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Buddy Holly's vision
was measured at  20/800

He hated wearing glasses. They just weren't cool.  In 1956 he tried unsuccessfully to wear  hard contact lenses and realized performing without glasses was impossible, so he was stuck wearing half-wire rimmed frames. 

In 1957, though, his attitude changed and  history was made. 

The self-esteem of myopic kids around the world gained an immediate boost. 

In "Rave On, the Biography of Buddy Holly," by Philip Norman (Simon & Schuster),  tourmates Don and Phil Everly claim credit  for planting the seeds of his biggest image change: 

"We both kept on at Buddy to do something  about his glasses," Phil says. "Those things  he had, with the half-frames, were the same  ones he'd been wearing since high school.  Donald and I both told him, `Hey, look, you've proved that a guy who wears glasses can make it in rock 'n' roll. So why be ashamed of the glasses?  Why not make them a real upfront statement, like, 'OK, I wear glasses, and here they are?"

By Joe Pixler. Special to the Tribune


A long, long time ago, Buddy Holly climbed  into a rattling Beechcraft Bonanza on a  frozen airstrip near Mason City, Iowa, and a few short minutes later became the world's first dead rock 'n' roll star. 

The sky was starry, but a snowstorm was  moving in at just past 1 a.m. Feb. 3,  1959 -- the day the music died.  Or so Don McLean would sing 12 years later in  "American Pie." 

John Mueller begs to differ with McLean.  He is Buddy Holly, eight times every week in  the Apollo Theater Center's hit production of  "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story." 

"I think that was poetic of Don McLean," Mueller politely allowed in a conversation  last week at the theater.  "But no, I don't  think music died." 

Mueller himself is living proof of Buddy Holly's vitality.  His lovingly detailed portrayal of the skinny, spectacled kid from Lubbock, Texas, rings as clear and true as a chord from a Fender Stratocaster.  In fact, the  guitar Mueller plays is a reissue of the brown sunburst '57 Fender that Buddy favored.  Mueller even uses the same heavy,  flat-wound strings that Buddy used to  achieve that clarion sound. 

The big glasses don't exactly match Buddy's mod, bluntly chiseled Mexican Faiosa frames.  "Believe me, I've searched.  I've  checked with a lot of different optometrists," Mueller said, almost apologetically, in his soft southern Kansas tenor. 

If he came any closer to his mark, though, it'd be creepy. 

Consider this appraisal from Niki Sullivan, original rhythm guitarist in Buddy's backup band, the Crickets:  "John is a clone of  Buddy."

Even the Big Bopper could resemble Buddy with the right specs.  Nearly any high-pitched, hiccuppy voice can sort of sound like him. 

Caricatures are easy.  Just look at all the bad Elvis impersonators. 

It takes much more to be Buddy. 

"The real moment comes about five minutes before curtain backstage," Mueller said, "when I strap on the Stratocaster and I start talking in my Texas drawl."  The stage lights come up and "Buddy" comes to life. 

"OK, let's do it!" 

Sullivan, now 59 and living in Kansas City, Missouri, talked on the phone last week about  Mueller as Buddy. 

"The first time I met John," Sullivan said, phrasing his recollections in a deliberate tone, "I felt exactly as I did when Buddy and the rest of us were in music together.  He's just  the same type of person.  Very forthright.  Down to earth.  He's himself.  Yet he's so much like Buddy Holly.  And you don't just  reach in and get that.  Honest to God, man, it is eerie how close the two characters are." 

Mueller and Buddy both grew up in flat, dry, featureless towns out west with not much to do.  Each was the baby of the family, blessed  with supportive parents.  Each was a skinny kid, determined to beat the curse of teenage  geekiness.  "I couldn't get girls to look at me one way or the other," Mueller said. 

Buddy (who "was not a good looking guy," Sullivan stated matter-of-factly) impressed chicks by driving cars into the dust; even more daringly, he bought an electric guitar. 

Mueller took auto shop classes and rebuilt his '66 Chevy Malibu into a boss hot rod -- one of  an eventual total of seven; while he did dig his big brother's old rock 'n' roll records while his classmates cranked Blue Oyster Cult and  Kansas, he didn't get a guitar right away.  He took an acting class his senior year in high  school to fulfill an English requirement.  "I got  to act with girls and I thought, Wow!  This is  where it's at!  And I got the first 'A' I'd ever  gotten in high school." 

That sealed Mueller's fate.  Between auditions and "waiting for the phone to ring," he killed time by strumming guitar.  " 'Peggy  Sue' was the first song I could play from beginning to end." 

Actually, cataloging coincidences between the lives of Buddy Holly and John  Mueller -- or Niki Sullivan or any guy who grew up with rock 'n' roll -- could go on forever.  At their roots, these are not extraordinary lives. 

Even the music endures, which is no great puzzle to Sullivan.  It's so easy. 

"It's easy to sing.  It's easy to play.  It's easy to dance to.  Easy to understand all the words.  And anything easy appeals to the masses.  And it's original. That, sir, is why the music has lasted.  It's still fresh." 

In his early 20s, Mueller picked up a variety of stage and TV roles and discovered there was need for actors who could play guitar. 

By 1959, Buddy Holly was a newlywed and expectant father, frustrated by money woes (his manager controlled the books).  Slumping record sales, chilled by a public backlash against rock 'n' roll, forced him back on the road during that miserable winter.  He was  looking in different directions. 

"He wanted to do something quieter, maybe more country and western, some ballads," Mueller said.  "Since he met Maria Elena (his Puerto Rican wife), he got into Latin-oriented music.  He wanted to produce an album for Ritchie Valens.  And he really wanted to do a gospel album with Ray Charles. 

"You can imagine the possibilities." 

Mueller imagines the possibilities in his own self-produced CD, "A Boy's Gotta Do, What  a Boy's Gotta Do."  It covers a variety of styles, from surf guitar to American roots rock to a straight country reading of "That  Makes It Tough," a Holly rarity.  "Like Buddy, I'm open to a lot of influences, but I  like pure, straight-ahead music." 

Like Buddy's. 

After this production's run, Mueller figures he'll accept an invitation to do a concert of Holly tunes in his hometown of Wichita.  Then it's on to Hollywood.  He'll go back to his current home in Los Angeles, play some  music clubs, get some TV and film roles and build on his dream of being a singer whose music is more than an act -- even if it is a natural act. 

Now at 35, Mueller can't play a 22-year-old forever, though he's confident Buddy's work will never fade away. 

"Audiences are all age ranges," Mueller said.  "Gosh, it's amazing.  After the show, I talk  with people who saw him play and they say, 'Did you know Buddy used to play this song' or whatever, and others come up and say how great it was to see something they could never otherwise see. 

"We just had a matinee performance with a high school group, and my experience with high school groups is either the kids don't want to be there or they're too cool to react.  But they reacted a lot to the show, gave us a  standing ovation." 

They wrote letters, too, which are posted backstage.  They say things like, "I didn't  know he did those kind of songs" and "I  really want to learn to play his songs." 

The show depicts the moments, Feb. 2, 1959, before the Winter Dance Party heats up the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  Buddy has just ironed his white shirt and decides to call Maria Elena and tells her he loves her.  "I hang up the phone," Mueller said, voice  lowering, "and I just get chills right up and  down my whole body.  Just the whole sadness hits me right there." 

Then the concert begins and Buddy takes over.  "Maybe Baby," "Peggy Sue Got  Married," "It's So Easy (To Fall in Love)" and "Rave On" turn up the heat and, Buddy joins Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in "La Bamba."  His toothy grin is as big as Texas. 

That's how it happened.  Bob Hale, then a  25-year-old disk jockey, was the emcee. He introduced Dion and the Belmonts (and helped Buddy disguise himself so he could sit in as the Belmonts' drummer, who had suffered frostbite on the tour bus) and the others to the adoring crowd. 

"The next morning, I was on the air," Hale recalled last week.  "I read the bulletin from United Press saying a small plane had gone down near Mason City, but I didn't think anything of it until the manager of the ballroom called me and said Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper were all dead." 

Did the music die, a mere 18 months after it had begun with "That'll Be the Day"? 

"It died," said Hale, who went on to become WLS-AM's "Silver Dollar Survey" host in the '60s.  "Three big stars were wiped out, along with everything they would have done. 

"But it had a resurrection.  Look at The Beatles." 

Look at any kid who has picked up a guitar. 

"Sonny Curtis (Buddy's boyhood friend and original musical collaborator) says Buddy's music lives on in every rock 'n' roll song you hear," Mueller said.  "I think that's really  true."

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