Norman Petty Studios, Clovis, New Mexico - 1980 and 1981
Gary Dudley, our drummer from Artisan had a brother who knew a guy who’d had a few songs published by Norman Petty, Buddy Holly’s producer-manager. Arrangements were made and Gary sent Norm a demo tape of a few songs we wanted to have published and before we knew it, we were on our way to Clovis, New Mexico to record songs with the legendary Norman Petty!
In November 1980, just as the US presidential election was getting under way, former bandmates and friends, Dennis Watson, Gary Dudley, Richard Thompson, Ray Salazar, Win Landreth, and a singer named Fred who looked like Mike Love from The Beach Boys, traveled in a rented Ford Town & Country sedan pulling a U-Haul trailer with our band equipment.
My first impression of Clovis, New Mexico was, “so THIS is where the nuclear bomb test site is!” The place seemed deserted. I guess that’s because it sort of resembles a desert; flat, not many trees and not many people.
As we drove into town to try to find Mr. Petty’s recording studio that he had transformed from a downtown movie theater, I noticed what we later learned was the only restaurant in Clovis. The place was called The Snazzy Pig. I immediately had a vision of having breakfast there every day for the next four days that consisted of a pork bar-b-que omelet, bacon, pork-fried potatoes and pork flavored coffee. Pretty snazzy.
We found the studio. We pulled our trailer around in back of the studio to load in. A frail looking little guy opened the load-in doors for us. After we’d gotten all of our stuff just inside the door, Gary stopped and said to the man, “Are YOU Mr. Petty?” “Yes, I am!” said the little old man. Wow! There I was, face to face with Buddy Holly’s producer-manager. I could hardly speak!
Only Richard was a true Buddy Holly fan at that time. Of course, we all knew who Buddy was and were familiar with his songs, but the rest of us were more Beatle-type guys than early rockabilly fans. This would change somewhat as we spent the next four days with Norm.
We’d been told ahead of time by Gary’s brother that we were not to mention anything about Buddy Holly in front of Norm. Apparently, there was some unfinished business between the two. Whether this was money business or music business or “what could have been” business, I never found out.
I do know that at the time Buddy was killed in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 along with Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) and their pilot, Buddy was in the middle of musical transition and he wanted to push his music journey in a direction that Norm didn’t want to go. By all accounts, Charles “Buddy” Holly died young (he was 22) and well before he reached his prime as a songwriter.
The remainder of our first day in Clovis was spent setting up our equipment on a stage in the down front area of the theater where the original movie screen had been. The stage had dozens of beautiful old Neuman and Sennheiser microphones attached to heavy-duty stands. I noticed that the theatre still had the first few rows of seats removed, presumably for more musical equipment or perhaps a small orchestra. Other than that, it still looked like a movie theatre.
After we set our stuff up, Norm asked us if we wanted to see the control room. After one collective group. “Yeah!”, we walked with him up one of the aisles of the theatre towards the front entrance where we made a sharp turn to climb a level of steps that led into what used to be the projector room in the movie theatre. Climbing up the stairs, I noticed a few framed recognition awards for songs like Peggy Sue and That’ll Be The Day and I did my best to hide my chill bumps. I wanted to say something about them but I remembered what Gary’s brother had told us. “No mention of Buddy Holly around Norm whatsoever!”
As we turned the corner into the projector/control room, I spotted a 16-track Western Digital tape recorder, which was state of the art in those days and a huge Harrison mixing console. I’d never seen anything like it! There was also a keyboard room, a guitar room, a drum booth, and a vocal booth surrounding the control room separated by huge glass panes so everyone playing could make eye contact with everyone else.
I found Norm’s kitchen right next to the main studio room to be quite inviting. Apart from the standard table and chairs set up, there was a huge, fully-stocked candy counter like you’d see in a convenience store!
We had a busy day of laying basic tracks the next day, so we said our goodnights and headed off to our hotel. Norm recommend The Snazzy Pig for breakfast. I could already taste the bar-b-que! Back at the hotel, the election results were starting to come in. It was soon apparent that Ronald Regan and been elected president, upsetting incumbent Jimmy Carter.
We woke up early the next morning to head over to The Snazzy Pig for breakfast. I was relieved find many “non-pig” items on the breakfast menu. The food was very good and we made it over to the studio on time.
Norm was in the lobby to great us and to tell us that fresh coffee had been made. He told us that he like a “little bit of cinnamon” sprinkled into the grounds before they brewed. It smelled wonderful and I will never forget that aroma!
Gary, Dennis, and I went down to the stage to start finalizing the first song’s arrangement before we started recording. The first song was called Down The Road. It was sort of a rock-country song. It would just be drums, bass, and piano going down for a master take on the basic track, with Ray two hundred feet away up in the vocal booth behind the control room. Richard plugged his electric guitar directly into the recording console to give us some feel, although his vocal part would just be a “scratch” or “guide” track for now.
As we rehearsed the song, I watched Norm walk around the aisles of the theatre and through the rows of seats as he listened to us. While holding a big silver Neuman U-86 microphone in his left hand up by his left ear, he took the index finger of his right hand and stuck it in his ear. He did this for some time. As we got to the end of one of our run-throughs, Norm was still walking around the room with his finger in his ear and holding that microphone. I said, “Mr. Petty, what are you doing?”. “Well”, he said, “I’m looking for the sweet spot in the room to capture the ambient sound.” “Why the finger in one ear?”, I asked. “A microphone only has one ear”, he said. He finally motioned for an assistant to bring over a big weighted boom mic stand and he positioned the microphone on the adapter. “Don’t move this even an inch”, he said. Simple. After that, I always remembered that a microphone only has one ear!
Finally, we were ready to start laying down some tracks. Norm had a little gray metal light box sitting on top of a mic stand. The box had two lights on it about the size of a quarter. The lights were red and yellow. The yellow light was a “stand-by light” where we’d hear Norm say, “Quiet boys.” in our headphones. Then the red light would come on, which meant “recording” and off we went. Years later, I would hear the unedited take of Buddy’s recording of True Love Ways with Norm calling out, “Quiet boys.” just before Buddy begins the song. It gave me the shivers! I felt so “connected” to both Buddy and Norm when I first heard it. I guess I still do.
Down The Road went down very well so we moved on to the next basic track. By lunch time, we had four very tight basic rhythm tracks in the can. Next, it was time for Norm to get a keeper lead vocal track down for each song. This gave me some time off, so I set about exploring the studio. The convenience of the candy counter in Norm’s studio kitchen was too much to resist and I grabbed a couple of Butterfingers to munch on while I explored. I went into one small room just adjacent to main control room where I found a case with a couple of strange looking old microphones. I asked Norm about them later during a group break and he said they were vintage AKG stage mics that Buddy had used for live shows. The room became absolutely hushed. A door to Buddy Holly had been opened! Norm sort of looked around at everyone in the room, noticing everyone’s uptightness. Finally, he asked, “Are you boys Buddy Holly fans?” “Yes sir, Mr. Petty!” we all said in unison as we jumped up and gathered around him. None of us knew what to do next.
Norm sensed all of this and it brought a slight reminiscing smile to his face that seemed both happy and sad at the same time. I will always remember his expression. After all, he was one of the last persons Buddy every spoke with on this Earth and their connection was both unique and private. No one could know precisely what he was thinking.
Suddenly he stood up and said, “Come with me, I want to show you something”. Back down the stairs from the control room and down the center aisle of the theatre towards the stage area we went. Only this time, Norm led us over to a little side door that led under the stage. The area was a combination storage and “reverb” room. One way of achieving a reverb effect on a recording is to play a particular part or parts being recorded through small speakers that have been isolated from the primary recording area and then have one or two different microphones far away from the speaker and record this new sound along with any ambient room sound. The result is a very natural reverb that is blended into the mix to make the overall sound fuller.
As we walked into the little room, Norm said “Buddy and his dad and I put the tiles on the walls one afternoon. We recorded Peggy Sue the next day, and if you listen to the record, I am actually turning the reverb off and on in time with Jerry’s tom-tom rolls.” Now I was sure I was dreaming! Here I was standing in the very room where Buddy Holly, his Dad, and Norm Petty had put up tile to help bounce the sound off the walls so Peggy Sue could be recorded into musical history!
But that’s not all. Over in the far corner of the room were draped white sheets over what appeared to be cymbal stands. I walked over and pulled up the center sheet to reveal a silver sparkle bass drum head with the words “Buddy Holly and The Crickets” printed on the front. I didn’t know what to do next. Norm came over and said “This is where they brought Jerry’s drums after the tour and they’ve just been sitting here all these years. He bought another set at some point after the last tour, but he never played these drums again. He’s never come by to get them either.” I felt like I was inside a Buddy Holly museum!
Well, we’d finally broken the ice about Buddy in front of Norm but we still were reluctant to ask him questions at this point. He just said “Well, it’s nice to know that you fellas appreciate what we were doing in those days. Keep a look out for MCA Records’ big six album set next year. It’s coming out in England next month, but it won’t be available here in the states for another year. It’s got everything we ever did together in the collection.”
The next two days were a blur with us adding harmonies, percussion parts, and little keyboard parts here and there. At one point during the fade out section of a song, Norm asked if anyone had any counter melody ideas for the fade-out they’d like to try. I said I did and I grabbed Richard’s Fender Stratocaster and asked Norm to plug it directly into the board. My idea was to pick the strings hard and muffle them with the back of my right hand as I played so it would give the part a clicking characteristic. After practicing my part on the fade-out and without even realizing what I was saying, I blurted out, “It sounds like an old Buddy Holly riff”. Silence again. Norm looked at me and smiled and said, “Just start playing and I’ll punch you in”. I gave him a nod and off I went, recording a Fender Stratocaster guitar part right next to the man who’d done this so many times with one Charles Buddy Holly!
The last recording day consisted of making basic mixes and to make plans to come back in the early spring to do final mixes. At the end of the day, Norm asked us to come into his office because he had something for us. We all filed down the stairs and into his office there in the front of the theatre.
Over on his desk, I immediately noticed a stack of Buddy Holly Boxed Sets with an overnight air bill receipt sticking out from the center of the stack. Petty had had these flown over to Clovis, NM from England. He called us each by name and handed them out. Each box set was personalized with a unique message and signed by Mr. Petty, “As ever, Norm.” Richard started sobbing trying to find the words to say thank you. We were all tearing up just standing there in the office not knowing what to say. Finally, Norm said, “Boys, just enjoy the music. Listen to what we were doing in those days and think about the songs. Then, go make your own music. Just remember, an artist creates their art with the tools they have available to them at the time.” I never forgot that.