Sunday, February 3, 2013

Five Questions with... Sonny Curtis

Sometimes there is no justice in asking only five questions.

Take Sonny Curtis for example. Here is a man who has covered the spectrum as far as a professional music career goes. He was at ground zero in terms of American rock and roll; a pioneer who played guitar alongside the likes of Carl Perkins, Hank Snow, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. He was a boyhood friend of Buddy Holly and spent countless hours with him in his parent's house in Lubbock, Texas picking out new tunes and literally reshaping American music.


Sonny Curtis in the recording studio with Vicki Lawrence 1973
(This and all photos taken from Sonny Curtis's official website)

After Holly's tragic death in 1959 he toured with the Crickets relentlessly (he still does to this day) and also played guitar with the Everly Brothers throughout the '60s. In 1958 he penned one of the great rock and roll rebellions of all time, "I Fought the Law," which became the signature song for Bobby Fuller in 1965. Curtis has the distinction of being the first person in history to have made a Rock and Roll recording playing a Fender Stratocaster.

Curtis played alongside long time friend Waylon Jennings for five years during the '70s at the peak of a genre known as "Outlaw Country." He and Waylon had a long history together, knowing each other through association with Buddy Holly and as a member of The Crickets.

"I admired him so much," Waylon once said of Curtis. "I wanted to change my name to Sonny. I even tried to stand like him."

Sonny Curtis is a very successful songwriter who has written jingles for commercials, theme songs for TV shows (including "Love is All Around" for the Mary Tyler Moore show and the theme for Evening Shade), as well as songs for The Everly Brothers, Leo Sayer, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, and Ricky Skaggs to name a few. In 1991, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by the Nashville Songwriters Association International.

He has shared the stage with such dignitaries as Keith Richards (who presented Curtis his induction to the Musician's Hall of Fame in Nashville), Brian May of Queen, Albert Lee, Paul McCartney, and the Grateful Dead. He has played with such contemporaries as Nanci Griffith and Don Henley. Griffith once said of Curtis, "Nobody played Stratocaster like Buddy or Sonny Curtis. They had just enough West Texas dirt underneath their fingernails. There was something about the way they played that made it special."

Sonny jamming with Keith Richards at
The Musicians Hall of Fame ceremony

Today is the 54th anniversary of the plane crash that tragically killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. While I would love to corner Sonny sometime and ask him about other aspects of his life, I felt that he was a logical choice to help us to pay homage to his boyhood friend Buddy Holly. Mr. Curtis has been extremely gracious, and I want to say that it is an absolute honor to have him involved with the Bigfoot Diaries.

How did you meet Buddy Holly and what was your immediate attraction to him?

Buddy went to Lubbock High School and I went to a very small school, Meadow High, 30 miles to the southwest. When I was about fifteen, my good friend, Olan Finley, moved to Lubbock and would come home on weekends extolling the talents of Buddy and Bob (Montgomery) who were picking at assembly programs at school. I, of course, was interested in anyone who played music. One day Olan and I met Bob when he got off the school bus and drove over to Buddy’s house. We said hello, skipped the small talk and started pickin’. What we had in common was that we were the same age and loved to play music. We became fast friends.

Obviously rock and roll wasn't widely accepted in the mid '50s. Would you tell me a little bit about those "controversial" days?

I think it's human nature for parents of whatever era to have felt, and to feel uneasy about whatever musical fad their kids are into, and sometimes with good reason. I’m sure in the forties, parents vilified Frank Sinatra and thought their bobbysoxer kids were going to hell in a hand basket. I’m sure you’re aware that when Elvis did the Ed Sullivan Show the first time, his gyrations impelled the network show him from the waist up only. We all fell right in line and greased our hair into pompadours, strapped on pink and black clothing, turned our collars up and started rocking. We picked on KDAV’s Sunday Party, sock hops, grocery store parking lots, and what were considered some pretty wild joints. One night at one of those gigs, the local newspaper came in and photographed teenagers doing the dirty bop. They put black strips over our eyes so people would be unable to make out who we were. Yeah, sure! It was all good fun.

Jerry Allison on drums, Buddy, and Sonny Curtis
(Buddy is playing Elvis's guitar)

Where were you and what were you doing when you received word of Buddy's death?

J. I. (Jerry Ivan Allison) and Peggy Sue Allison and I had driven from Clovis, New Mexico where we were living. I spent the night with them at J. I.’s folks house in Lubbock. Early the next morning as I was having coffee with J. I.’s mom, the lady from across the street came over and told us the news. I had the sad task of waking J. I. and breaking the news to him.

Sonny, Buddy Holly, and Don Guess 1956

What do you remember about the day of his funeral?

I have very vivid memories of the funeral. I remember the recording of the plaintiff ballad, one of Buddy’s favorite songs, at the beginning of the service. It was unbelievable, but the unbelievable was occurring. I remember the slow ride from the church to the cemetery with the other pallbearers. It was all very sad.

What was it like to take over for Buddy after his death? 

Well, I didn't take over for Buddy right away.  J. I. and Joe B. asked Earl Sinks from Amarillo to sing in the group and me to play lead guitar, which I had done before in the Three Tunes.  Buddy had moved to New York and I can tell you that none of us thought much about it.  Buddy was still alive and not quite the icon that he became later.  It was a gig and we gave it our all.  When I did become lead singer and guitarist, I never tried to imitate Buddy.  I knew that our audience wanted to hear the songs the way they knew them, i.e., as close to the arrangement as possible, but I injected myself into the songs.  I did them the way I felt them.  As for Buddy's hiccups (so to speak), I knew they had to be there, but they were Buddy's, not mine.  I chose to down play them rather than exaggerate them.  I treated them as part of the arrangement.  Those songs are great and I found it very easy to adapt. That's the short answer.  I don't need to go on and on. I'll just say that going on stage with J. I. and Joe B. for all these years has been a real joy.

(Bonus question:) In your own words, what did Buddy Holly and the Crickets mean to rock and roll?

Buddy Holly was certainly a pioneer and is one of the icons of Rock and Roll. He churned out a lot of music during his short life and his contribution is immeasurable. J. I. and Joe B. certainly deserve a lot of credit for their contribution. I’d rather not speculate on my own contribution. I’ll leave that to someone else. I will say that Rock and Roll has probably done more for me than I’ve done for it.

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If you liked this article you might also like these pages:

The Official Website of Sonny Curtis

The Official Website for the Musicians Hall of Fame

The Bigfoot Diaries: Remembering Buddy Holly

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