“They wanted to put me into Holly’s group”
Interview with C.W. Kendall
by Colin Davies
For years I knew the name ‘C.W. Kendall’ through the writer’s credit on Buddy Holly’s ‘Little Baby’, and I knew he played piano on that track. Later on I learned that his band The Big Beats had backed Sonny West on his original version of ‘Rave On’. And more recently C.W. has been credited with playing on Holly’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ and ‘Look at Me’. I decided to track him down, which wasn’t hard since he is still performing in the Dallas area as a solo act and with the re-formed Big Beats. In the late ‘50s he and the band were regular studio musicians in Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, and they toured as a featured act – once opening for Ricky Nelson – and as back-up musicians for many singers including Sonny James, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent (after the Blue Caps had quit/been fired). I interviewed C.W. on October 7, 2016. Until then I had thought there was nothing new to be learned about Holly, and so was amazed to learn that C.W. had played on at least five of his recordings.
Is it true that you met Norman Petty through Buddy Holly’s father?
We were playing in Wichita Falls, Texas, at the Sheppard Air Force Base and he was up there doing some kind of a job and he heard us. He said, “You really need to call Norman Petty. My son is Buddy Holly and he’s recording with him.” I called Norman and he said, “Come on out,” so we played a little bit of one song and he said “That’s it! You guys are great and we’re gonna make some records.” At the time Trini Lopez was the rhythm guitarist in the band. He didn’t stay too long. Shortly after we started recording, Trini got mad because Columbia didn’t want him to sing and neither did Norman.
This is because Norman was particularly keen on instrumentals?
Yeah he thought we should be an instrumental band. I’m not sure if that was real smart. And Norman got us a deal right off the bat with Columbia Records, with ‘Clark’s Expedition’ (which was originally called ‘Trini’s Touch’). We named it that because we wanted to get in with Dick Clark, and he wanted to make it his theme song.
So the backing you did on Terry Noland’s ‘Patty Baby’ and ‘Don’t Do Me This Way’, that wasn’t the first thing you did with Norman?
No, that was down the road a bit. We’d recorded several things before he got there. Anyway, Dick Clark wanted some of the royalty. Everybody did in those days. Columbia Records wanted to go along with it, but Norman Petty wouldn’t. He said, “If you gotta pay your way to the top, you’re not gonna get very far.” He refused to pay it, and that was shot down. I said, “Let’s give them whatever they want,” but it didn’t happen that way.
So you were now living in Clovis?
No, we lived in Dallas, but we were mainly staying in Clovis, staying at the studio. The studio had a back room, a sort of a den, and we stayed there. We recorded mostly at night, because his studio was an old gas station that Norman’s father owned and during the day there was just too much racket and they used the attic to get the echo sounds.
So you recorded ‘Clark’s Expedition’ and I know you recorded in November ’57 ‘Rave One’, ‘Call on Cupid’ and ‘Dreamboat’ with Sonny West, and the two Terry Noland tracks, and of course the Holly recordings in December. I thought ‘Patty Baby’ was a good record.
It was a great record. It was a great piece for me to play on. I was real proud of it.
When the Big Beats played on these tracks, you were paid a session fee? How did it work?
Yes, a session fee. We weren’t on a regular contract or anything. Whenever we did something, we got paid.
And Norman paid you?
Yes. There wasn’t any issue about that.
I know you worked with Roy Orbison. Was this in the early days in Clovis?
Yes. He hung around the studio a lot, he was trying to get something going in Clovis, and to tell you the truth we just thought he was this weird little guy and we couldn’t figure out what his deal was. But of course we didn’t hear him sing until later. We didn’t record with him. He didn’t really have anything to record.
You have memories of the Sonny West ‘Rave On’ session?
Yes, it was late at night. And Sonny West’s a great guy. Very nice. As a matter of fact, when Earl (Slocomb), our bass player, got drafted, he and Sonny formed a band overseas, and played overseas.
Let’s get to the Holly sessions. ‘ Little Baby’, ‘Look at Me’, ‘Baby I Don’t Care’. Was that one session?
It was probably over two or three days. At night. Once I got to Clovis, Norman kind of wanted me to play on most everything that was being recorded, because I played completely different from Vi (Petty). In the past, Holly never used a piano player, and when he first started recording Vi was doing the piano work, but when I got there my style was so completely different, I was just more rock, more bluesy, and so he would put me on it.
Was that Buddy’s idea or Norman’s idea?
Both. Norman was completely for it. And Vi didn’t care at all. She was a very sweet lady, and she just wanted to do what it took to make great records. She knew we were different.
How did Buddy get to record ‘Little Baby’?
Well, I wrote the song. I had wanted to record it. And Buddy heard me playing it in the studio and he said, “I like that, can I record it,” and I said, “Sure.” And of course as all artists did in those days, he changed one line in it so he could be part of the writer royalties. Everybody did that back them.
It’s funny because he supposedly thought Norman did that to him, but he did the same thing to you.
Yes. The thing was, I wrote the song; Norman got 50% of everything we did in that studio. So Norman got 50%, Buddy Holly got 25% and I got 25%.
And Norman got the publishing as well….
Right. He made out like a bandit. People say, “Why did you put up with it?” Well, where would we have been without him? If he hadn’t taken us in and got us started, we wouldn’t have had any career at all.
At the time, was there resentment about this, or was it just the way things were?
My opinion was, it was just the way things were. If you didn’t want to do it, you could go somewhere else. And I always said, we’re not going to worry about this little money stuff, the records aren’t going to make us any money; it’s personal appearances that do.
When you were playing piano on those recordings, did Norman ever try to correct you?
He never did. He would just say here’s the song, “What do you think?” And I would just put in what I thought. That’s not to say he couldn’t turn me up or down on the record. But he liked what I did and the way I played.
Now Buddy didn’t play the piano. Did he ever make any suggestions as to how you should play it?
Was there ever any talk of you going on the road with Holly?
There might have been and I didn’t know it. I’ve heard that at one time there was, they wanted to put me into Holly’s group, but I wouldn’t have done that because my band were my friends.
How many takes did it take to record ‘Little Baby’?
It was very quick actually. We rehearsed it a few times and cut it with two or three takes. With no overdubbing, just us playing. It was done live. We were pretty quick.
Apart from those three tracks, did you play on any others with Holly?
Yes, ‘Mailman Bring Me No More Blues’. I did that one. You know, I need to go through Holly’s stuff and check and see. It’s 60 years ago and we did it in the middle of the night and I don’t remember what I did with him.
What about ‘Ready Teddy’? That’s a real rock ’n’ roll song.
Yes, it seems like I was on that too.
So basically on the rock ’n’ roll ones, Vi and Norman and presumably Buddy decided that you were a better rock’n’roll player than Vi, and they were quite happy with that?
They didn’t put it exactly like that. They said, “We want you to play on this,” and I said, “OK.”
What about some others? ‘Everyday’?
No, actually Vi was on that. She was playing the celeste.
‘Think It Over’?
No, I don’t think so. You could tell that’s Vi. Her style is just completely different from mine.
So, apart from Little Baby, did you suggest any of the songs Holly recorded?
No, no. He was gonna do them and he just wanted me to play on them.
Buddy Knox recorded a great Norman Petty composition, ‘All For You’ in Clovis in ’58. There’s been a lot of speculation about who played on it. Did you?
I don’t remember doing that, although we did some shows with him. And Jimmy Bowen and I were good friends, and he and I had a record label together called KenBow and we put out several records.
Did you hang out much with Holly and the Crickets?
Well we did. We’d go eat together, go places together. One interesting thing is we recorded quite a few tracks for The Big Beats, instrumentals, and I think only 4 or 6 or them ever came out (including ‘Clark’s Expedition’, ‘Big Boy’, ‘Rush Me’, and ‘Sentimental Journey’). But in all these years I’ve been trying to get those tapes from anybody that had the studio or took over and they were all happy to give them to me but they could never find them. And then about 6 weeks ago I heard from Shawn Nagy who’s doing a documentary about Norman Petty and the studio. About 18 months ago he flew down to Dallas and Interviewed Larry, Randall, the Big Bears sax player, Earl Slocomb the bass player and myself. He’s now taken over the Norman Petty estate. He called me and said, “You’re never going to believe this, I found your tapes, they were stored with some other tapes, in the basement of a downtown theater” (presumably the Lyceum Theater where Norman recorded Sonny West’s classic double-sider ‘Sweet Rockin’ Baby’ and ‘Rock-Ola Ruby’). Norman had run out of room in the studio and put stuff down there and everybody forgot about it. Shawn’s putting out a CD with all of those on there plus he’s going to include some tracks I did like ‘Little Baby’ and ‘Rave On’.
Were you in touch with Holly after you finished the sessions with him?
Not that much, though I will tell you a short story about that. We were in Iowa playing the ballrooms, playing the ballroom that Buddy played the last night of his life (The Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake), and they were coming in in a couple of days, so we said, “Let’s hang around and wait for them, have dinner with them.” So we were waiting and that day there started coming a giant snowstorm, so we said, “We can’t stay here,” so we took off and drove and as we were driving into St Louis the next day we heard about the crash. And I had left a note for Buddy in the dressing room on the mirror, saying, “I’m sorry we had to leave and sorry we missed you.”
Any other memories of recording with Holly? I mean, in the studio, who really had control — Holly or Petty?
It was Petty. I mean, Petty pretty much got along with everybody. Holly had great ideas, but that’s not to say Norman wouldn’t say, “No.” At that time Buddy and Norman were getting along. There weren’t any problems like there were later. That was after he’d been to New York and met those people up there who put something in his head. When I was there, everyone was just one big happy family. We were just kids having fun.
Colin Davies has a weekly radio show on Radio Fairfax in Fairfax, VA, which can be heard through his website www.theprofessorrocks.com