This Sunday, 3 February, marks the sixtieth anniversary of “the day the music died”, as Don McLean called the death of Buddy Holly in the song ‘American Pie’.

The below interview with Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, talks about the 'The Buddy Holly Story' and what 3 February means to her… 

“…February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step…”
Don McLean – American Pie (1971)

If you remember the golden days of rock ‘n’ roll, chances are the date of 3 February 1959 will send a shiver down the spine.

The ‘day the music died’ will forever be engrained on the memory of Maria Elena, widow of rock ‘n’ roll legend Charles Hardin ‘Buddy’ Holley (the ‘e’ was dropped after his name was misspelled on a recording contract). Each year she commemorates the passing of her husband, just 22 when he died, in the same way.

“I pray for Buddy, like I do every night,” she begins. “I light a candle, I buy flowers, and stay home. If I’m travelling or doing promotion, I just remember him as he was when I met him.”

That was June 1958, and the couple had been married less than six months when the small Beechcraft Bonanza plane carrying Buddy, 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, JP ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson (28), and pilot Roger Peterson (21), plummeted from the night sky into a frozen Iowa cornfield.

Though the years have dulled some of the pain, the shattering impact of the accident remains with Maria Elena.

“When Buddy died it was so sudden,” she reflects. “Those kinds of deaths are very, very difficult to deal with because you don’t have the chance to say goodbye.”

The circumstances surrounding Buddy’s inclusion on the fateful Winter Dance Party Tour of 1959, only add to the sense of tragedy.

“I mean, he left home against my will, I was pregnant,” she says. “He said ‘it will be a short tour – I just can’t continue without getting my own money to do what we’re planning to do.’ We had plans to open record companies and our own publishing company and Buddy also wanted to develop new artists, even at that time.”

Folklore has it that Maria Elena had a premonition about the crash before he left for the tour.

“Absolutely, as a matter of fact we were both dreaming,” she confirms. “Buddy had a dream about leaving me on top of a building and I dreamt about a comet, this great ball of fire coming down. It came past me and made a hole in the ground. I could see the fire coming out of that hole. The day after (Buddy) was leaving and I was packing for both of us, but he said: ‘I told you, I can’t bring you with me, you’re pregnant.’ I was not feeling well – it was the beginning of the pregnancy and apparently I got sick real fast.”

Having discovered news of the crash on television, Maria Elena says she fell into a “catatonic state”, unable to digest what had happened. She miscarried soon after. 

“…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…”

Maria Elena Santiago was 25 when she and Buddy married in August 1958, less than two months after they first met. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she was a receptionist for a New York music publisher when she met the young singer from Lubbock, Texas, whose songs (including ‘That’ll Be the Day’, ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘Maybe Baby’) and unique style quickly made him a worldwide star. Now in her early 80s (or ‘290plus’ as she puts it) Maria Elena has kept the Holly name and describes herself as a “rock ‘n’ roller at heart” who doesn’t dress her age. And managing Buddy’s estate keeps her more than busy enough.

It was in the UK on his 1958 tour of England (something Elvis never did) that the Buddy Holly legend first took off internationally and continued years after his death, through the so-called ‘British Invasion’ of the 60s. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Elton John, have all spoken about how they took Buddy – the tall, lanky kid with glasses – to heart, and connected with his image as the ‘everyman’ of rock ’n’ roll.

“Buddy was as blind as a bat!” laughs Maria Elena of the famous frames. “He wore the metal-rimmed glasses when he was on stage – (if he) took them off he couldn’t see anything. He felt self-conscious.”

But the glasses came to represent everything Buddy Holly stood for. Elvis he wasn’t, with an unconventional look and unique talent. This certainly made an impression.

“Buddy loved his fans,” says Maria Elena. “He connected with them because he always said: ‘Those people are the ones who are making me, they love my music so why should I be distanced from them?’ So, he was very approachable and the fans liked that. He was a very giving person.”

It’s arguably in the Beatles, right down to the band name, that Buddy and his band the Crickets’ influence is most evident. Paul McCartney once said at least the first 40 songs the Beatles wrote were Buddy Holly-influenced.

“I would say that John Lennon and Buddy would’ve been the best of friends,” suggests Maria Elena. “I know Paul also loved and respected Buddy, but I think John and Buddy would’ve got together to do a duet.”

It was on the London stage that Buddy’s legend took on a new life with the first of the big ‘jukebox’ musicals Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, in 1989. A smash hit in the West End, on Broadway, throughout North America and around the world for the past 30 years, the show has helped to introduce Buddy’s music to new generations. Buddy’s single-minded determination to push musical boundaries is clear for all to see in the show.

Could that happy, smiling, bespectacled face, immortalised in time, really have been such a rebel?

“Absolutely, that’s very accurate!” Maria Elena enthuses. “Buddy was a very nice, laidback, relaxed kind of person. When it came to his music, no sirree! He always had this to say: ‘Hey, why don’t we try it my way first, and if you don’t like it and you show me why you don’t like it, then I’ll do it your way – how’s that?’ Buddy was so in tune with everything out there and not afraid of trying new things. If you listen to his songs none of them are alike. He was a 22-year-old starting his career, but his mentality was different. Who would’ve ever thought of a rock ‘n’ roller putting violins in anything?”

Over the years, there have been numerous actors presented with the task of filling Buddy’s shoes on stage.

“I love to come and see the show,” says Maria Elena. “Each Buddy has done a tremendous job in the way they portray him – I’m sure Buddy would’ve approved.”

Keeping the music alive is something not lost on Maria Elena.

“I hope the younger people, the aspiring musicians, will take the tenacity, the dedication that he had for his music and that he never gave up,” she says of the show. “They closed one door and he went through and opened another. No matter what. That’s what it takes to make it, then and now, and in the future. To the fans, who so lovingly accepted Buddy – the people who have come to see the show so many times and love it – that’s what keeps me going.”

Sixty years is a long time in anyone’s life, let alone to be apart from your first true love.

“To me, it doesn’t seem that long since he’s been gone,” reflects Maria Elena. “To me, he’s still around – not in person of course, but he’s here.”

The Buddy Holly Story heads to Lighthouse, Poole Tuesday 29 October - Saturday 2 November 2019.

Published 29 January 2019