If you took out a map of the United States and traced a line beginning at New Orleans and running up the Mississippi River to Memphis, the tip of your finger would pass through the very birthplace of rock and roll—a region where nearly every step in its early development took place and where nearly every significant contributor to that development was born. But if the foundation of rock and roll was mostly laid down within 100 miles of the Mississippi River in the mid-1950s, the blueprint for what would follow required the further contributions of a young man born 700 miles to the west on this day in 1936: Charles Harden Holley. Writing and performing under the name Buddy Holly, this Lubbock, Texas, native would have an influence on rock and roll that would far outlast his tragically shortened career.
Buddy Holly spent his west Texas youth learning the piano, the violin, the banjo and the guitar. He formed his first group while still in junior high school. Performing as Buddy & Bob, Holly and his school friend Bob Montgomery played what they called "western and bop"—one of the many creative names used in the mid-1950s to describe the various hybrids of blues, R&B and country & western that would later coalesce into rock and roll. When Buddy & Bob opened in Lubbock for a young kindred spirit named Elvis Presley in 1955, Holly saw very clearly in what direction he wanted to go. And while Holly would never be able to compete with Presley in terms of good looks and charisma, he would far outdo Elvis in terms of purely musical creativity.
By 1956, Elvis had become a superstar performing material originally written by others, and though Buddy Holly was still an unknown, he was blazing a trail that future giants like the Beatles would follow by writing, performing and eventually producing his own material. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would draw heavily on the Buddy Holly catalog either for cover material or direct songwriting inspiration, and Holly would be a tremendous formative influence on the young Bob Dylan, among many others.
In a recording career that lasted little more than 18 months, Holly contributed an astonishing number of classic songs to the rock-and-roll canon, including "That'll Be The Day," "Peggy Sue," "Not Fade Away," It's So Easy," "Everyday," "Oh Boy!" and "Maybe Baby." Born on this day in 1936, he died in 1959 at the age 23 in rock and roll's most famous plane crash.