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Buddy Holly Memorial Collection

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Album Review

Universal's 2009 triple-disc set Memorial Collection and its two-CD companion, Down the Line: Rarities, effectively act as a substitution for a reissue of the six-LP 1979 box The Complete Buddy Holly, long a holy grail item among rock & roll fanatics. That set never materialized on CD for various legal and logistical reasons, so bootleggers stepped into the void, assembling a ten-disc set that went far beyond the original vinyl box, and then as the original recordings crept into public domain in Europe, year-by-year chronicles started to pop up over there. These satisfied the needs of completists in a way Universal's twin 2009 CD sets may never, as there are too many missing alternate takes, apartment tapes, and demos — not to mention live cuts, which are virtually absent — but for hardcore fans who are less obsessive, these two releases are far easier to absorb than the bootleg, which gets weighed down in historical minutia that obscure the big picture.

The big picture is what the 60-track Memorial Collection is all about: it's the master takes, including all the hit singles, bookended by rare recordings. At the front, it's three tracks from Holly's country/rockabilly duets with Bob Montgomery (one of which, "Soft Place in My Heart," also shows up on Down the Line); at the back, it's the guitar-and-vocal solo recordings Buddy cut at his New York City home in late 1958/early 1959, recordings that are dubbed "the Apartment Tapes" among fans. Here too there are some duplicates with Down the Line — "Peggy Sue Got Married," "That Makes It Tough," "Learning the Game," "Dearest," "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," and "Smokey Joe's Café" show up in both places — but again, the attraction of Memorial Collection is that it places all this music in context, so it's possible to hear Holly's development from a second half in a high lonesome close harmony duo to a hiccupping rockabilly cat enraptured by Elvis Presley to a rocker who synthesized Elvis and Chuck Berry, turning into a wildly inventive songwriter and record-maker whose legacy remains one of the greatest of American music in the 20th century.

Memorial Collection divides into three easy-to-digest parts: the first disc has Holly's earliest, wildest rock & roll, the second captures the Crickets in full flight, the third has his poppiest material. The earliest recordings on the first disc are enjoyably rough, but it's not until a July 22, 1956, session highlighted by "Rock Around with Ollie Vee" that Holly finally finds his voice. From there, the progression is startling: a few months later he cut "That'll Be the Day" and "I'm Looking for Someone to Love" at the same session, and a few months after that "Words of Love" ushered in a new sense of melodic delicacy and studio experimentation. "Words of Love" contained overdubbed harmonies — one of the first, possibly the first example of this technique — so it's the most explicit example of how Holly's singles sounded different, but after his earliest rock & roll his records were filled with subtle, interesting sonic textures deriving equally from arrangements and engineering. Because of its length, Memorial Collection reveals these details in a way single-disc hits compilations don't and it has a better flow than the previous standard-bearer for Holly CDs, the 1993 two-CD The Buddy Holly Collection, so it's not just educational, it's entertaining, too — and that's especially true with all the alternate takes and rarities relegated to Down the Line, which fills in the details for scholars and obsessives, leaving this set for the serious listeners who want to delve into the richness of Holly's legacy without bothering with the loose ends and ephemera.


Born: 07 September 1936 in Lubbock, TX

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '50s

Buddy Holly is perhaps the most anomalous legend of '50s rock & roll -- he had his share of hits, and he achieved major rock & roll stardom, but his importance transcends any sales figures or even the particulars of any one song (or group of songs) that he wrote or recorded. Holly was unique, his legendary status and his impact on popular music all the more extraordinary for having been achieved in barely 18 months. Among his rivals, Bill Haley was there first and established rock & roll music; Elvis...
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