Buddy Holly with Continental Airlines flight bag. January 19, 1958; Auditorium Theatre, Rochester, NY. Photograph by Lew Allen.
Fifty years ago next week, on February 3, 1959, the chartered plane carrying singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, fell out of the Iowa sky and crashed into the heart of rock legend. Holly was 22, and his death, coming as his career suffered its own kind of tailspin, became a metaphor for the end of '50s rock 'n' roll.Holly's visage—an open, geeky face set off by the kind of heavy, black-framed glasses that Elvis Costello would later recast as cool—is well-known. But VanityFair.com has unearthed a number of fresh images, most of them never before published in America, that point up the private side of the Lubbock, Texas, native, and the toll that incessant touring took on the young musician.
Lew Allen was an 18-year old photography major when he toted his camera to the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., on January 19, 1958. The shy, lanky novice, lugging his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera and a 16-pound electronic flash through the snow, hoped to get some shots of Holly, the Everly Brothers, and other stars of the "Rock Party" tour to satisfy an assignment for his photo class at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Instead, he ended up bringing home what Holly's widow, Maria Elena Holly, would tell him were some of the finest pictures ever shot of the innovative songwriter-performer.
Arriving early, before the stars' buses pulled in, Allen found the stage manager and showed him the candid shots of Elvis Presley he'd taken a year earlier at home in Cleveland. Impressed, the stage manager waved Allen through.
"I stepped up the stairs of one of the buses," remembers Allen, now 69 and living in Phoenix, "and I couldn't see any faces, because I'd just been outside in the bright sunlight and the snow, and it was dark in there. So I just pointed my camera and took a shot."
What he got was a spectacular image of Holly, seeming dazed and somehow pre-dead, hurtling toward his own private destination, as his fellow musicians—Crickets drummer Jerry Allison, Frank Maffei of Danny and the Juniors, and Judy Shepherd of the Shepherd Sisters—animatedly swirled around him in pre-show repartee.
Allen would photograph Holly again the following October 15 at Rochester's Community War Memorial, and most of his images of the rocker from both sessions--posing with a young fan, killing time backstage with his co-stars, raving across the stage—carry a sort of tender naivete of the era, as opposed to the cryptic, brooding, noir feeling of the bus shot.
The most telling image, however, is one Allen took outside the bus, as Holly steps down between the coaches. In both photos, Holly appears pulled out of time. But here he's a dead man walking, holding a Continental Airlines bag, already packed for his destiny in an Iowa cornfield the following winter.
Allen, who still works part-time as both a photographer and a stadium usher ("more for fun than money"), is unsung in America. But in Europe, where his book, Elvis & the Birth of Rock, was published in 2006, his photographs are often displayed in museum exhibitions, including two current showings at the Proud Gallery in London and the Leinster Gallery in Dublin.
Still, at first not even Allen knew what a good eye he had. After his days at RIT, "I had rejected all those pictures, put them away in a box, and didn't even think about them for 40 years, because they technically weren't of the modern style that I learned in college. They were single-lit flash pictures, very flat, without a great deal of tonal value."
But they were excellent for their time. And today they remain sharp, large-negative windows on a snapshot world of old that refuses, as Holly might have said it, to "Not Fade Away."