By Joe Pixler. Special to the Tribune
THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED?
JOHN MUELLER IS LIVING PROOF
THAT BUDDY HOLLY'S LEGACY WILL LIVE ON
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
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
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
"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."
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
"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
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."