Born Norman Eugene Petty, 25 May 1927, Clovis, New Mexico
Norman Petty was a music impresario who dabbled in songwriting, arranging, producing, managing and playing keyboards. He is best known for his association with Buddy Holly, who made his best and most influential recordings at Petty’s studio in the desert town of Clovis, New Mexico.
Petty began playing piano when he was five. He was mostly self-taught on the instrument. While he was still in Clovis High School, he was regularly heard on a fifteen minute show on KICA radio. In 1948 he married Violet Ann (“Vi”) Brady (1928-1992), an accomplished pianist. The marriage was more business than pleasure. Though few people knew it at the time, Petty was a homosexual, Vi was bisexual.
Shortly after his marriage, Petty moved (temporarily) to Texas, where he worked part-time as a recording engineer at Jim Beck’s studio in Dallas. In the early 1950s he formed the Norman Petty Trio, in which he played organ, his wife played piano, and Jack Vaughn played guitar. They had a # 14 pop hit in 1954 with Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”. Later hits by the trio, in 1957, were “Almost Paradise” (# 56 ) and “The First Kiss” (# 81). Petty invested the royalties in his own recording studio in Clovis. Originally it was intended for the sole use of the Norman Petty Trio, until Petty realised that he was the owner of the only professional recording facility in the West Texas-New Mexico area. Confident in his own technical know-how as both engineer and producer, Petty went public in late 1955, thus becoming one of the first independent producers of rock ’n' roll. Artists were coming in, recording their demos and then submitting their stuff to a label. If Norman liked them, he would go all out to interest a label in the demos.
Among the first paying customers was Roy Orbison with his group, the Teen Kings. Roy made his first stab at the rockabilly classic “Ooby Dooby” in Clovis (for the Je-Wel label), before he successfully re-recorded the song for Sun. Next came the Rhythm Orchids, who scored big hits with “Party Doll” (as by Buddy Knox, # 1) and “I’m Stickin’ With You” (as by Jimmy Bowen, # 14).
From across the state line in Lubbock, Texas, came Buddy Holly and the Crickets, who had been rudely bounced out of Nashville after unpleasant sessions with Owen Bradley at Decca. One of the unissued Decca recordings was “That’ll Be The Day”. Holly still had great faith in the song and wanted to re-record it at Petty’s studio. Unlike Owen Bradley and Paul Cohen, Norman Petty saw Buddy’s talent and offered him the chance to cut a new version of “That’ll Be The Day” (on February 25, 1957). He gave Holly almost complete freedom to experiment in the studio without watching the clock. It came at a price however : Petty wanted the publishing rights and co-authorship of the song. Though Jerry Allison (who co-wrote “That’ll Be The Day” with Holly) protested, Buddy thought that, at this low point in his career, Petty’s contacts would be absolutely vital to the band. He agreed to a deal that would eventually cost him a fortune. Petty, who also emerged as the group’s manager, would receive songwriting credits on many Holly compositions. It is very doubtful if he actually co-wrote all these songs. But this was a practice that was quite common in the music business at the time.
Because Decca owned “That’ll Be The Day” by Buddy Holly, it was released under the group name of the Crickets. The new, improved version topped the Billboard charts in September 1957. It was the beginning of a very fruitful relationship between Petty and Holly. Both men were innovators and it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Hit after hit came out of the Nor Va Jak studio in Clovis during 1957-58 (either credited to Buddy Holly on Coral, or to The Crickets on Brunswick, but the distinction was artificial), until a dispute over money caused a split in October 1958. To Buddy’s disappointment, the Crickets chose to stay with Petty. Holly moved to New York City with his new bride, Maria Elena, and started a solo career. Many hold the view that it was Petty withholding monies that necessitated Buddy making his ill-fated Winter tour in early 1959. After Holly’s death in February 1959, Petty acquired the rights to most of Buddy’s unreleased tracks and he would later release them with overdubbed backings.
Outside of Holly, Petty recorded many other Texan rock n roll singers, like Peanuts Wilson, Terry Noland, Sonny West, Wes Bryan and Sonny Curtis. But he had more success with two instrumental groups, first the Fireballs, then the String-A-Longs. Petty’s most successful instrumental composition, “Wheels”, was a # 3 hit in 1961 for the String-A-Longs (and also a million seller in Germany for Billy Vaughn). The Fireballs also made some vocal recordings, including the # 1 hit “Sugar Shack” (1963), with vocals by Jimmy Gilmer. Petty’s productions had a distinctive quality, now known as the Tex-Mex sound. As the sixties progressed, Petty’s involvement and success rate lessened. He would never approach the greatness, or sales, of the music he made with Holly.
In 1973, Petty, who had retained the rights to all items recorded by Buddy Holly, sold them to Paul McCartney, who purchased the entire Holly song catalog. Petty operated his famed Clovis studio until his death (of leukemia) on August 15, 1984, at the age of 57.
More info : http://www.superoldies.com/pettystudios/main.html
Biography : Frank Blanas, The King of Clovis - Norman Petty, American Music Legend. The Man Behind Rock ’n Roll Greatest Artists. Stroud, Gloucestershire : Rollercoaster Books, 2013. 534 pages + CD.
Acknowledgements : Ellis Amburn, Ben Cromer, Fred Bronson.
Dik, August 2015
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