Dueling Holly discs prove rocker’s enduring relevance

Music for Screens: Summer 2011

When Don McLean wrote and recorded his heartfelt eulogy to fallen rock icon Buddy Holly in 1972’s “American Pie,” he probably had no idea that he would give the pioneering singer-songwriter a long overdue artistic rebirth. As the 75th birthday of late musician approaches on Sept. 7, a myriad of tributes and events will do the same, spearheaded by the CD release of “Listen to Me: Buddy Holly,” an all-star collection of Holly covers, produced by Peter Asher.

Holly was rock ‘n’ roll’s first celebrity death, when he died in a plane crash with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens in February 1959. “The songs are brilliant,” says Asher, in retrospect. “The tragedy is God only knows what he could have created if we had Buddy Holly for decades instead of months.”

“The funny thing about ‘The Day the Music Died’ is that that is the way everybody felt,” says Jackson Browne, who appears on the album. “But … it’s ironic. It’s not the death of anything; it’s not the day the music died, it’s the day the music became immortal.”

Browne, along with Stevie Nicks, Jeff Lynne, Train’s Patrick Monahan, Brian Wilson, Chris Isaak, the Fray, Imelda May and Ringo Starr, contributed to the forthcoming SongMasters’ release, which took Asher more than a year to finish.

“I think people will be listening to Buddy’s music 50 years from now,” says Asher, whose own connection to Holly dates back to 1965, when he had a Top 40 hit covering Holly’s “True Love Ways” as part of the British Invasion duo Peter & Gordon. “I think (his) songs are that good. They managed to be somewhat musically simple but emotionally and melodically complex at the same time. He took simple elements and made a pretty serious song out of it.”

As Asher began production on “Listen to Me,” a competing Buddy Holly tribute, “Rave on Buddy Holly,” was announced. That disc, released in early July, features many of the same songs interpreted by an eclectic mix that includes Graham Nash (whose old band, the Hollies, was named after the later rocker), Cee Lo Green, Lou Reed and Paul McCartney, whose company, MPL, owns Holly’s music publishing.

“Listen to Me,” however, was done in cooperation with his widow, Marie Elena, who called the compilation “fantastic.” She will also be present when Holly is awarded a star on the Walk of Fame on Sept. 7 and, later that night, at a tribute concert being shot for PBS at Hollywood’s Music Box. Asher will act as musical director for the show.

Asher was careful to craft each production so the song could fit the artist performing it.

“In the case of the Fray,” Asher says, “we took a song that Buddy did as a happy kind of song, ‘Take Your Time.’ The Fray took it in a whole different direction; it has a somber force to it. It’s really beautiful, slower and contemplative and more intense.

“I love the aspect of this project that it really encourages the generation coming up to dig into the roots of music that they listen to now, and where it came from, who influenced who, all the way back to people like Buddy Holly,” says Isaac Slade of the Fray.

For SongMasters, Asher was the obvious pick to exec produce the album, having scored two Top 10 hits when he produced remakes of “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy” for Linda Ronstadt during the 1970s. For Asher, it was a dream project.

“He was a huge influence both as a songwriter and as a producer,” says Asher, who worked in the late 1960s as the head of A&R for the Beatles’ Apple label, where he signed James Taylor. Upon the demise of the Beatles and Apple, Asher launched a management and production company, where he steered the careers of, and produced hits for, Taylor, Ronstadt and several others.

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