[Interviewer's note: John Beecher, who will be 60 June 3, has played a principal life-time roll in keeping the Buddy Holly era alive, and his list of credits are impressive: head of UK's Buddy Holly Fan Club in the '60s; co-author of the Remembering Buddy bio; chief advisor and inspirer to Paul McCarney's The Real Buddy Holly Story documentary; and present day head honcho of Rollercoaster Records - one of the world's largest reissue labels of U.S. '50s rockabilly legends.
"We [the British] kept up the interest in anything Holly for a long, long time," says Beecher. "I don't want to be unkind, but it seemed most folks in the U.S. moved on to other singers and soon forgot."
The almost immediate disappearance of Buddy Holly tracks from the U.S. mainstream-radio playlists shortly after his untimely death on February 3, 1959 has always troubled John. But in the UK it was a different story, as the frequent Holly and other high-profile rockabilly record spins played an historic role in a massive modification of rock 'n' roll that eventually caused the U.S. to give up its rock crown to the British.
"There were Buddy Holly records on the top ten charts in the UK in 1963 alongside the Beatles and Cliff [The Shadows] and all were ready to acknowledge the originals [U.S. rockabilly legends] as their musical mentors," says Beecher. "When I wrote to U.S. magazines or record companies about Holly [right after his death], they made it plain that they and their readers and buyers had 'moved on' and they couldn't understand why he was still popular here."
The rockabilly phenomena had indeed moved on in the U.S., principally because the 4/4-time, guitar-instrumental rock craze and vocalized beach songs of the early '60s, complete with Fender guitars, tremolo bars, minor chords, and reverb, made it old-fashioned. But the rockabilly legends, with Buddy Holly leading the way, would have their revenge, as their music became a principal stimulant to the creation of a remarkable British-rock expression that quickly ended the careers of a slew of U.S. surf and frat-rock bands beginning in 1964 - targeting especially those artists who refused to jump on the British rock 'n' roll bandwagon.
In the following interview, John Beecher's account of the U.S. Rockabilly Invasion of the UK in the late '50s and early '60s is straightforward and fascinating, and his views paint a lucid picture of rockabilly's unforeseen major contribution to the birth of rock 'n' roll in Great Britain that went on to impact the world in a manner that no other music has ever been able to match.
Many thanks to you, John for your invaluable recollections.]
[Lance Monthly] When and where were you born, John?
John Beecher Dorking, Surrey, England June 3, 1944 - some of the last German bombs were falling around that time.
[Lance Monthly] Could you describe the type of neighborhood in which you grew up?
John Beecher A small rural farming area just South of Brockham in Surrey, about five miles from Dorking, in the shadow of the North Downs ridge known as Box Hill. We lived at the edge of the village looking out over fields and woodlands to where my parents May and Charles and grandmother Maud had been moved when they were bombed out of London, which was about 30 miles away.
We were poor, but not desperately so, as my father had a good office job with an insurance company. It was, however, the "make do and mend" era, when money wasn't spent unless absolutely necessary. We kept chickens for eggs and meat and grew our own vegetables. I spent much of my time as a child out in the fields and woods with friends, and the evenings were spent either at local activities in the village, reading, or listening to the radio.
[Lance Monthly] Did you have a large birth family? How many brothers and sisters do you have?
John Beecher No, there was just me. I had been born premature and was lucky to [have] survived and I think the experience put my mother off any further childbearing!
[Lance Monthly] Were there any members of your family (including you) interested in making a career in music?
John Beecher No, my father was a great collector of records, 78s, of course - mostly jazz, and I heard a lot of Fats Waller and Bing Crosby as well as the popular bands. My mother played the piano and attempted to teach me that and the ukulele, but I didn't feel I had any great ability. I did, [however], have a go at the guitar and tea-chest bass during the skiffle era, when just about everyone tried their hand at something because it was the kind of music that looked easy.
[Lance Monthly] What kind of music did you like to listen to on the radio during your youth?
John Beecher Just about anything that wasn't the kind of thing they [mostly] played here on the BBC: syrupy dance bands, brass bands, and light classical music. Whenever something with a beat came on, I would be up against the speaker, but that was pretty rare. I heard my first rock 'n' roll record, Bill Haley's "See You Later, Alligator" on my way to the yearly visit of the fair, and it was so loud and so exciting I couldn't believe it. But I remember thinking it was a bit like some of the stuff my father liked, and I suppose there were roots in Fats Waller's music along with Louis Jordan and the other post-war bands.
There were a couple of programs on the radio that sometimes featured RnR records. One, [called] "Two-Way Family Favorites" was a request program at lunchtime on Sundays that featured records played for servicemen on duty in Germany from their wives and suchlike. As many of them were teenagers, naturally they asked for Elvis and the others - and a few R&B records were also played - but generally the "censor" made sure Pat Boone was played instead of The Flamingos.
Then I heard from a friend about Radio Luxembourg, a commercial station brodcasting in English from Europe, and AFN, which was intended for US forces. The reception was awful but you could hear what you wanted to hear, via hip sounding DJs like Gasping Gus rather than the staid BBC announcers.
And that was the way I heard most rock 'n' roll until Skiffle Club (later known as Saturday Club) started on the BBC around 1957 - a real first, [which was] a music program actually intended for teenagers. Of course, the "squares" were running it and much of what they played was terrible, as the BBC was limited to very few actual records per hour; the rest had to be live music from bands and sometimes groups who had passed the BBC audition.
But we suffered the Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis [artists] that they obviously felt they had to try and indoctrinate us with, as Elvis, Jerry Lee, and others could also be heard on record, and eventually some of the U.S. artists performed live when they came to the UK on tour. I have tapes of some of the shows and in retrospect it was all pretty tame, but at the time it was something to be looked forward to all week.
So radio was not a great influence; if you wanted to hear records you liked you could hang around record shops and later coffee bars or cafes where they had a jukebox. Or friends who were better off would have records and you'd get to hear things that way. I'm still amazed we were aware of so much given the very limited amount of teenage music broadcast at the time when there was basically one BBC program devoted to popular music and entertainment: the Light Programme, which covered the whole country. No local radio, and, of course, no commercial stations in the whole UK.
[Lance Monthly] One of the things that impressed the Beatles a great deal when they arrived in New York City on February 7, 1964, was the great diversity of the independent television and radio stations. Surely, during the skiffle era there had been a lot of grumbling about the British Broadcasting Company's governmental control of what was to be aired? And did anyone stand out as a principal conveyor, who lobbied for less restrictive programming?
John Beecher Yes, people did complain, but it was more the legislation that was intended to protect live musicians and record companies than the fault of the BBC. There was a "needletime" agreement between the record companies represented by PPL, the Musicians' Union, and the Beeb. PPL licensed the labels music to the BBC which meant the Corporation could only play records under the terms of the license; it cost them about £35 in fees every time they played a record and they could only play a certain number of minutes of records in a three-month period of broadcasting. So they employed a lot of orchestras (and later groups and bands) to play live music. In doing so they promoted the cause of live music and gave employment to thousands of musicians - if your band was on the BBC you were something of a celebrity. So although we teenagers complained about the situation, we didn't know these reasons for the lack of records on the air.
Our heroes like Jack Good (producer of teen TV programs like "Oh Boy!") may have made protests in their press columns, but really there was no great movement to get things changed. That only happened in the late 1960s when pressure to play more records and a change from "Establishment" producers to genuine music-loving producers like Johnny Beerling (who became Controller of the first real national UK pop program, BBC Radio One), whose negotiations with PPL resulted in higher allocations of needletime.
PPL, of course, represented the very labels that wanted their records to be played so they would be hits! But once they were hits, they didn't want them played too much or they felt people wouldn't buy them if they could hear them for free. [This is] the same logic as today's free downloads that upset the major labels. Bernie Andrews (who by the '60s was producing Saturday Club) told me recently that the program was allocated something like eighteen minutes of needletime for each two hours of broadcasting. And, although film soundtracks and "review records" could boost this, it would be rare to hear more than thirty minutes of records in a two-hour show; the rest would be chat and live music from bands with singers and groups who had passed the traditional BBC audition.
And, of course, we had Luxembourg and AFN [that] the Beatles must have listened to like the rest of us; but sometimes the signal was weak and it was irritating, so I can understand their delight when they heard WABC and WNEW playing the latest hits over and over, clear as a bell. When I was about fourteen, I started a petition to send to Radio Luxembourg demanding that they increase their signal power (I didn't understand the technicalities of this, of course) and went around our area with my girlfriend knocking on doors asking people to sign. The neighbors must have thought I was some kind of nut, if they didn't know already. But they signed.
[Lance Monthly] The UK skiffle era was interesting. How did that come about and explain to our readers what a skiffle band is.
John Beecher That's a long story, but in order to explain, you should go listen to Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line" or Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey's "Freight Train." They played the music that originated in the U.S., where poor folks would hold rent parties to raise money and everyone would come along with an instrument, or an improvised instrument like a tub bass or washboard and play along.
Ken Colyer was an English merchant seaman who traveled the world and used to stop off in New Orleans and New York, and head for the clubs and record stores looking for the jazz music he loved. He heard skiffle bands and brought the concept back to the UK where he eventually formed a skiffle group among musicians, performing the traditional songs he had learned. He didn't achieve real fame and fortune, but made some very traditional-sounding and much admired skiffle records, whereas Lonnie, Chas and others were more commercial and eventually reaped some of the benefits by having hits with their recordings.
Nearly every [UK] musician who became famous in the early '60s had been a member of a skiffle group - the Beatles are the best-known example, but there are hundreds of others. It was easy to start a group - all you needed was one guitar, a tea chest and broomstick to make a bass, a washboard from the kitchen, and off you went to the local youth club to make a racket. The craze lasted about a year or two at most, but the benefits are still being felt as, until that time, few people thought of making music because of the concept that you had to be a professional in order to do so. A lot of the fairly amateur bands got onto the BBC's Skiffle Club and many of them were actually pretty good; what they lacked in professionalism they made up for with sheer enthusiasm and vitality.
[Lance Monthly] According to Albert Goldman's bio, "The Lives of John Lennon," a fellow by the name of Larry Parnes promoted the first British rock star named Tommy Hicks. He also discovered others artists such as Marte Wilde, Billy Furry, Johnny Gentle, and Dickie Fields (The Sheik of Shake). Goldman stated that Parnes was to the UK as Col. Tom Parker was to the U.S. What are your thoughts on Parnes and how did these British artists compare in their expressions of rock 'n' roll to that of the U.S. '50s pioneering artists?
John Beecher Well, for a start, I wouldn't believe too much of anything Goldman says, but Parnes was certainly a Parker-type figure; I doubt he had quite as much as a hold or made such a percentage on his artists. Tommy Steele (nee Hicks) was his biggest star for a long while and I remember meeting both of them backstage at the Kingston Granada in 1961. I had sent a message back to Tommy that I wanted to make him an honorary member of the Buddy Holly fan club. I had heard he was a fan and he certainly acted like one.
When Larry saw the newsletters and stuff I was giving Tommy, he told me he needed someone to look after the fan clubs for the artists he managed and gave me his card, saying, "Come and see me when you come up to London." I had been told by another Parnes' artist that he was gay (or "queer" as we would have said then) and so I never followed this up. (I also had more than enough to do handling the Holly fan club.)
Larry was undoubtedly the most successful of the RnR managers; he had some good artists, including Vince Eager (we've just released a CD by him). And, of course, Marty and to a greater extent Billy Fury were having hits and touring all the time. Everyone thought he did a good job for his artists; he gave them a place to stay, fed them, gave them their new stage names and set them off on the path to fame. Many of his British rock 'n' rollers gave the U.S. originals a good run for their money on stage. (If they were a little lacking on their records it was only because British production techniques were sometimes a little soft, and many A&R men were living on past "pop" glories and wanting strings on everything when the fans wanted pure RnR.)
The message to anyone who succeeded was, "get off this Rock 'n' Roll kick and become an all-round entertainer." Tommy did this and lost most of his credibility while making a lot of money on TV radio and in stage musical shows. Imagine how different things would have been if the Beatles had allowed George Martin to push them in that direction, and you will understand how let-down we felt when Tommy went from "Rock with The Caveman" to "Little White Bull" or "Flash, Bang Wallop" in a matter of months. Bloody traitor!
Terry Dene, Marty Wilde, and Billy Fury had it all and stayed pretty true to their roots, although they all got a bit soft in the '60s. But then so did Elvis.
[Lance Monthly] Goldman says that Elvis Presley was not accepted in the northern metropolis of Liverpool, as his music was not considered "heavy stuff." In fact, he states that 280-lb, 6' 4" Mersey rocker, Ted "Kingsize" Taylor said Elvis was a bit "pouffy." What are your thoughts on this and what U.S. rock 'n' roll artist made the biggest impact in the UK during the '50s?
John Beecher Well, that's Goldman again and to use a tired old British phrase, I think he's talking bollocks. Elvis was accepted everywhere - well okay, my mum didn't like him much, but she doesn't count. If he was so disliked in Liverpool, how come Billy Fury was practically an Elvis clone? And Kingsize Taylor for that matter. The only problem us guys had with Elvis was [that] the girls liked him a little too much, but if Elvis got 'em a little too worked up when you were next to them in the cinema, there might be a payoff later if they thought you were a bit cute, too. I never heard anyone call Elvis "pouffy," especially in the early days. Were they all too tough for that kind of stuff in Liverpool? I doubt it. You need to ask a few Liverpool musicians where they got their ideas from. Kingsize Taylor may have had a great stage show, but if he really said that, I doubt his sanity or his memory.
As for Rock 'n' Rollers from the U.S., well we liked all the obvious people: Holly, Cochran, Vincent; in fact, the key seemed to be anyone who toured here was assured of a following for life - Elvis excepted, of course - and it was a shock to me to find out in the early and mid - '60s that people in the U.S. had dropped interest in all the originals, while they were still on the charts in England.
When I wrote to U.S. magazines or record companies about Holly, they made it plain that they and their readers and buyers had "moved on" and they couldn't understand why he was still popular here. Some put it down to a kind of morbid fascination, which didn't explain why Haley, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, and Chuck Berry could tour here to packed houses right through the '60s and often couldn't get work or record deals in the U.S. We loved 'em and never forgot - it seems like it took America a long time to remember the originators and I don't know why that was.
We didn't get a lot of the classic doo-wop groups over here and so that stuff was pretty well unknown, apart from a few that went pop, like the Teenagers - same with a lot of lesser-known rockabilly artists. But when record collectors and dealers like Breathless Dan Coffey and Paul Sandford started getting over to the U.S. in the '60s and bringing those records back here, word spread on the Sun singles and the New York doo-wop groups, and those records are probably as well-known here now as they would have been if they'd been hits.
[Lance Monthly] According to Goldman, Kingsize Taylor had an uncle that worked in immigration who was able to latch onto some U.S. rock releases before they were aired on the UK airways. He reportedly gave his nephew a copy of Gary Bond's U.S. "New Orleans" hit, which Taylor and his band, within three days, rehearsed and performed before the Bond's track was released in the UK. What are your thoughts on this and do you recall this happening to any other U.S. rock 'n' roll releases?
John Beecher Uh-oh, Goldman again. You will have gathered that I don't much dig what he has to say on Elvis and Lennon. Well, with Elvis I couldn't say, as I didn't see that happen from close-up, but with Lennon it was different. I knewthat a lot of what he attributed wasn't true as I watched it happen; he tried to destroy Lennon's soul for commercial gain and I think that's unforgivable. A bit like the tales Ellis Amburn told on Holly - so many of his facts that were able to be checked were so out of line [that] it made one doubt his assertions on anything he wrote.
But yes, it did happen and I'm sure it happened more in cities where there were docks and thus, people coming in with records that were out in the U.S. but not here (sometimes there was up to a three-month delay on release date for one reason or another). But Kingsize Taylor performing it would hardly have made much of an impact outside of the clubs in Liverpool. He also would have been unable to perform it on BBC radio live (if he had the opportunity) as the same restrictions by the publisher would have been in place, and BBC producers were sticklers for abiding with those restrictions; they were like a government department.
So, it's really a non-story I feel, except that records that were never released here still had an impact in Liverpool because they became known locally through the "dockland connection," which is a much more interesting story if it was an obscure R&B record [rather] than a top 20 U.S. hit that you might hear on AFN before it was released here anyway!
In a similar story, a friend of mine, Mike Berry, had a sister who went out with a US airman and he would call around and bring her records from the PX that were pretty well unknown here. One of these was "Bloodshot Eyes" by Wynonie Harris. Mike heard this, learnt it off the record, and performed it on stage; it became a very popular number. I tried to trace the original in order to buy it and had to settle for a calypso version, as the store couldn't get the Wynonie version. We'd have found out much later about this music if it hadn't been for Mike's sister's boyfriend.
[Nevertheless] no one could [legally] release or broadcast a new song until the original had been released here, without permission from the publisher. Thus, anyone wanting to cover "That'll Be the Day" (and Larry Page, "The Teenage Rage" did) before the Crickets' version got released would generally only be able to release theirs when the original came out on Coral here. Sometimes this worked and a local "cover" went into the charts and the original failed, as with Marty Wilde's versions of "Donna" and "Sea of Love." But it was risky and usually the original won the day, as, quite frankly, it was usually a better version.
[Lance Monthly] So you started a Buddy Holly fan club? When was that and did you meet Buddy when he toured the UK?
John Beecher No, I didn't meet the Crickets when they toured the UK in 1958. I was still in school and there was no way I would have been allowed to travel to London and stay out that late! I saw them on TV when they did "Maybe Baby" on the "Off The Record" TV show. Until then I didn't know that Buddy Holly was a member of the Crickets!
I realized in 1960 that there wasn't a fan club according to the music papers who advertised such things, so [I] wrote to Decca/Coral in the UK to ask them to put me in touch with whoever could give me permission to re-start it. They forwarded my letter to Chris Griffin (later known as Tony Kent), who had run the official club in the UK for a couple of years. He wrote back and said he didn't have time for it anymore and would I like to take it over. He gave me some hints on what to do; getting stuff printed and getting various permissions.
I did this and Tony Hall of Coral Records agreed they would send on any requests to me. The next week, before I had got anything printed up, I put a small ad in the New Musical Express asking for information. When I got home a week later, there were about 300 letters which had been delivered that day and this went on for several days. I had to rush out and get things printed; hence, the early newsletters and other material were hardly exciting as I really didn't know what I was doing. But eventually, with help from my mother, May, and in the early days my girlfriend, Tricia, it all fell into place and we became one of the largest fan clubs in the UK, second only to that for Elvis.
For the next six years it took up all my spare time and another girlfriend, Susie, who became my first wife, helped with the mail and memberships; but we never really caught up with it all!
The nicest part was being in touch with Buddy's parents, Ella and L.O., and I can say that without them it wouldn't have been possible, as they sent us all sorts of information and photographs that kept up our enthusiasm. The Crickets also helped out and were pretty nice considering all we ever asked 'em was, "What was Buddy really like." Despite that, we became pals. Norman and Vi Petty sent us information from time to time, but mostly they obstructed us in our efforts to gain access to their photographs, recordings, and film - something I found really hard to understand until later, when I think I worked out that Norman was just waiting for an opportunity to make some money. Either that or he was retentive for no good reason, as he had material Buddy's parents would have loved to have heard or seen, and he kept it from them as well.
[Lance Monthly] You say that you couldn't understand why the U.S. mainstream rock fans began to lose interest in Presley and other rockabilly artists while they were still hot in the UK? Here's my take on that: When the guitar instrumental craze (with The Ventures leading the pack) and Beach Boy surf music began to dominate in the early '60s, it made most of the '50s rock 'n' roll releases old fashion. New and fascinating guitar leads and riffs with reverb and tremolo had become novel (especially those introduced by The Ventures) and four-four time began to dominate over the two-four country time of rockabilly. I was inspired and began my music career as lead guitarist for my group, The Knights during that time. Didn't The Shadows make a similar impact in the UK?
John Beecher They did - and you might have a point - but the Shadows played much the same music, had grown up through the rock 'n' roll era, and if anything, they continued to promote that music until they too became "all-round entertainers." And even through that era, the original rock 'n' rollers didn't become sidelined, they carried on appearing in the UK alongside Cliff and The Shadows and all the other groups, right up to and including the Beatles. There were Buddy Holly records on the top ten charts in the UK in 1963 alongside the Beatles and Cliff, and all were ready to acknowledge the originals as their musical mentors.
The Beatles might have inspired, just as the Ventures inspired you, but they were always ready to look back, and they were thrilled to meet Little Richard when he toured here just like the rest of us. I get the impression that things had moved on over there to the exclusion of the original rock 'n' rollers, although that's just my opinion. Certainly Coral Records in the U.S. didn't want to know about Buddy Holly or the Crickets, except inasmuch as they knew there was a market for "new" Holly recordings in the UK.
[Lance Monthly] Actually, I have to give credit to George Tomsco and The Fireballs for first putting the guitar-instrumental rock genre on the map in 1959, even though The Ventures took the lead worldwide with this music style. How did The Fireballs, The String-A-Longs, and The Ventures fair in UK's mainstream market during their heydays? Did the music by these groups create an explosion of guitar-instrumental garage bands in your part of the world like it did in the States?
John Beecher No, I don't think I'd put it quite like that. Duane Eddy remained popular here throughout and there were many other instrumental hits. I think I'm right in saying that The Fireballs only had the one UK hit - same for the String-A-Longs. Every band I knew did a couple of Ventures' hits on stage, but the big influence was undoubtedly the Shadows.
We wouldn't have know what garage bands were in those days; but thinking about it now, I did hear a few! BTW, Norman Petty asked me to start a fan club for The Fireballs, and I found a fan called Tony Mindham and helped him set one up. This was just before "Gunshot"/ "Quite A Party," and I think Tony and I got some credit from Norman for making it a hit; but, other than sending in a few request cards to Saturday Club, I don't think either of us did much. It was just a great record.
[Lance Monthly] It has been widely stated that the music of Buddy Holly and The Crickets contributed more to the early development of Paul McCartney and John Lennon's compositions than that of the other early U.S. rockers. What are your thoughts on this?
John Beecher Well, they both said so, and I hear bits of Holly in their early songs, so I guess I would agree with that, although you hear other influences too. Holly and Allison made it look easy to write simple love songs (it's not!) and I think Lennon and McCartney took it from there.
[Lance Monthly] John, did the Petty's reluctance in giving one hundred percent support toward your Buddy Holly Fan Club offend you? Could you elaborate on your relationship with the Pettys during that time for our readers?
John Beecher I don't know if I would say it offended me, but I was terribly disappointed. I couldn't believe they didn't care whether the fans saw the pictures and films they had or not, and I was more concerned that they seemed not to treat Buddy's parents well. Mrs. Holley wrote to say that she was trying to get films and pictures for us, but that "Mr. Petty was not willing to let anyone see the films." I knew that anyway, for he told me the lighting wasn't good enough on the UK tour and they would remain private. When these films were finally shown after Norman's death, they were a sensation - even after all that time - and the quality was surprisingly good.
I got to know Norm and Vi pretty well; whenever they came to London they would call and we'd meet up for dinner or something. One time Norman came to my parents' house to meet a journalist who was doing a story on the fan club and Holly's continuing popularity. Through that he introduced me to a music publisher, Lee Pincus, who later offered me a job. That's how I got into publishing, running his UK office for a while.
The Pettys were always gracious and kind to me personally, but practically refused to answer any meaningful questions concerning Holly and The Crickets. It was hard work getting anything out of them, although Vi softened in later years when I worked on the BBC/MPL documentary and allowed them access to all the material she had.
Maybe Norman wanted to keep it all a mystery, I don't know. But his refusal to release pictures, even to Coral for album covers, seems kind of strange when one sees now all that he had that could have been used to create wonderful artwork, instead of the same old pictures that were used over and over again - for example, "Showcase," "Greatest Hits," etc.
[Lance Monthly] Did Buddy Holly historian, Bill Griggs, seek out your help when he organized The International Buddy Holly Society in the mid-'70s?
John Beecher Yes he did. He asked for advice and I told him, "Keep up with the mail," which is what I'd never been able to do. He told me later that was good advice and it is, of course, how people judge you when running a fan club. Many others have tried and only a few have succeeded, usually because interest hasn't been as frantic as it was back in the '50s and '60s.
[Lance Monthly] What was your impression of The Beatles when the group's music first entered the UK's mainstream market, given that you were a huge fan of the U.S. '50s rock 'n' roll artists?
John Beecher They didn't bother me too much. I liked "Love Me Do" and remember playing it on a jukebox a few times in a cafe I used to visit at lunchtime. I thought they had rock 'n' roll souls, I suppose. After that, I bought a couple of albums, enjoyed the fact they did Carl and Buddy songs, and that was about it.
When The Crickets toured, we went to see "Hard Day's Night" at the cinema where the premiere had been the day before, I think. They [Crickets] were impressed with the songs, especially Sonny [Curtis,] who got the albums from EMI and went home to rave about them to folks at Liberty Records and others. Later on, I liked Lennon's stuff because of his political stance and the fact [that] he spoke out on issues I felt the same about. I bought a few of his albums. I suppose it would be fair to say [that] I recognized their talent even if I wasn't thrilled by everything they did.
[Lance Monthly] What is your all-time favorite song by Holly and why?
John Beecher "That'll Be the Day," and because it's the first one [by The Crickets that] I heard, I can still go back to that moment when a friend, Mick Pinnock, dragged me into his house and put the 78 on the turntable. "Tell Me How" would be a close second, because when I bought "Maybe Baby," I couldn't believe how good the flipside was, and that stayed with me too.
[Lance Monthly] In approximate numbers, how big is the Buddy Holly fan base presently in the UK and would you say that West Texas '50s rockabilly is more popular than that of the other U.S. '50s rock 'n' roll artists?
John Beecher That's impossible to tell, Dick. People don't join fan clubs any more. There is a magazine [called] "Holly International" that is the nearest thing. You would have to ask what their circulation is, but I still don't think you'd ever get even an approximate answer because fans of Holly are assimilated into society now. We used to be oddballs liking a dead singer in some folks' eyes. Now his CDs are in supermarkets and [his] songs [are] on the radio all the time, when it would have been an event in the '70s, even the late '60s.
The difference with the rockabilly fans is that they were younger for a long time, like in the '70s when teenagers got into that music in a big way. It produced a whole lot of people who are now grown up, but twenty or more years behind us, who know more and have more of those records than we do, [with] many of them still going to hops and digging that music.
[Lance Monthly] Was Rollercoaster Records your first label venture? Aside from your ardent work with The Buddy Holly Fan Club, in what other musical endeavor did you take part?
John Beecher I joined a publishing company and signed artists and songs, produced a few records, plugged the songs around the radio stations, wrote articles, sleeve notes, [and] compiled reissue albums for MCA and other companies, until one day I thought it would be fun to start a label and went out on my own, opening a record shop and cafe (Smokey Joe's Cafe) in South London in the 1970s.
[Lance Monthly] What is your knowledge of Buddy's and Petty's business relationship?
John Beecher Only what I have been told by relatives and friends of Buddy's and what Norman and Vi revealed (which wasn't much, intentionally, at least). I think the relationship with the Crickets started off well and went sour because Norman preferred working with music and musicians to taking care of business. He was not a good businessman, although he gained a reputation for being tough. In my own experiences dealing with Norman, I found that instead of making a decision, he would prevaricate and make vague promises which were never kept, probably because he couldn't decide what would be for the best.
He had charm and claimed to have Christian values, but I have found that folks who assert their religious beliefs and quote God are the ones to watch out for. Those who quietly live their lives in a moral way and have their own beliefs, which they keep to themselves, are generally better people. That's a little like comparing attending a Quaker meeting for worship (where, for the most part, the gathering is silent and communal) and going to a Fundamentalist Church, where there's a lot of fear and shouting and hollering about going to hell if you don't behave. I would prefer the Quakers.
I suspect that by the time Buddy (and later the Crickets) discovered what had been going on with their income that had been directed to Clovis, it was too late for Norman to regain trust and he knew this. Thus, he burned all his boats with Buddy and cold-shouldered his attempts to get his royalties. Soon, lawyers were involved in getting Buddy his money and the process would have taken years to resolve.
When I visited Clovis many years later, I saw the problem at first hand; more time was being spent on looking after the Petty's investments and cats than was spent analyzing royalty statements and making payments to writers. Royalty income statements were piled up where they had been placed for years after the checks had been paid in. In all my years talking to artists and musicians who relied on Nor Va Jak and Norman Petty Productions to pay them their shares, I have seen no evidence of any royalty statements from those companies. It was not until MPL took over Nor Va Jak that writers received regular statements and payments.
Buddy's parents hesitated to talk of such matters in the 1960s because they had gone back to Clovis and allowed Norman to take over their son's musical heritage--a huge mistake, as it turned out. And Maria Elena didn't respond to questions about anything in that era; I suspect that only later did she realize just how much control Norman had over the demo tapes and the money that came from Coral after Buddy died. Buddy would have been disgusted that Norman effectively became his manager again after he had been summarily dismissed.
[Lance Monthly] Do you think that Holly was justified in wanting to distance himself from Petty?
John Beecher Yes I do. Norman was a great engineer/producer in his own environment, but out of his depth in the big studios of New York; and the "biz cats" in the big city knew what he was up to, eventually shunning him. For a while Norman was powerful, but with the power came greed and carelessness and that was his undoing.
[Lance Monthly] There are other '50s and early '60s artists such as The String-A-Longs and Sonny West who felt they were wronged by Petty. What are your thoughts on this?
John Beecher They confirmed what Buddy and the Crickets had known: Clovis was a great place to record but you had to read the small print and stand up for yourself. Most musicians were unable to do this, for they were fearful their careers would suffer. Those who argued with Norman were cut adrift and indeed most went no further. There weren't too many studios like his in that part of the world.
Join us next edition for the balance of this interview!