On August 16, 1957, Buddy Holly and his band, the Crickets, opened their one-week gig at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City. Holly made his start in the music business in 1955 opening for Elvis Presley. His style included rockabilly and rhythm and blues, which he helped fuse and transform into early rock and roll. Decca Records and two of its subsidiaries signed Holly to recording contracts in 1956 and 1957 and it was at this time that he formed the Crickets. With Buddy as lead guitar and vocalist, Niki Sullivan on guitar, Joe B. Mauldin on bass, and Jerry Allison on drums, the Crickets pioneered the standard instrumentation pattern for other rock bands to follow. Buddy Holly was also one of the first in rock and roll to write, produce, and perform his own songs. His first big hit single, released in May of 1957, was “That’ll Be the Day”, which was sitting atop the best-seller charts by September.
Holly is recognized as a major force in bridging the racial divide in American music. People had trouble telling, just by listening to their recordings, whether the Crickets were white or African-American. Their national tour of August, 1957, included performances at African-American neighborhood theaters, like Harlem’s Apollo Theater – the only white band to do so at the time. It is rumored that the promoter at the Apollo booked Holly and his band in the mistaken belief that they were African-American.
The Apollo Theater became a powerhouse club during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. At that time, Harlem was rapidly becoming a African-American enclave within New York City, and owners Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher featured the best new African-American talent emerging on the scene. Ella Fitzgerald made her debut there, and the long list of artists who got their start at the Apollo includes Billie Holliday, James Brown, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and many, many more.
It took several performances for the Apollo’s clientele to take to this new white guy, with his big glasses and “hiccup” delivery. But when the final curtain came down on Holly and his band, many in the audience may have known that they had seen, as critic Bruce Elder put it, “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll”.
Image Credits: Brunswick Records; History of the Harlem Renaissance website