Sonny Curtis: Cricket from Meadow honored as prolific songwriter
By William Kerns | A-J Entertainment editor
Meadow native Sonny Curtis, 74, toured and played with a number of stars before joining the Crickets after the death of Buddy Holly in 1959.
He also played guitar with Holly in earlier years, and came close to replacing Cricket Niki Sullivan when the latter left the band in 1957. Curtis being on the wrong side of Norman Petty could not have helped.
Through it all, Curtis kept writing songs and this weekend is honored for his prolific song writing with a “poet and prophet” designation by the Country Music Hall of Fame.
He also wrote “I Fought the Law (and the Law Won),” which the Crickets were quick to record. Fellow Texans The Bobby Fuller Band had a hit with it and, years later, the same song helped introduce The Clash.
There are websites devoted to Curtis compositions, and some of his more popular songs include “More Than I Can Say” (with J.I. Allison), “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” (with Ron Hellard), “Walk Right Back,” “The Straight Life,” “A Fool Never Learns” and “Love Is All Around,” theme for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Punk band The Dead Kennedys recorded it, as did Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Grateful Dead, Stray Cats, Nancy Griffith, Bryan Adams, John Mellencamp, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Waylon Jennings and the Sex Pistols, to name only a few.
So with Curtis earning a new honor from the Country Music Hall of Fame, the time seemed right to learn a bit more about his past, his friendship with Holly and the Crickets, and of course, his songs.
A-J: Buddy Holly was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1986. On April 14, more than a quarter of a century later, the Crickets — specifically you, Jerry (J.I.) Allison, Joe B. Mauldin and the late Niki Sullivan — will be inducted. What is your feeling about being inducted now? How did you feel when Buddy was inducted as a solo?
Sonny: I don’t like to dwell too much on bummers. But when Buddy was inducted, we didn’t even get invited. That not only made us feel left out, it hurt our feelings. But we were all incredibly busy at the time, and there was music out there that needed to be picked. Life goes on, so there you are.
Sonny: I don’t think it’s actually an award. Now and then the CMHOF does a show and interviews legendary (their word, not mine) songwriters, and that’s what this is. I am very honored that they have included me. It will be streamed live at 1:30 p.m. Saturday on the CMHOF website.A-J: You are a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. This weekend, you receive a “Poets and Prophets” award from the Country Music Hall of Fame (CMHOF), a series that “honors songwriters who have made significant contributions to country music history.” How does this make you feel?
Sonny: What can I say? It’s a great feeling to hear your song on the radio. I’ve had a very fulfilling career. It’s taken me to a lot of places and introduced me to a lot of wonderful people who have become my fans and friends. That makes it all worthwhile.A-J: How important was it for you to be recognized as a songwriter. So many artists have covered your songs.
A-J: You were born May 9, 1937, in Meadow. When did you move away?
Sonny: I grew up in Meadow and moved away during my senior year in high school to finish in Slaton. From there, I bounced all over the place, trying to make it. I don’t qualify for Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man,” but almost.
A-J: How old were you when you learned how to play guitar? How did you get your first one? What kind was it?
Sonny: I think I was about 6. My dad brought two cheap guitars home one day, and we all started messing around with them. One was a Melody King (probably from Sears) and the other was a Kaye. They were pretty bad guitars and strung with baling wire, but we learned to play them.
A-J: How and where did you meet Buddy Holly? Did you become friends quickly?
Sonny: My friend Olan Finley, who moved to Lubbock from Meadow, introduced me to Buddy and Bob Montgomery. We all said hello, shook hands and started pickin’. I think Buddy and I were probably friends before we met.
A-J: When did you first play with Buddy? Was the band called the Crickets then?
Sonny: I don’t remember the actual first time. It was about 1952. The band was called simply Buddy and Bob. It included Larry Welborn on bass, and I played guitar and some fiddle. When we first recorded for Decca, the first record, “Blue Days, Black Nights,” was just under Buddy’s name. Then for some reason, we became the Three Tones for awhile.
A-J: You had moved on to play with some other acts before Buddy went out in 1958. Were things just not happening in Lubbock fast enough for you?
Sonny: As I recall, none of us was exclusively in one band. We all played wherever we could make a little money, or at least pick (which was more important). However, I was playing mostly with Buddy after we switched to rock and roll (which included Don Guess and, later, J.I.). Being out of school and living mostly on beans and beans, I was truly in serious financial straits and needed to make some money. In August of 1956, when I got a chance to go out (on tour) with Slim Whitman, a gig which only lasted about 15 minutes, I jumped at it. I won’t deny that Buddy and I had some ego clashes, which, looking back, seems rather silly to me.
A-J: Is there one thing you remember most about Buddy? Where were you when you got the news about the plane crash?
Sonny: One thing that strikes me is how confident he was. He was positive he would make it big soon. I wasn’t so sure, but he seemed to not have a doubt in the world. The tragic night he died, I had spent the night at J.I.’s folks’ house. Mrs. Allison and I were at the kitchen table having coffee. Oleta Hall, from across the street, came over and said she had just heard it on the radio. J.I. was still asleep, and I had the sad task of waking him up with the news.
A-J: Was there any one particular part of the movie “The Buddy Holly Story” that inspired you to write the song “The Real Buddy Holly Story?” Was writing that song important to you on a personal basis?
Sonny: J.I, Joe. B. and I went to Dallas for the movie premiere, and we thought it really missed the mark. One thing that turned me off was Gary Busey’s portrayal of Buddy. He acted more like Chuck Berry than Buddy. He also depicted Buddy as a sloppy dresser and an unsophisticated rube. Buddy was neither. His mom even tapered his jeans for him. He was very aware of his appearance and always tried to look cool. The movie also made Mr. and Mrs. Holley out to be opposed to Buddy’s dreams and aspirations. That’s 180 degrees from the truth. They were not only 100 percent behind Buddy, they supported all of us boys. I’ve often wondered how they got around when we were off to gigs in their Oldsmobile 88. The worst, probably was the scene where Buddy punched out Owen Bradley in the recording studio in Nashville. I happened to be there for that one, and we were putting on our best manners with: “Yes, Mr. Bradley” and “No, Mr. Bradley,” etc. All I’ve got to say is Hollywood took a whole lot of license.
A-J: How old were you when you began writing songs?
Sonny: I was about 15.
A-J: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Sonny: I do. It was called “Moon, Moon, Silvery Moon.” I wrote it on my dad’s tractor while going over the place we call Rabbit Ranch with a stalk cutter. It’s a situation that gives you a lot of time to practice writing songs.
A-J: How about the first song of yours that also was recorded?
Sonny: The first song I had recorded was “Rock Around with Ollie Vee,” (recorded) by Buddy on those first Decca Sessions we did.
A-J: Sonny, when did you first become comfortable describing yourself as a songwriter?
Sonny: I don’t ever remember being uncomfortable. After my song “Someday” got on the charts in the spring of ’57 and “Rock Around with Ollie Vee” came out soon after that, I did not have any trouble telling people I was a songwriter.
A-J: Webb Pierce took “Someday” to the Top 10. Did that open doors for you as a songwriter?
Sonny: To be honest, I think it only made it to No. 13 on the charts and yes, it opened some doors. It made some people in Nashville somewhat aware of me, and it got me a job on “The Philip Morris Country Music Show” with Carl Smith, Red Sovine, Goldie Hill and Mimi Roman.
A-J: Sonny, you have recorded for several labels. Was that always the dream: to be the front man, singing your own songs?
Sonny: In the beginning, of course, that was my dream. After I grew up a little and saw what that did to people, I backed off some. I do enjoy being in the studio, cutting records and watching it all come together. But I also like going to the mall and not having people recognize me.
A-J: Is there one of your songs that surprised you by becoming a hit?
Sonny: I think J.I. (co-writer) and I were both a little surprised by the popularity that “More Than I Can Say” achieved. Bobby Vee had a pretty good hit on it in 1961. But when Leo Sayer had a worldwide hit on it, we could hardly believe it. I remember, we were out on the road, opening for Waylon (Jennings) and we said, “Man, we’ve got to put that song into our act.”
A-J: Where were you when Buddy and the Crickets took off?
Sonny: I had a gig playing six nights week in a nightclub, the Navajo Hogan Club, in Colorado Springs. The money wasn’t very good, but the hours were long.
A-J: And what was your personal reaction when it happened?
Sonny: Well, I was happy for my friends. But I also felt a little left out.
A-J: How close did you come to becoming a Cricket during Buddy’s golden years?
Sonny: When Niki quit the band at the end of 1957, Buddy and the guys were thinking of replacing him with me. I even went to Clovis when they were going to discuss it (with producer/manager Norman Petty). In the end, they decided to be a “three-piece.” Niki and I rode back to Lubbock together.
A-J: You said in another interview that Norman Petty did not like you. Would you elaborate about your working relationship with Norman?
Sonny: I don’t want to be too hard on Norman because he is not here to speak for himself. But Norman had a group called the Norman Petty Trio. They were highly successful with (Mickey Mouse) hits in the early ’50s like “Mood Indigo” and Norman’s composition of “Almost Paradise.” Their trio consisted of Norman, Vi (Norman’s wife) and guitarist Jack Vaughn. Jack’s wife got pregnant and he decided to quit. Norman called me and asked me to take Jack’s place. I went to Clovis and tried out. Norman offered me a good deal, I thought. … I decided it was too good a deal to turn down, so I called Buddy to tell him I was quitting. Buddy said, “Man, you don’t want to do that. You’ll get sick of that Mickey Mouse music.” I said, “Well, Norman said he will buy me an electric guitar.” (I didn’t have one at the time.) Buddy said, “Hell, I’ll buy you an electric guitar.” Buddy convinced me. I called Norman and turned him down. Norman never forgave me. He never liked me again. We had some more dealings, but he always poured them over ice water. I’m not a fan of Norman Petty. He told me once that I was wishy-washy and (paraphrasing) a person of low character. He said that I would wind up in this business with (his words) “a big goose egg.” When you are young, broke, doubting yourself anyway, and struggling to figure it all out, those are words that can break your heart. I’m sorry he’s not here to speak for himself. I’d love to meet him face to face and say, “Man, the way you treated me was not cool.”
A-J: Do you set aside a certain time period that works for you as a songwriter?
Sonny: When I was writing songs, I was always ready, whether riding down the road or dreaming. Also, I’ve done a lot of other things in the music business, like pickin’ sessions, going on the road with the Crickets, the Everly Brothers, Waylon, etc. Any time I had some spare time, I generally tried to write. I also have gotten up in the morning with my coffee and gone to my writing room and written songs. The way I approached it is, when I was struck with an idea, I started writing.
A-J: Do you work better writing alone or with a partner?
Sonny: I prefer to write alone, but I’m not unwilling to co-write. The process is different. When you write alone, you can start in the middle if you want, and develop it any way you want and take as long as you want. When you co-write, there is a lot of give and take. It has to be more structured. You have to be open to an idea you might not like at first. It’s hard to be stubborn and come out with a good result.
A-J: Who had the original idea for “More Than I Can Say?” Was that easy for you and J.I. to co-write?
Sonny: I can’t remember who had the idea. We were on our way to New York in 1959 to record “In Style with the Crickets.” I don’t think it was hard. We just sat in the back seat pickin’ and it came together.
A-J: Did you and Buddy and the gang seeing Elvis have an influence on you branching more into rock?
Sonny: Absolutely. When I saw Elvis, I was hooked.
A-J: And what is the story behind “Rock Around with Ollie Vee?”
Sonny: Ollie Vee was married to Willie Robinson, a black man who my dad hired to help him on the farm. The only connection she has to the song is, I used her name.
A-J: “I Fought the Law” must be your most successful song. Please say where you were, or what was the thought process behind that song. Obviously, it became a hit for dozens of recording artists, starting with Bobby Fuller.
Sonny: “I Fought the Law” is my most successful copyright. I was sitting in my living room in Slaton one hot summer afternoon in 1959. The wind was up and the sand was blowing, and I was just pickin’ my guitar, trying to write a song. There was no thought process. It only took about 15 minutes, and there’s nothing true about it. I was just singing what came into my head. I’m really thankful that the kid I was back then came up with that song, because “I Fought the Law” has meant a lot to me. And as I understand it, Bobby Fuller got it off our “In Style with the Crickets” album.
A-J: You had success jingle-writing for a while. What was the appeal?
Sonny: I wrote jingles for the last five years I was in LA. I was invited to join my friend Don Piestrup, who is about the most delightful guy you could work with. He is a musical genius, and afforded me with what amounts to a college education in music. Jingle writing was a terrific work environment and it paid well.
A-J: Another of your biggest songs is “Love is all Around,” the theme for “The Mary Tyler More Show.” Where did the inspiration, or invitation, come for that song?
Sonny: Doug Gilmore, my friend who worked for the Williams and Price Agency and managed Mary, called me one day at about 11 a.m. and asked me to write it. He dropped off a four-page format of the show during his lunch break. By 2 p.m., I had the song finished. I was sent to CBS to sing it to (show creator) James L. Brooks and voila! The whole thing took about half a day. Luck just happened to be on my side that day.
A-J: You were drafted into the Army in about 1960. Where were you stationed, and what was the biggest tune you wrote while you were gone?
Sonny: I took my basic training at Fort Ord, California, my MOS (military occupation specialty) training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and then I spent 18 months in Toule, France, at the Jeanne D’Arc casern. I wrote “Walk Right Back” during basic training.
A-J: Name your favorite five songwriters, alive or deceased.
Sonny: (Frederic) Chopin, Cole Porter, Boudleax & Felice Bryant, and (John) Lennon & (Paul) McCartney. Oops. That’s six.
A-J: Do you still have family in Meadow and West Texas?
Sonny: Yes, I have a patch of wonderful relatives all over West Texas: Meadow, Lubbock, Brownfield, Levelland, Midland, etc. Not to mention a whole bunch of great friends.
A-J: Any regrets:
Sonny: Sure. I don’t think anybody can look back over their life and not want to tweak a few things. But overall, I can look in the mirror and feel OK with myself. I think Waylon said it best in song: “I can’t say I’m proud of all the things that I’ve done, but I can say I’ve never intentionally hurt anyone.” I hope I’ve at least achieved that.
A-J: I have to ask, Sonny. Among the hundreds of songs you have written, is there one you can call a favorite?
Sonny: The song I wrote for my daughter, “It’s Not Easy Being Fifteen.” It’s my favorite because it is about my sweet little Sarah.
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