By Robert Burke Warren
originally published in Texas Music
“This is the music boppers wanna hear!”
It’s 1994 and I’m yelling at an Englishman portraying legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley. In a sold-out theater in London, we’re re-enacting an apocryphal moment: pre-fame Buddy Holly trying to convince Bradley that making him sing country is a mistake. “Come on boys,” I say with conviction, strapping on a Stratocaster and marshalling the Crickets, “let’s rock and roll it!”
I execute the instantly recognizable blues riff that launches “That’ll Be the Day,” and the theater crowd goes wild, dancing in the aisles. Over the course of the next three hours, I will sing and play seventeen Buddy Holly songs and, with a couple dozen actor-musicians, tell the story of a driven young Texan’s rise to stardom and tragic, untimely death. I am midway through a yearlong stint as the lead in the hit jukebox musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.
Prior to being cast as the tall shy Texan, I had little exposure to Buddy. The first time I heard “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” they were Linda Ronstadt hits on WQXI AM in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was raised. I recall when the biopic The Buddy Holly Story played at the local cinema in 1978, but I wouldn’t see it until fifteen years later when, as preparation for my audition for the musical theater version of Buddy’s story, I was given a VHS copy.
By then I was a twenty-something actor-musician in Manhattan, and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story had moved from Broadway into a regional Connecticut dinner theater. Upon seeing the casting notice, I immersed myself in all things Buddy. I felt I was born for it; although I’ve yet to go to Lubbock, I have kin in San Antonio; I’d worn tortoise-shell glasses for most of my childhood; I’m tall and skinny; I can nail Buddy’s Stratocaster riffs and hiccupy singing style.
But I didn’t get the gig. I was cast as Buddy’s understudy. Over the three-month run, I would go on as Buddy once, to the roar of the crowd and the smell of fried chicken.
Members of the cast encouraged me to get in touch with the producers of the London/UK version of the show. “They always need a new Buddy,” I was told. While the musical was moving down the theater food chain in the U.S., it continued to draw sellout crowds in London’s West End – where it had originated in 1989 – and on tour in the UK. (It also did well in South Africa, Germany, Australia, Japan, Canada and Scandinavia.)
Ironically, the musical’s book had been written by an Englishman, and the whole enterprise was launched by Londoners who used as source material Paul McCartney’s documentary The Real Buddy Holly Story. McCartney – who insists that “without the Crickets, no Beatles” – made his film as a reaction to what he and many fans felt was a less than truthful portrayal of Buddy in the Gary Busey flick. Owning the rights to Buddy’s songs, the “cute Beatle” had given the musical his blessing.
I sent the producers my 8 x 10, and within a couple months, I was on a plane to Heathrow, bound for the tour and eventually the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End. I left behind a couple of bartending gigs, a tenement apartment and my wife of seven years. The dramatic shift in my life would serve me well when I needed to convey Buddy’s ambivalence and exhaustion as his relationships were strained by his rise to fame and sudden wealth. My own life would incur comparable difficulties, but my luck held out. (Thirteen years after Buddy, I’m still married.)
Being directed by an Englishman to portray his vision of Buddy Holly was surreal. Most Texans I know talk fast, but the director insisted I talk slow “like Texans do.” And the lines were an odd combo of Brit-speak and Huckleberry Hound-isms. But for the most part, it was a positive experience, and it made me a Buddy Holly aficionado. My enthusiasm for every grainy YouTube video and scratchy demo is undimmed, and my sadness over his tragic death remains.
I lost track of exactly how many times I tread the boards as Buddy, but suffice to say the intense physicality of nightly rocking out made me a more disciplined performer. I’d hoped to meet McCartney or the surviving Crickets – they were known to drop in occasionally – but the only eminence with whom I crossed paths was David Copperfield.
Inspired by the brilliance of “Everyday,” “True Love Ways,” and a dozen other timeless tunes, I returned to Manhattan with a renewed interest in songwriting. In the year I was gone, I’d spent most of my time talking to musicians and the tech crew, and I soon realized I’d left an actor-musician but returned a musician-actor. Buddy Holly delivered me to my people – his people – and for that I am most grateful.