Sunday, February 11, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print


Love not fade away: Guarding Buddy Holly's legacy

Seattle Times theater critic

Coming up

"Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," previews Tuesday-Wednesday, opens Thursday and runs through March 4, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $20-$73 (206-625-1900 or toll-free at 888-584-4849, or

He was a gangly musician from Lubbock, Texas, whose catchy songs ("Oh Boy," "Peggy Sue") are holy grails of American rock.

She was a demure young New Yorker, a native of Puerto Rico, who didn't know Buddy Holly from Holly Golightly.

That was in 1958, when the two met by chance in a Manhattan music publisher's office. Yet today, Maria Elena Holly, now in her 70s, can recall that encounter with the legendary rocker like it was yesterday.

"My aunt was working in that office, and I was just covering the reception desk after someone quit," she remembers. "Right away, Buddy started with the flirting. 'What's your name? You have such a cute accent, where are you from?'

"I said, 'You know what, you have one too!' Because he had that Texas twang."

The attraction was mutual. "I fell in love with him immediately. He was very polite, funny, very sure of himself."

Holly was also in a hurry. After they lunched that day at Howard Johnson's, he spirited Maria Elena Santiago away from his skeptical manager and her strict aunt and, red rose in hand, proposed.

In two weeks, they wed. And six months later, on Feb. 3, 1959, Holly died on tour, in a plane crash. He was just 22 years old. Rocker Ritchie Valens and J.P Richardson ("The Big Bopper") also perished, and the event was enshrined in the Don McLean song "American Pie" as "the day the music died."

Thanks to the wonder of vinyl, Holly's music endured, inspiring such musical titans as Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

And it lives on in Maria Elena, a symbolic figure for many a Holly fan. Grief-stricken by his death, she miscarried their baby soon after. She later remarried, had three kids and is now a vivacious, divorced grandmother living in Dallas. Yet touting Buddy Holly remains her life's work.

Soon she'll be in Seattle for the 5th Avenue Theatre opening of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," a tribute musical that ran more than 12 years in London and has toured widely.

Like the 1978 film "The Buddy Holly Story," the stage show dramatizes the brief life of its subject (born Charles Hardin Holley) and resurrects many of his timelessly appealing hit songs.

Along with seeing David Bennett's 5th Avenue staging of the show, starring Seattle rocker Billy Joe Huels (of the Dusty 45s), Maria Elena will "visit" an old Gibson guitar of Holly's, now owned by media mogul Michael Malone.

Such appearances, and looking after Holly's interests with record companies, publishers, and media companies, keep her busy.

Holly's legacy has paid off well for Maria Elena and his other heirs. But her devotion to his memory is not just financial. It is emotional and musical, too.

"Buddy died for his music, and I have to be out there telling people about it," she explains.

With her help, Holly is still prized for mingling country, rock and other pop influences, deftly, buoyantly. He is also admired for his rare and precocious versatility.

"To me, none of the songs Buddy wrote sound alike. He had a different sound for saying different things," Maria Elena says. "The songs are so simple, but so sophisticated, and everyone who sings one makes it their own.

"James Taylor did 'Everyday' his way. The Rolling Stones did 'Not Fade Away' their way. And they were both big, big sellers."

Maria Elena's favorite Holly tune? The orchestral ballad "True Love Ways," because, "Buddy wrote it for me."

Holly fans pine for a definitive boxed set of his recordings, made with his band the Crickets and, briefly, as a solo artist.

Maria Elena says the recording and song rights are tied up in a lawsuit she filed against MCA Records over what she regards as exploitation of Holly early in his career.

Why is she still so energetically engaged with Holly's legacy, nearly 50 years after his death? "That's a good question," she answers wistfully. "I say that I'm married to a ghost.

"My whole life has been revolving around Buddy Holly. It's very difficult. But we were so attached to each other. I just feel I need to do this for him."

Misha Berson:

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company


Get home delivery today!