Rave On: Sonny West: Buddy Holly & the Crickets; John Mellencamp

Hello there! This week we will discuss the great rockabilly song Rave On. We will first review the original song co-written by Sonny West. Next we will discuss the best-known cover of this song by Buddy Holly & the Crickets, and finally a cover by John Mellencamp.

Sonny West and Rave On:

Sonny West is a good-ole boy who is a country and western singer-songwriter. Joe “Sonny” West was born in 1937 outside of Lubbock, Texas. He hooked up with producer Norman Petty and frequented Petty’s recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Below is a fairly recent photo of Sonny West performing in England.

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Sonny West’s solo career was rather unsuccessful. However, his main claim to fame is that he co-wrote two songs that became blockbuster hits for Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

The first of these songs was written in the mid-50s by Sonny West, Bill Tilghman and Norman Petty. In Feb. 1957, West released a demo version of the song called “All My Love.

But in 1958, Buddy Holly and the Crickets released a single of this song with a new title “Oh, Boy!” The “B” side of this record was Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”

That record was a massive hit. It shot up to #10 on the Billboard pop charts in the U.S., and was an even bigger hit in the U.K., peaking at #3.

After their first big hit West, Tilghman and Petty wrote a second song called Rave On. This tune expresses the singer’s delight in realizing that his beloved cares for him. He describes an overwhelming sense of joy, and urges his lover to continue to articulate her feelings for him.

The little things you say and do
Make me want to be with you-ah-ou

[CHORUS] Rave on, it’s a crazy feelin’ and
I know it’s got me reelin’
I’m so glad that you’re revealin’
Your love for me

Rave on, rave on and tell me
Tell me not to be lonely
Tell me you love me only
Rave on for me.

Sonny West released Rave On as a single in Feb. 1958. A few months later, the song was covered by Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

So here is the audio of Sonny West’s recording of Rave On.

As you can see, Sonny West is a capable singer. However, the tune was not all that successful, mainly because there is little that distinguishes Sonny from other country & western artists.

Now here is Sonny West decades later, in a live performance of Rave On.

As you can see, West gives a decent performance. However, his greatest talent was not his singing, but his songwriting. When Sonny’s songs were covered by Buddy Holly, they were transformed into rockabilly classics.

In this video clip, Sonny is accompanied by Tommy Allsup. Allsup was a country guitarist for several decades. His main claim to fame was that in the late 50s he was a member of The Crickets traveling band.

Allsup was performing with Buddy Holly and the Crickets on their 1959 Winter Dance Party tour. Following a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa in Feb. 1959, Tommy and singer Ritchie Valens flipped a coin to see who would fly a plane to their next destination, and who would have to ride the tour bus.

Allsup ‘lost’ the coin toss. So Valens boarded the plane, which subsequently crashed and killed all on board (more on this in the next section).

Sonny West has continued to perform since the 50s. He has performed with The Crickets on a few of their tours following Buddy Holly’s death.  Sonny West’s name will live on because he co-wrote two gigantic hits that helped kick-start Buddy Holly’s career. We wish Sonny all the best.

Buddy Holly & the Crickets and Rave On:

We previously encountered Buddy Holly in our blog post on his song That’ll Be The Day. We also reviewed his song Not Fade Away. So here we will give a brief summary of Holly’s life and career.

Charles “Buddy” Holley was one of the all-time great ‘roots’ rockers.  Born in 1936, he grew up in Lubbock, Texas where he learned to play guitar and aspired to be a musician. Although his initial exposure was to country musicians such as Hank Williams and Bob Wills, Buddy was also drawn to the late-night stations that played blues and R&B.

Here are the Crickets, from L: Joe Mauldin, Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison, taken on their UK tour.

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Buddy began to play various venues in the South, and gained some exposure opening for artists such as Elvis and Bill Haley and the Comets. This took him to Nashville, where he signed a record contract and produced some work in the studio. To his surprise, the label on his first record listed the singer as “Buddy Holly,” so that became his stage name.

Unfortunately, during that period Buddy’s producers shoe-horned him into the restrictive country-and-western “Nashville sound.” This was a bad fit for Buddy’s talent, and after leaving Nashville he eventually ended up in Clovis, New Mexico, where he hooked up with producer Norman Petty.

There Buddy assembled a band consisting of drummer Jerry Allison, bassist Bill Mauldin and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan. Buddy sang vocals and played lead electric guitar. It might be worth noting that rock and roll followed the ‘big band’ era, so in the early days rock bands experimented with various combinations of instruments.

In many ways, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were pioneers in what became the ‘classic’ rock group lineup – two guitars, bass and drums. The group began to record some songs, beginning with the tune That’ll Be The Day written by Holly and Allison.

The song was released in May, 1957 under the name The Crickets. It picked up some momentum, and then shot up to the top of the Billboard charts in November of that year. It simultaneously hit #1 on the UK pop charts.

Holly’s guitar work was simple but effective. His solos often contained a small number of chords or some simple finger-picking, but they fit perfectly with the group’s style.

Following That’ll Be The Day, the group’s next song Peggy Sue also hit #1 on the charts.

Buddy Holly & the Crickets released their cover of Rave On in mid-1958. Here is video of Buddy Holly and the Crickets “performing” Rave On.

I apologize – this was the best video I could find. Here, Buddy and the Crickets are actually performing another song, while the audio track has been replaced with the recording of Rave On.

Holly’s version begins with an adorable rockabilly touch. Buddy stretches out the word “well” into a five-syllable term, “We-a-he-a-hell,” that closely resembles yodeling. In addition, he elongates the last word in that line, “you-a-hoo.”

While Sonny West’s performance of his own song was fairly pedestrian, in the hands of Buddy Holly the song is changed into an unforgettable rockabilly tune.

It almost immediately became clear that Buddy Holly was the creative genius behind The Crickets. Relatively soon, Buddy was issuing solo albums.

As Buddy Holly’s star continued to rise, tensions arose between him and the other members of the Crickets, and between Holly and producer Norman Petty. This was a shame, as at the beginning of their association Holly and Petty produced some seminal rock ‘n roll songs.

Petty had success with other Southwestern pop artists, could produce a great sound in his studio, and contributed many creative ideas. However, Petty controlled the royalties from Holly’s songs, and at some point Buddy and his young bride, Maria Elena Santiago, felt they were being inadequately compensated by Petty.

When Holly split with Petty, this left Buddy with a cash-flow problem since Petty was holding onto Holly’s royalties. This forced Holly back onto the road in the winter of 1959, when he embarked on a “Winter Dance Party” tour.

The artists on this tour were traveling around the upper Midwest in January, 1959. The tour buses were badly heated and also began breaking down. In Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly chartered a private plane to take him to the next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota.

The plane took off in bad weather, then crashed into a cornfield just outside Clear Lake. The pilot, Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) were killed instantly, in a tragedy that became known as “The Day the Music Died.”

Buddy Holly’s tragic death was a major setback for rock music. Buddy was a prolific and creative musician. At the time of his death, he was clearly moving in new directions, having branched out from his earlier rockabilly tunes to acoustic songs and ballads.

Although Buddy Holly was recording songs for just over two years, he had a tremendous influence on future rock music. The Crickets were an inspiration for groups such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones – in fact, the Beatles’ choice of an insect-related band name was a shout-out to Buddy’s band The Crickets.

As a singer-songwriter, Buddy Holly set an example subsequently followed by Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards.

John Mellencamp and Rave On:

John Mellencamp is a home-town rocker for me, as he lives just outside of Bloomington, Indiana. He has had a rather amazing career for over 40 years, and he continues to record and tour today.

John Mellencamp was born in 1951 and raised in south-central Indiana. As an infant, he had surgery to correct spina bifida. John was not much of a student, although he managed to graduate from a two-year college, Vincennes University.

John then took off for New York City, in the hopes of scoring a record contract and becoming a rock singer. He hooked up with manager Tony DeFries, who insisted that he adopt the stage name Johnny Cougar, on the grounds that no one would purchase records from an artist named John Mellencamp.

The photo below shows a publicity shot of a young “Johnny Cougar.”

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Well, in 1974 DeFries signed Mellencamp to a contract with MCA Records, and organized a big publicity campaign for “Johnny Cougar.” But after his first album flopped, John was dropped by that record company.

Mellencamp then spent a few years trying to catch a break, and in 1980 he released an album on Polygram Records, Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did. The record was produced by Steve Cropper and produced two top-40 singles.

This was sufficient to make John Mellencamp a hit rocker. However, he really cemented his reputation with his next album, American Fool. That album featured Hurts So Good, which shot up to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists, and then Jack and Diane, a song that topped the charts for 4 weeks.

Several of John Mellencamp’s hits were co-written with George Green, who was a childhood friend of Mellencamp’s from their teen days in Seymour, Indiana. The Green-Mellencamp partnership lasted until 2000, after which Green moved from Bloomington, Indiana to Taos, New Mexico.

In the early 1980s, John Mellencamp’s band featured Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitar, Kenny Aronoff on drums, Toby Myers on bass and John Cascella on keyboards. They were an exceptionally tight ensemble and a great live band.

Mellencamp’s drummer Kenny Aronoff was a graduate of the Indiana University School of Music. Aronoff’s training left him able to play drums in any ensemble – classical, jazz, hip-hop, you name it.  While he played with Mellencamp, Aronoff specialized in massive wallops on his drum kit. Below is a photo of Kenny Aronoff signing materials at a MusiCares event.

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I recommend Aronoff’s autobiography Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n Roll, to anyone interested in a detailed description of life on the road in an 80s rock band.

Here is John Mellencamp in a live performance of Rave On.

That song was initially recorded to be part of the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. The video clip shows a performance from 2003. This was part of a tribute concert in honor of Buddy Holly, organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

John Mellencamp gives a slowed down and stripped-down version of the Buddy Holly classic. His band features a sparse drum kit, an upright bass and an accordion. Despite the simple styling, you can see why this Buddy Holly song has been so popular for 60 years.

For example, Rave On has been covered by Ricky Nelson, Commander Cody, Status Quo, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Denny Laine, the guitarist for both The Moody Blues and Wings.

The Grateful Dead frequently included covers of Rave On in their concert set lists. And Bruce Springsteen not only recorded a cover of Rave On with his E Street Band, but he is reputed to sing Rave On backstage when he revs himself up for his live performances.

And now back to John Mellencamp. Immediately after he released two big hit albums, John rebelled against the name “Johnny Cougar” that had been foisted on him.

His next few albums were released under the name John Cougar Mellencamp. And beginning in 1991, his albums have been released as John Mellencamp.

Mellencamp has also been very dogged in following his chosen musical directions. His 1987 Lonesome Jubilee album marked a new path for Mellencamp. As described by critic Frank DiGiacomo in Vanity Fair,
“The Lonesome Jubilee was the album in which Mellencamp defined his now signature sound: a rousing, crystalline mix of acoustic and electric guitars, Appalachian fiddle, and gospel-style backing vocals, anchored by a crisp, bare-knuckle drumbeat and completed by his own velveteen rasp.”

John Mellencamp’s personal life has very much reflected his stature as a rock star. He was first married in 1970 after his high school girlfriend became pregnant. From 1981 to 1989 he was married to Vicky Granucci.

Then in 1992 Mellencamp married fashion supermodel Elaine Irwin. The couple had two sons before they divorced in 2011. Following that divorce, Mellencamp has had an on-again off-again relationship with Meg Ryan for several years.

John Mellencamp continues to record and to tour. He has been exceptionally successful, combining rock ‘n roll with a style that he terms “alternative country.”  Together with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, Mellencamp founded Farm Aid in 1985.  Over the past 30 years, this organization has raised more than $50 million on behalf of small farmers.

Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. He was inducted by his good friend Billy Joel. What a success story for this kid from Seymour, Indiana.

Keep it up, John, all the best, but cut back on the cigarettes (John earlier had a heart condition brought on by smoking over four packs a day).

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Rave On
Wikipedia, Sonny West
Wikipedia, Buddy Holly
Wikipedia, John Mellencamp

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Rockabilly and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Rave On: Sonny West: Buddy Holly & the Crickets; John Mellencamp

  1. Pingback: Oh Boy! Sonny West; The Crickets; Brian Setzer. | Tim's Cover Story

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