LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - One snowy night 50 years ago, Buddy Holly took off on a small plane and died a few minutes later when it crashed in an Iowa field.
A tragic icon was born, but so was a half-century of litigation and finger-pointing. The latest legal showdown has been going on for 15 years as Holly’s family chases alleged unpaid royalties from his Universal Music Group label.
“They’ve cheated us,” Holly’s older brother Larry told Reuters. Universal won the initial case, he said, but the family is appealing. He later declined to elaborate, suspecting that he was speaking to “an agent” for the label. A Universal official did not reply to a request for comment.
But the parties have made up, at least temporarily, to collaborate on a pair of multi-disc CD sets that will be released on January 27, a week before the anniversary of the February 3, 1959, crash that also claimed Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
The three-CD “Memorial Collection” boasts all of Holly’s hits — including “That’ll Be The Day,” “Not Fade Away,” “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On”— as well as seven recordings previously unreleased in the United States.
The two-CD “Down The Line - Rarities” features home recordings dating back to when Holly was 14, widely bootlegged undubbed versions, alternate takes and informal solo tapes.
Some of the recordings — such as “Think It Over” and “Fool’s Paradise” — have been stripped of overdubs that were added by Norman Petty, arguably the No. 1 villain in the Buddy Holly story.
Petty was an independent producer who owned the Clovis, N.M., studio where Holly and his band the Crickets recorded most of their tunes between 1956 and 1958. In addition to taking control of Holly’s career and finances, he added his name to the songwriting credits — a dubious but not uncommon practice in those days.
After Holly suffered disappointing sales for such tunes as “Rave On” and “It’s so Easy,” he grew resentful of Petty’s control. The cash-strapped musician and his new wife, Maria Elena, visited Petty at the studio to end their partnership, and seek his unpaid royalties.
In an interview with Reuters, Maria Elena Holly, recounted that Petty told his young protege, “You know what, Buddy? I’m gonna say this to you. I’d rather see you dead than to give you the money now.”
Holly almost punched Petty, but his wife’s cooler head prevailed, and they returned to their new apartment in New York where they borrowed money from Maria Elena’s aunt. In a financial bind, Holly reluctantly joined the lineup of the “Winter Dance Party” tour of small towns in the frozen upper Midwest, leaving his pregnant bride at home.
The troupe traversed vast stretches in an old, unheated bus. For Holly, the discomfort was exacerbated by his legal problems with Petty.
After the 11th show, at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2, he decided to take a small plane rather than reboard the bus for an overnight trip to the next venue 400 miles away in Moorhead, Minnesota.
The single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza was no match for the developing blizzard, making it about four miles before crashing in a corn field and tossing its famous stars out into the snow. All died instantly, with Holly’s skull split open and his chest crushed. He was just 22.
Maria Elena, who miscarried after learning of her husband’s death, stopped short of saying Petty “killed” Holly, but said, “He had something to do with his accident.”
Larry Holley (the “e” was dropped by Buddy for his stage name) was less equivocal.
“Man, that guy. I hope he’s in hell right now. I imagine he is.” (Petty died in 1984)
After Holly died, his family split the estate with Maria Elena. For the most part, the two camps get along fine now, although there were problems in the past, said Holley.
Tax bills forced the family to sell down their interest in Holly’s catalog to Paul McCartney’s publishing company, but they still make “a good living” from royalties, said Holley. McCartney’s MPL Communications also scooped up Petty’s ownership stake in Holly’s compositions.
Maria Elena kept her share, and has spent her life overseeing the Buddy Holly business. She briefly remarried and had three children, but her husband “realized that my heart was not there. It was still with Buddy.”
The Puerto Rican native has earned a reputation for being fiercely protective. She refused to let Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, use his name for its walk of fame and annual music festival, but says she is on good terms with the city now.
“I trademarked that name already,” she said. “People want to use it without compensation and I feel that was Buddy’s bread and butter and the legacy left to us. I’m the guardian of that legacy. “
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte