That I finally, after a few years of trying, get to visit somewhere special. But first, breakfast in the hotel this morning is a poor affair. There is no hot food and very limited fresh fruit. Not impressed. I’m on the road by 10.15 am heading towards Clovis in New Mexico on US-84 W. Highway 84 is as flat and straight this side of Lubbock as it was coming from Dallas. There’s a bit more to see though as I drive through farming country, with some cows plus cotton and maize fields. I cross into New Mexico about 10 minutes south of Clovis and Maps guides me to the Norman Petty Recording Studios in good time for my 11.30 am tour. The drive took nearly 2 hours but New Mexico is in a different time zone to Texas and I’ve lost an hour on the clock.
Why visit this place? IMHO there are three people who were the primary catalysts, drivers and influencers for the phenomenon that became Rock’n’Roll in the mid-to-late 1950s: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry… and Buddy Holly. Without these three musicians, rock’n’roll wouldn’t have happened the way it did. Rock’n’Roll would not have changed the world of entertainment, and modern music specifically, with such global impact without the special talents of each of these men. They literally changed our world. And I’m here in Clovis, and Lubbock, to pay homage to Buddy Holly and the people he worked with.
Norman Petty Recording Studios
The door is open but no-one is around. I then hear some voices in a back room and shout “Hello” but get no response. I figure someone must be on the phone and will be out shortly, so I wait. Nothing happens. On my third attempt an elderly gentlemen appears and it’s my guide, Kenneth Broad. He’s the manager and guardian of the Studios these days. He takes me out back into some living quarters, still decorated as it was in the 1950s. There’s a kitchen, combined lounge / bedroom area, bathroom and an ante-room.
Norman Petty added these to the Studios to allow musicians to stay there for a few days at a time when they were recording. I guess this was because Clovis is rather in the middle of nowhere. So, Buddy Holly and The Crickets lived, ate and slept in these very rooms whilst changing the face of music. Wow. I’ll be damned. Talk about a piece of musical history. Look at the photos I took, that’s all there is to say…
David Bigham in the lobby of the Studios Source: http://www.tbhef.org
There was a magazine on the table with a cover photo of Buddy and The Crickets sitting on the sofa in the lounge. In the slide show above, if you look carefully you can see a black train engine ornament on the display shelving behind them. Now check out the photo I took of the sofa and display – the same train ornament is still there today, 60 years later (it’s turned around the other way on the shelf now). I guess that’s proof enough Holly stayed there.
In the room is another chap, David Bigham (note it is Bigham, not Bingham), a member of The Roses. This singing trio was Petty’s in-house backing singers and sang on many of Holly’s recordings plus other artist’s songs. David now lives in the house next to the Studios, which is where Norman and Vi Petty used to live when the Studios were active. The house is behind the Nor Va Jak offices. So Kenneth asked David along to meet me – well, I guess he was ‘on site’ anyway! Kenneth went off a couple of times and I chatted to David quite a lot. He was there in the Studios with Buddy & The Crickets and sang on their songs. It was a real pleasure to meet him as part of my visit.
Postcards promoting The Roses on a table in the living quarters
There’s nothing much to do in the living quarters other than to marvel at this ‘hotel’ for musicians, preserved in a time warp. It just happened to be a temporary home on many occasions to perhaps one of the greatest musical pioneers of all time, Buddy Holly. A man who helped develop rock’n’roll and influenced so many music legends in the following years.
“I am Buddy Holly”, John Lennon was once quoted as saying. Paul McCartney once said: “Without Buddy Holly, there would have been no Beatles.” The first song Lennon and McCartney ever recorded in a studio, as The Quarrymen, was Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day.” Go figure.
The Control Room and Studio
And so to the Studio itself (which I walked through earlier to get to the living quarters), but firstly into the Control Room, complete with the original seat from the 1950s at the recording console. So I’ve now sat in the same seat Buddy Holly did when he listened to the playbacks after they recorded them. That’s according to Kenneth anyway, although I’d have thought it more likely Norman Petty occupied the seat. Whatever.
All the equipment is original, although the Studio has not been active for many years. The original monitor speakers are still intact as well, and these are the same ones that Holly first listened to the recordings on. Kenneth plays me a selection of Holly hits, just as Buddy would have heard them all those years ago.
Unfortunately Kenneth doesn’t offer much explanation about the equipment or recording process in general, just a few anecdotes here and there. Like when they recorded Peggy Sue the drum kit was moved out of the Studio and into the reception room to help create the song’s unique sound. And on Not Fade Away drummer Jerry Allison played an upturned cardboard box, not his drum kit!
Into the recording studio itself where there are many original instruments, such as the Celeste keyboard used on Everyday. It was played on the record by Petty’s wife, Vi. Both her and Norman were accomplished musicians themselves and in fact had great success as the Norman Petty Trio in the early to mid-1950s.
“The Bitch Is Back” **
It is striking that there is no Buddy Holly memorabilia anywhere. Both Kenneth and David tell me that this is because of Holly’s widow, Maria. After they married she allegedly started to exert more and control over Buddy. She was a New Yorker – that’s where they met – and allegedly hated the Clovis / Lubbock area and eventually the couple moved to New York. She also allegedly didn’t like the Pettys or The Crickets, and many believe she was the catalyst behind the eventual break up of both those relationships.
After Buddy died, Maria exerted an iron grip on anything to do with Buddy’s estate. She owns the rights to his name, image, trademarks, and other intellectual property and vigorously, as she sees it, protects Buddy Holly’s legacy, even to this day. According to Wikipedia, at one point she even wanted to charge the city of Lubbock, his home town, when it wanted to use Buddy’s name in various ways. As part of this ‘protection’ she will apparently not allow any Buddy memorabilia to be shown anywhere, without her permission, which Kenneth said is almost never granted. Hence why there is nothing in the Studios. What a shame.
The Foxy Drive-In just down the street where Buddy Holly and The Crickets used to go to eat
The Studios are an amazing place captured in time. I hate to be critical of Kenneth but he does seem to rely on visitors, or at least he did with me, knowing their Buddy Holly history in detail. He doesn’t tell you ‘the story’, such as “in the beginning”, “then this happened”, then “that happened” and so on. It’s all a bit ad hoc, whereas at other music studios I’ve been to such as Sun, Motown and Muscle Shoals, the guides ‘tell the tale’ of the studio. Whilst Kenneth played a lot of Holly songs, I was the one prompting questions. But then if you’re going to drive hundreds of miles to Clovis – trust me, this place is a long way to get to from anywhere – I supposed he figures you must have a serious interest in Petty and Buddy, and to know quite a bit beforehand.
But I’m quibbling and have no real complaints. And despite the location, go and visit this slice of music history. Kenneth’s not getting any younger and it would have been impolite to ask what happens when he retires or is sadly no longer with us. I just hope there’s some kind of succession plan to keep the Studios open for generations to come. The Nor Va Jak label has also taken on a new lease of life to preserve and promote the music of the Norman Petty Recording Studios.
Norman & Vi Petty Rock’n’Roll Museum
Outside into the New Mexico sunshine and it’s a short drive to the Chamber of Commerce. This is where, for some bizarre reason, the Norman & Vi Petty Rock’n’Roll Museum is located in the basement. To get in, you walk past all these public employees doing their daily jobs!
On entering there’s some 50s memorabilia such as a Coke machine, jukebox and tables from a diner. Opposite is a small room where a 20 minute film plays giving some background. Having now seen this, I think it helps enormously to have visited the Studios first. Both Kenneth and David are in the film and it fleshes out some of the story.
Into the Museum and it’s a medium sized room with exhibits around the walls detailing Norman and Vi’s career. The focus is of course on them and not Buddy Holly. The fact is that Buddy only worked with Norman for two years and the latter’s career lasted a lot longer than that. But it’s interesting to find out more about the man who helped develop Buddy Holly. The exhibits are well laid out and documented. Post-Holly, it’s clear Petty never matched or surpassed his triumphs with Buddy.
Exhibit in the Museum – coin flip decided Richie Valen’s fate
However it’s also important not to overlook how successful Norman and Vi were before the Buddy years. It was the money he made in the Trio that allowed Norman to buy out his father from his garage business for $140,000, and to then build his own recording studio on the site. Which he did himself, being an accomplished engineer as well as musician.
US-84 W near Anton, TX
When I’m all done in Clovis it’s time to retrace my steps back down US-84 to Lubbock. Before departing I pull into a gas station in town and buy a sandwich for lunch. I knew of course this was a return trip today but going the other way is not anymore interesting than it was this morning. I’m back at the hotel by 5.30 pm and I’ve done more driving today than sightseeing. But then it’s not everyday you see something truly historic like the Norman Petty Recording Studios in person. I’m still not sure why it’s called Studios either, as there is only one studio.
Food, Beer and (Background) Music
Lubbock seemed to have a dearth of live music venues when I was planning the trip. OK, I’m here on a Monday and Tuesday but it’s a big university town and the only club I can find is the Blue Light Live. Tonight, Valley Queen are playing supported by Brandon Adams. I found a description of the former thus: “Front woman Natalie Card leads a band reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and My Morning Jacket with vocals evocative of Florence Welch.” Should be interesting…
To start the evening I have dinner at The Triple J Chophouse & Brew Co. To get there, so I can have a beer or two, I take my first ever Uber. A very nice guy called Roger arrives just 3 minutes after I booked the ride and he’s very chatty on the journey. Not too expensive either at $9.
John Sprott at the Triple J
Inside the brew house I discover there’s live music from a guy called John Sprott. Apparently he’s a local electric guitarist of some note. As the name suggests Triple J brew their own beer and the American Pale Ale is very good. The Oktoberfest is not bad either. I order a Steak Tip Salad to eat and this is excellent, highly recommended.
The main event of the evening though is that I sit down at the bar next to a guy who has someone to his right, and I assume they are friends. They might well be but 15 minutes after I arrive the ‘right guy’ leaves. A few minutes later Matt buys me a beer and we start chatting.
Which we continue to do for the next 2 hours or so on all sorts of topics. Such as why Texas is not a desert anymore because I commented on how it’s not as I expected. He tells me that when he was a kid growing up here it was a desert and he comments that “something is changing the landscape.”
We also discuss music – we are both Bowie fans and I tell him about the David Bowie Is exhibition I saw a couple of years ago and that it is coming to the US soon. We also discuss my travels, the NFL national anthem protests (he comments that the players have no idea how angry the majority of Americans are about the kneeling protests) and much more. Another topic was the Normandy D-Day beaches. He’s ex-Airborne and I told him of my trip earlier this year to visit the beaches and suggested he should go someday.
With all this chat I’m afraid I didn’t pay much attention to Mr Sprott other than as background music. Apart from, when someone requested it, he plays… Purple Rain! Cue another music discussion with Matt about how I’ve heard this song covered so many times in the past two weeks. He needs to go home as it’s approaching 10 pm and I say I’m heading to the Blue Light over the road. We bid each other good night and Matt departs. A really nice guy, I very much enjoyed his company and some great chat.
Into The Blue Light
The Blue Light Live is literally opposite the Triple J so I cross the road to go inside. But then I’m asked by a guy on the door for a $5 cover. I look inside and… the place is empty. Actually empty. There is literally no-one in there apart from the bar staff. There are 3 blokes with the doorman, one of whom it turns out is Brandon Adams, the opening act. He pleads with me to go in. In my mind, I’m thinking I’m not paying $5 to be an audience of one. I then verbalise this and we all have a friendly chat about my doubts for about 5 minutes when another chap appears from inside. He gives the doorman $5, saying “I’ll pay his cover.”
Brandon Adams at the Blue Light Live
And who is this benefactor? The manager of Brandon Adams, that’s who! I enter and sit at the bar. One of the other guys from outside has followed me in, sits next to me and then buys me a beer! He’s quite young and I figure out he wants to talk about my travels – being English, accent and all, the topic came up whilst we were outside – because he says “I’ve only been outside of Texas once in my life.” He’s a musician, which he loves and wants to make a go of, but has doubts. So I tell him to follow his dream, telling him how my parents never gave me the chance to learn an instrument or do anything that developed my interest in music. They knew I was really passionate about it but they never encouraged me, and almost the opposite at times in trying to curtail my interest. As you, dear reader, might guess, I’m pretty pissed off about that. But it was a long time ago, and life moves on. 🙁
Brandon duly appears on stage, sings 4 songs, then departs. His manager applauds each song very loudly. I clap politely. He’s actually got a good voice but I guess singer-guitarists are quite common in these parts – reference the Blue Light’s weekly open mic night for instance – and he sadly didn’t have a wow factor.
What A Racket – Time To Leave
Valley Queen at the Blue Light Live
Valley Queen then appear on stage and start to make quite a racket. I move to a seat centre stage but at the back of the room, given I am the audience and don’t want to be too conspicuous. I also don’t want to highlight no-one is watching them. But I suppose the empty floor in front of the stage gives that away.
Blue Light Live bar area during Valley Queen’s set
A few minutes before 3 young ladies entered and are now sitting at the bar drinking. And completely ignoring the band. Brandon’s manager and my beer-buying friend sit at a table and play chess. Yes, really. And ignore the band. Which might be the best course of action, frankly. Natalie Card can’t sing I’m afraid. She shrieks, she hollers, she shouts. But does not ‘sing’. I did not hear, understand or make out a single word she ‘sang’. She just wails. The band seems OK but it’s just run-of-the-mill rock. What isn’t good is that there are no tunes or melodies, it’s simply a wall of noise with Card shrieking in a high pitched voice over the top. Yep, it’s absolute crap. It’s a car crash event, so bad it’s almost funny. Time to go ‘home’.
So after six ‘songs’ I summon my return Uber. This arrives in a few minutes with a car pulling up outside the Blue Light where I’m standing on the sidewalk. But… the car’s licence is different from that in the app confirmation. The car is different as well. And the driver confirms he is not ‘Joshua’, my named driver, when I question him. So I tell him that I am not getting into an unknown car with a different licence plate and that he is not my confirmed driver. “Sorry I can’t be of service” he replies and drives off. I then get an order cancellation notice from Uber within seconds. WTF?
How the hell did that happen? How were all the confirmation details wrong? Who was that driver and how did he know about my booking? I have no idea but I’m not dumb enough to get in a strange car. So I re-order and within 5 minutes Manuel turns up. This time all the details are as expected and I’m back at the hotel in 10 minutes, another $9 ride.
That was very strange and quite worrying. I can now understand now why Uber gets a bad rap every now and again if rogue drivers are somehow hijacking valid orders. If you’re not aware or switched on, who knows what car or person you might be riding in? Be warned.
Apart from the freaky end to the night, I had a brilliant day, long drives notwithstanding. I experienced music history that, given its location, I bet not many people have. Good food and beer, great chat with Matt, and some bizarre antics at the Blue Light. Good night.