Clovis Music Festival

Clovis Music Festival
September 8-10, 2005
by Colin Davies

My visit did not start well. As anyone who has visited West Texas / East New Mexico knows, the countryside is flat and the roads straight. So I was motorvating along from Amarillo to Clovis at a respectable 75mph when a state trooper pulled me over, told me I was in a 50mph limit, and handed me a ticket for $285! After that things could only get better, and they did.

I drove very slowly the rest of the way, and arrived at the Norman Petty Studios on 7th
Street in Clovis just in time for the VIP reception (a few of us ‘non-VIPs’ managed to sneak in). All the festival performers were introduced, with Jerry Allison of The Crickets receiving the loudest cheers. During the evening I had a chance to meet some of the musicians — including Carl Bunch, the drummer on Holly’s last tour, and Mike Mitchell, who played drums with the Norman Petty Trio and still looks remarkably young — and also some of the longterm Crickets fans such as Steve Bonner, Barry Barnes (who produced the recent great Holly / Crickets DVD for Universal), John Beecher and Paul King (part of a sizeable UK contingent). I had two very interesting chats, the first with George Tomsco, guitarist with The Fireballs, the group that Petty used to overdub some of Holly’s ‘apartment tapes’. I asked him why The Fireballs and not The Crickets had done the overdubbing, and he told me that he had asked Petty exactly the same question at the time, and been told that The Crickets were ‘not available’ (not true, as it happened). I also asked him how he thought the group had been treated by Petty, and he replied: “Norman was always fine with us, even though we did not agree with some of his musical decisions”. (George thought the “sweet potato thing” on ‘Sugar Shack’ ruined the record.)

I also talked with Echo (McGuire) Griffith, who dated Holly for five and a half years. She told me that Buddy drove all the way up to Nebraska to visit her while she was up at college there, and she remembered some of his friends (who late became doctors) teasing him for not going to college himself. “I’m working on my music”, he told them. She also told me (entirely unprompted, I promise you) that she and Buddy never consummated their relationship. And she pointed out something very interesting: it was after they broke up that Holly wrote some of his greatest (and saddest) songs. But just think about those lyrics: “What To Do (now that she doesn’t love me”); “(Hearts that are broken and love that’s untrue, these go with) Learning The Game”; “That Makes It Tough (when you say you don’t care for me no more”). Surprising lyrics coming from someone who had just got married, don’t you think?

Day Two started with breakfast at the La Quinta hotel , with my coffee poured by someone who had sung on ‘That’ll Be The Day’! Yes, Ramona and Gary Tollett (and in fact all the performers) were staying at the same hotel. I spent part of the morning touring the Norman Petty Studios, where we were all allowed to sit in the chair in the control room and listen to the sounds coming out of the speakers just the way Holly had done all those years ago. However, I was a little disappointed to see in the studio one of those ridiculous tour posters they sell on eBay: this one advertising a concert in January 1957 “starring Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly performing his hits ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘Oh Boy!'” — that’s several months before he actually recorded them! Then we headed for Clovis’ Main Street, which still has some of the fine art deco buildings I remembered from my last trip there in 1986, including three theatres within two blocks. The first theatre was the Mesa, which Norman Petty purchased in the ’60s (apparently from the royalties of The Fireballs’ hit, ‘Sugar Shack’), and the second was ihe Lyceum, where several people had recorded, most notably Sonny West, who was our guide.

Most of us first came to know Sonny West as the writer of ‘Oh Boy!’ and ‘Rave On’, and then as we all dug a little deeper we became familiar with some of his great rockabilly recordings — especially ‘Sweet Rockin’ Baby’ and ‘Rock-Ola Ruby’, both of which were recorded in the Lyceum. Sonny is one of the friendliest, wittiest and most self-effacing people you could meet, who seems to bear no hard feelings despite the fact that he has had to share the royalties on his two biggest compositions with two other people whose contribution seems to have been almost nothing (though Bill Tilghman did come up with the title ‘Rave On’, taken from an old cheerleading chant).

In the evening we gathered in the Marshall Auditorium for John Mueller’s Winter Dance Party Tour, featuring John (as Buddy Holly), Ray Anthony (as Ritchie Valens) and Jay Richardson as his dad (The Big Bopper). I guess we all have our opinion about ‘tribute shows’, but it has to be said that these guys put on a great show! I had seen Bopper Jnr. at one of his first performances up in Clear Lake in 1999, and this time he was far more confident and polished. He performed about half a dozen of his father’s compositions, including ‘Running Bear’ and ‘White Lightning’, finishing off with the inevitable ‘Chantilly Lace’ which brought the audience to its feet. Ray Anthony is one of those ‘tight black trousers, crotch-thrusting’ types (a bit like John Beecher, then? -Ed.). He worked his way through the Valens repertoire, ·closing out with some very tasty guitar-playing on ‘La Bamba’.

There had been rumours that a certain rock ‘n’ roll widow did not want John Mueller to perform, and definitely did not want him performing in “Buddy Holly glasses”, but fortunately his show went ahead without writs being served. (I especially liked the way everyone in the audience was given a pair of cardboard Holly glasses to wear … ) John and his group, who also backed the other two performers, delivered a whole range of Holly / Crickets songs: ‘Blue Days, Black Nights’ and ‘Midnight Shift’ from the Nashvi lle days, through ‘Ready Teddy’ and ‘Everyday’, up to ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping’ and ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’. In fact, he introduced Peggy Sue herself before singing the song that was written for her. (She was described in the festival programme thus: “Peggy Sue is an icon. She is nostalgia. The girl next door”, who has now become “a celebrity speaker, radio host and columnist…vivacious and charming.”) John also brought up on stage the Tolletts, John Pickering (of The Picks) and David Bigham (of The Roses) to sing back-up on ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘It’s So Easy’. Perhaps a tribute show like this belongs more in Vegas, but it was certainly well received in Clovis. (And when John Mueller first came on stage, Echo McGuire turned to me and said,”That’s him. That’s how he was.”)

For the Saturday lunch, Bill Griggs had arranged a ‘fanfare’ at the hotel, giving fans the opportunity to meet and talk with the musicians. One thing about this event that struck me as rather odd: The Crickets, the stars of the festival, were not there, but John Pickering of The Picks most definitely was, signing autographs and selling CDs and calling himself “the true voice of The Crickets”. However, since Holly’s death there have been so many arguments and disputes among those associated with him, that we’ll let that pass.

The evening show began late (more arguments backstage?), but when Sonny West came on he received a huge welcome. Looking very cool in a long blue jacket, and backed by a local group, The Fun Brothers, he rocked straight into his 1956 classic, ‘Rock-Ola Ruby’. (Incidentally, the acoustics in the auditorium were really excellent — perhaps Norman had been brought back to work on them?) This was followed by a magnificent rendition of ‘Rave On’, which probably received the loudest applause of the evening. Then came several songs that Sonny wrote for his latest album project: ‘Rock My World’ (a great laid back song), “57 Chevy Wagon’ (which would have been perfect for Waylon Jennings) and ‘Where Am I’ (including the line “thinking about a lick I heard on a Buddy Holly song”, which went down very well). ‘All My Love’ (,Oh Boy!’), originally recorded six months before The Crickets’ version (with Glen D. Hardin on piano), again brought the audience to its feet. The next song was a surprising choice: Sonny brought to the microphone John Pickering, who had been singing back-up, for a solo on Jan Crutchfield’s ‘Statue Of A Fool’, a big-voiced song (that Larry Welborn sang on the ‘Stay All Night: Buddy Holly’s Country Roots’ CD) — the kind of thing that Edmund Hockridge used to sing. Not my style, but it seemed to go down well with the audience. Then one more song from Sonny — Gene Simmons’ old warhouse ‘Haunted House’ — and that was it. I asked Sonny afterwards what happened to ‘Sweet Rockin’ Baby’ and he said there just wasn’t time (though there would have been if we hadn’t had ‘Statue Of A Fool’ … ). In the best show business tradition, Sonny left us screaming for more.

The Fireballs started off with a rousing ‘Rockin’ In The ’50s’ and, of course, the line “1958 — Buddy Holly & The Crickets were great” got the audience to its feet, as did George Tomsco’s duckwalk across the stage. This was followed by ‘Rock Around The Clock’ — a surprising choice, considering how many of their own songs they could have played, but it did feature a vocal from bass player Stan Lark, something I hadn’t heard before. ‘Goin’ Away’, ‘Quite A Party’ (with the leg-swinging dance) and ‘Sweet Lucy’ were all well  received, and the crowd was out of its seats when George announced that Chuck Tharp would be coming on stage — to sing the song that gave the group its name (,Great Balls Of…’). Chuck reminded the audience he was undergoing treatment for cancer, but if he hadn’t done so, I don’t think anyone would have realised how sick he has been recently — his voice was strong and he looked fit and well. After a couple more songs (including ‘Long, Long Pony Tail’ with some searing guitar from George who was on great form throughout the set), Chuck stood to the side while George introduced the backing chorus: The 7th Street Legends — John Pickering (again!), David Bigham, Gary and Ramona Tollett, Homer Tankersly (who had sung back-up on a 1958 session that Holly played on) and Peggy Sue (again!). A couple of shamelessly nostalgic songs, including ‘Everybody Should Have Lived In The ’50s’, with everyone having fun. The Fireballs closed with their biggest hits, ‘Sugar Shack’ and ‘Bottle Of Wine’ — neither of which really showcases the group’s playing or singing abilities — and received a well-deserved standing ovation.

And then on they came, the men who were responsible for bringing the towns of Lubbock
and Clovis to the attention of the world — Sonny Curtis (guitar), Jerry Allison (drums) and Joe Mauldin (double bass) — The Crickets! Most of us have seen them perform many times over the years, and their set was the one we know and love, starting off with the evening’s second version of ‘Oh Boy!’. All the classics were included — ‘I Fought The Law’, ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Walk Right Back’, “Well. .. AII Right’ (a song that sounds better and better as the years go by)… J.I. took the vocal on ‘Summertime Blues’ and played his paradiddles as well as ever on ‘Peggy Sue’ (“Now, Peggy Sue is still around”, said Sonny, “she just isn’t around us anymore”). My only regret about this set was that, like Sonny West’s, it could have been longer, and they didn’t play my request for ‘When You Ask About Love’. But how can you complain when you’ve just heard the world’s greatest rock n roll drummer for an hour?

So in conclusion, the threatened lawsuits were never issued, the festival went ahead, everyone gave of their best, and Sonny West sounded even better than he did on those classic tracks almost half a century ago. Liz Eisenbraun at the Clovis Chamber of Commerce deserves enormous thanks and credit for pulling it all off, and it’s great to know that the local authorities have given their approval for another festival next year. And now, who can answer the question: Just what was it that caused so much musical talent to come from that vast, flat part of the country?

(With thanks to Liz Eisenbraun and Steve Bonner)

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