I said, “How about this one?” They all loved it. J.I. did those drum rim shots. Voilà — we had a rock ’n’ roll song!
The Crickets were huge in England but didn’t quite click in the States. You joined the Everly Brothers for two years and wrote their big hit, “Walk Right Back.” Then you actually wrote jingles in the early ’70s. What was that like?
I sang an ad for Lumberjack Syrup, and Don Piestrup got hold of me. He asked me to write jingles with him. He taught me how to do jingles. I did six in one night for McDonald’s. It was hard work but lucrative. We’d do the track in the morning, the band would show up later, then the strings. We’d work on it all day, and in the evening the mixer would show up. We’d have it on a plane to New York at midnight. Then at midnight we’d meet a new client and start on a new jingle the next day. There’s a lot of pressure in the jingle business.
How did a country boy from Texas write one of the most well-known TV themes of all time, the theme for The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
It was a fluke. A good friend of mine, Doug Gilmore, was Roger Miller’s road manager. J.I. was playing with Roger at the time, and Roger was managed by the same person who managed Mary Tyler Moore. Doug was bumped up in the management company. He called me and said, “Would you like to write a theme for Mary’s show?” I said yes, and he sent me a four-page treatment. It was sparse — girl is jilted, goes to the big city, gets a job at a TV station. I focused on the treatment, “How will you make it on your own? Girl it’s time to start living, you’re gonna make it on your own.” I had to play it over and over for different groups starting with James L. Brooks, the producer. They loved it. After the first year, we changed it again. J.I. and I published it, so it worked out great. We still get royalties on it.
You had the CMA single of the year in 1987, co-writing “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” which won a Grammy for Keith Whitley in 1990. You and Jerry Allison just missed writing a number one song with “More Than I Can Say.” Leo Sayer took it to No. 2 in 1981.
I wrote “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” with Ron Hellard. Ron is a delight. Keith was one of the most talented country music singers of all time. Leo Sayer just missed No. 1 with “More Than I Can Say,” which was a continuation of the Crickets. I think Buddy would have recorded it. I heard Leo Sayer was a big fan of the Crickets.
I’m very fortunate. You know, anyone can drag up a regret — I could have made different decisions at times. But I’ve had a wonderful career.