What Buddy Holly, Cover Songs, and Simplicity Teach Us About Audience

The suspects? They range from teenage garage bands, to wedding singers, to karaoke competitors, to American Idol contestants.

They all stand equally guilty of committing a serious offense: First-degree butchering of a good, classic, standard tune.

They sing…

…”Cover songs.”

(feel free to insert the collective, obligatory groan here)

That phrase wasn’t always a cue for audiophiles to duck and cover their ears, believe it or not.

Back in the 1950’s, almost as soon as one artist would release his latest song, another singer or band would come along and make their own version of the record. New artists and newly-formed groups would build their names and reputations by playing songs they knew. Songs from the radio. Songs from new records. Until they came up with enough music of their own to legitimately make them original artists, there wasn’t much else of a choice – or much else to play – than covers.

And so this became the way many artists made their own names.

Without cover songs, some of the most famous groups in all of musical history would cease to exist. Here’s a prime example:

Here is The Rolling Stones’ #1 breakout hit, “Not Fade Away”

… borrowed from a fellow by the name of Buddy Holly…

…who, in turn, borrowed the rhythmic backbone in that song from “Bo Diddley,” by, well…Bo Diddley (when you’re looking to top a guy who names songs after himself, there’s no room for subtlety).

Yep. Even Buddy was borrowing numbers from someone else.

Covers have become part of musical tradition, passing down songs from one generation to the next. Most often you’ll hear artists attempting their most faithful rendition of the original number. “Attempting” is usually about as far as they’ll ever get. Sometimes, though, they’ll make it their own, adding their voices, their style, and making a tune from months, years, even decades ago…something for today’s audiences.

The most recent example of this comes in the form of two tribute albums covering the music of Buddy Holly, “Listen To Me” and “Rave On,” named aptly after a couple Holly numbers. The former can be heard for free (the entire album, no less!) for a limited time on the Rolling Stone website.

Why Buddy Holly? Why now? Well, this month is Holly’s 75th birthday, or would be, if he lived to see it. Even if he isn’t around to celebrate, his fellow musicians are.

Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney is one of the musicians who honored Buddy's birthday this year.

The line-up is as diverse as a person could ask for, from Cee-Lo Green, to Zooey Deschanel, to Paul McCartney, to Kid Rock, to Pat Monahan [of Train], to Fiona Apple. You have to admit, few, few reasons – save the Grammy Awards – would ever have these musicians sharing the same room, much less, album.

But they do. And somehow, they not only make it work, but make it work for today.

Making music more than 50 years old still seem current is no small task. Holly lends a big hand with the heavy lifting. Noted for his simple chord structure and honest song writing, his music and lyrics provide a foundation for these artists never restricting itself to period or place.

Younger generations may not immediately recognize the name Buddy Holly, but they will recognize a majority of those aforementioned names. It may get them to listen to the originals. And maybe, if they like his music from that era, they may like some other musicians from that time.

Music, like any other product, is at its strongest when it is marketable to its largest audience.

Holly knew the bigger his made his themes, the bigger he made his audience.

The lyrics were simple. The chords were simple. The instrumentation was simple. The running time rarely ran more than two minutes.

80’s synthesizer-saturated songs can be dated in seconds. Even an auto-tuned electronic song from 2011 places itself in time immediately. But a guy with a guitar sounds the same, then, as it does, now. I would say that was Holly’s true genius.

I’ll leave you with some behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the making of the tribute album “Listen To Me.” I’m sure some of them will sound familiar, and if not, maybe they will in time.

You know, come to think of it, there are some cover songs I don’t mind.

Thanks to these artists and musicians like them who keep the music alive.

Do you agree that Buddy Holly’s simplistic-but-memorable music is timeless? How else does music relate to audience in a significant way? Did you know it was Buddy’s birthday this month?

Image credit to mem45414 and drinksmachine.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Cybernetic SAM

    YESSSSS!!!! Buddy Holly! So ahead of his time, and yes, simplicity was key to his remarkable success and remains because of its iconic sound! He was on to something; you definitely cannot pigeon hole him into a straight category in my opinion. He was like other masters of a different craft, like Pollock and Warhol, who were all artists and all saw something so different and yet so simple that has stood the test of time. I just went through my yearly kick of listening to his catalog, along with the other greats of his time! (I get into my moods and the only thing that seems pull me out is 50’s / 60’s rock, Pop and Folk)! Well done! I have always felt that this type of music has yet to be matched! As I always say, when I hear Mr. Holly or someone of equal importance in that legendary musical era: “they just don’t make music like they used to!” And yes, I thought this post was so appropriate as you mentioned his birthday and that was a day that I did, in fact, listen to a lot of the genius that is Buddy Holly! BRAVO! Excellent video examples also!

    • Eric

      Like your style, Sam! Very much agreed.

      Well, his versatility is probably one of his best assets. He grew up listening to dozens of genres of music, and you can hear it in his writing, especially later on, when he starts experimenting with genres outside the usual ones we find in the States (a latin flair is definitely evident…turns out he wanted to learn to play Flamenco guitar, one day).

      50’s and 60’s rock is where I live. That’s my address. It was more an interactive thing back then…people danced to it. You went out, heard live music, got on your feet, and it was a big, social thing. Funny to think more people listen to music alone on an iPod, today, than they do in public seeing a band perform.

      I’ve got way more to say and I’m starting to gain a reputation for outrageously long comments here on the blog…catch me ’round here sometime, we’ll chat old-school rock up.

      • Cybernetic SAM

        Hey, who cares – if it’s music and you got something to say let it alllllllll out! That’s what I say! I am much the same when it comes to good classic tunes. As for people like us who live and breathe it, I find far to hard to restrain talking about it, as it is easy to pull a muscle that way! 🙂

        • Eric

          Right on. 🙂 I’ve made a lot of friends, you and old, running around the country because of that music (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Graceland and Sun Studio in Memphis, and the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA, and Memorial/Crash Site in Mason City, IA)…even got to see a whole bunch of the greats from the era perform at the “Winter Dance Party 2010.” The Crickets. Bill Medley. Lesley Gore. Fabian. Freddie Cannon. Charlie Gracie. Tommy Allsup. The Orlons. The Drifters. Etc. Etc. Hell of a show! Moreover, some of those folks from the era may be old, but man, they still can cut a rug for a three-night-long concert weekend! It’s always a good time going out to see that music, and I guess that’s why I like it. The friends you make along the way are just icing on the cake.

  2. JPorretto

    With my band at least, cover songs by FAR get the best response from crowds. We’ve had our original songs on the radio and won many battle of the band contests. Yet the covers are what get the masses moving. So we try to mix half and half, and it seems to go over well. I also don’t understand the general contempt for cover bands.

    This all reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. “Good writers borrow, Great writers steal.” It’s true. Almost no one is so original that they don’t sound like someone before them. A twist on a classic is usually original enough for me…

    • Eric

      I’ll admit it. I actually played – of all things – electric violin for a DMB cover band, back in the day.

      Our first gig was at a bar in Joliet. Blues Brothers territory. Although the stage didn’t have chicken wire in front of it, the group looked about the same. I was improvising the whole time, so whatever the rest the band wanted to do, I played on. The originals were a little scary. The second we started playing familiar stuff? They were all about it.

      I’ve had the chance to hear some ridiculously good cover bands. The smarter ones try and add something to it, even if it’s only slight, but if the music’s performed well, more often than not you’ll always get a good reception.

      Certain songs are – or should be – off limits. Madonna’s “American Pie” earned her some serious demerits. So, you know…next time you’ve got a bar gig and a rowdy room…it’s not the time to wax melancholic with some of Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven.”

      Bust out the CCR. Etc.

      • Amanda

        Nice post Eric! I can see how cover songs get a big response–they’re songs people have already heard so they’re easier to dance and sing along to. I’ve not heard much Buddy Holly that I know of–but the video on here got me interested. I’ve always loved older music–it’s so classic! Some of my faves have always been: Johnny Cash, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and tons of rock from the 70s too. =) Great stuff!

        • Eric

          Thanks! Check out the YouTube video on the making of the new “cover” album…got some of today’s big names and a totally different vibe than Buddy’s original stuff, but not at all in a bad way. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee are two of my big faves…mostly because they never stopped and slowed down enough to write a ballad. Those guys cruise only to an up-tempo beat…great for road trips!

  3. amy

    Awesome post Eric! I’ve heard of all the above mentioned bands/singers but not much about Buddy Holly, with exception of Weezer’s song LOL. I love the late 50’s to mid 60’s (I’ve told my parents they’re not allowed to throw out their record albums) so I’m excited to do a little research into other artists from this time!

    I knew bands sang covers from other bands, but never really knew why. Now I know it’s so that they can build up their brand. Superb post!

    • Eric

      Easiest way to study up? Sirius XM or Pandora the 50’s and 60’s stuff. Doesn’t seem like work having to track down artists and songs that way. If you’re able to listen to it in the car? Better yet. I like to just to hear all the influence…who copied who, what inspired what…it’s funny to hear a Little Richard tune covered by Elvis, or a guitar lick you’d think was a Chuck Berry signature, lifted from a song intro years before his time.

      Cover songs – like Jeff said – usually get the best response, and once you’ve got the room on your side, then you’ve got a chance to slip in an original or two. Mostly, though, familiarity helps, too…if they know it, like it, and can dance to it…your band probably will earn another gig.


      • amy

        I’ve actually listened to 60’s Pop on Pandora a couple days, love it!!! Along with my Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sintra stations 🙂 Makes for a great day in my book!

  4. Joseph Giorgi

    I honestly haven’t heard much by Buddy Holly — then again, maybe I HAVE but didn’t realize it at the time. In any case, after reading your post and watching the attached clips, I can understand how modern rock has been influenced by the likes of Holly.

    Very cool post, Eric! You obviously know your stuff. 🙂

    Side note: it’s crazy to see such an early performance from the Stones. Jesus, look at Keith! Barely even the same person! Haha.

  5. Rachel

    Cover songs are a pretty neat way to market both bands. People who like the current artists covering Buddy Holly’s work are introduced to Buddy Holly, while fans of Buddy Holly might listen to these covers and discover recent artists they like as well. It’s win-win! Unless the cover is bad, of course. 😉 It’s a marketing strategy that the creators of Glee have definitely taken advantage of.

    Great post, Eric! Thanks for all the info.

  6. Eric

    Thanks, Joe! You probably have subliminally been introduced…I know the History Channel was using “Everyday” for their commercials earlier in the year (albeit a modern cover). I mentioned the Rolling Stones, but the Beatles (before they were the Beatles, and before they were the Silver Beatles) used to be the Quarrymen…their first big success there? Holly’s “Words of Love.” Lennon and McCartney, especially, have been recorded diddling around on Buddy’s tunes between sessions and on their own time…McCartney even owns the music rights to his entire catalog of work and is an adamant supporter of all things Buddy. Yet another example of how friggin’ ridiculously nice a person McCartney is.

    And yeah, agreed on the Stones…seeing them so clean-cut and in pressed, collar shirts, etc., just seems off. Then again, if early 60’s rock was a party, the dress-code was clean cut. Glad to see they cut loose after that!

  7. Eric

    Thanks, Rachel!

    You said it best. Win-Win for both artists.

    Haha, and yep, those folks behind “Glee” sure know it!

  8. Jill Tooley

    Happy birthday, Buddy Holly! It’s been too long since I’ve listened to his music, so thanks for the reminder. I think I’m also going to switch my Pandora station to 50s/60s classics this afternoon. 🙂

    I really enjoyed this post, Eric. The business of singing cover songs isn’t something I’ve thought about often, but it makes total sense. Back then, doing covers was a way to prove yourself until you found something to stand out on your own. Some of that still applies today (as Jeff mentioned) because popular songs are easily recognizable by fans and get them hyped for what’s to come. And in some rare cases, the covers are actually better than the originals – like “Blinded by the Light” (originally by Springsteen and redone by Manfred Mann) or “Mad World” (originally by Tears for Fears and redone by Gary Jules). Although, I suppose “better” is subjective as well. Some may consider those examples blasphemy…but hopefully you get my point! 😉 Different strokes for different folks, and all of that.

    Great post and appropriate videos. I’m sure Buddy would be honored if he were still around to see how much his music continues to affect people!

  9. Eric

    Word has it Springsteen listens to Buddy before all his shows “to keep him honest.” Found that tidbit neat.

    Definite respect points for moving over to the 50’s/60’s music today! I’ve got to get on Pandora and figure out how that works…this iPod Shuffle I have (and all 100 or so songs) just aren’t cutting it anymore.

    You’d be surprised where covers pop up. “Not Fade Away,” especially, has been ’round and back again…Rush…Pearl Jam…The Grateful Dead…Florence & The Machine…Stevie Nicks.

    Thanks for the compliments and glad you enjoyed it! Rave on!

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