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The birth of Motown isn't the only 50th anniversary pop music is noting this year: 2009 also marks the 50th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death. It would seem the perfect opportunity for the release of that long-awaited CD boxset that Holly's estate (i.e., his widow Maria Elena) has held up for far too long. And, sure enough, late January saw the release of a three-CD "best of" collection (which was first a Best Buy exclusive but is now available everywhere) and a two-CD "rarities" package. Unfortunately, in some ways, it's a little too little too late. For one thing, the packaging on both is extremely shoddy, some of the worst ever for a star of this magnitude. And live and rare tracks included on a terrific MCA vinyl box from the early '80s are missing. Nevertheless, aficionados will still be awfully pleased to have some of these tracks on CD for the first time ever.
Unlike most of rock's other early pioneers — who now often seem almost supernatural in their mythology — Holly remains the genre's great Everyman, a regular guy, almost nerd-ish in his style, who fell in love with Elvis early on and began creating his own art. He then took it to a new level with the first fully contained white rock band playing music penned by its own leader. The end result makes him one of the most important figures of the form, influencing an awe-inspiring number of styles, from Merseybeat (the Beatles' cover of his "Words of Love" is considered by some to be the definitive sound of that genre) and British blues-rock (the Stones' first hit was a cover of Holly's "Not Fade Away"), straight through to power-pop, pop-punk and country music (Waylon Jennings started as a Holly backing musician). In fact, in one of his crazier moments, the late, great James Brown once told this writer that he "and Buddy Holly" were two of the most important figures in the evolution of hip-hop ... though JB gave no examples as to why. Hell, his influence can even be seen locally today (as filtered through Elvis Costello) on Friendly Foes' Ryan Allen, both musically and image-wise.
Everything he wrote and recorded wasn't great, of course. And the rarities set — which isn't all that rare — is for completists only. Still, there's never been a better rock track recorded in any era than "Maybe Baby," along with so many others created with and without the Crickets (a variation of which gave the Beatles their moniker). And some of the more unfamiliar music on the Memorial set — "Lonesome Tears," "Reminiscing" (recorded with sax great King Curtis), "Rock Around with Ollie Vee" and perhaps the best take ever on Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" — should be aural treats for the uninitiated.
One of those "nerds" influenced by Holly was Pat Dinizio, leader of the Smithereens. That band even recorded a song named after Holly's widow. Pat DiNizio/Buddy Holly finds the artist recording a slew of Holly tracks with both a rock band and symphony strings backing him up. It actually plays much better than it sounds in concept. It's even quite beautiful at times. While it won't replace Holly's original recordings or any of the subsequent covers — from Blind Faith to Blondie — it's still a tasty little morsel for pop lovers everywhere.