It’s been more than 50 years since Buddy Holly died in a plane crash with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
But the pride of Lubbock, Texas' pioneering rock ‘n roll spirit has never died, thanks in large part to people like Walt Hetfield, who plays Holly in the tribute band Oh Boy!
Buddy Holly laid much of the template for the rock music that followed. He was the first notable rock musician to use the iconic Fender Stratocaster guitar and the first to write much of his own material. He created the standard instrument lineup used by everyone from The Beatles to Metallica: two guitars, bass guitar and drums. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were such big Holly fans they named their band The Beatles as a homage to Holly’s band, The Crickets.
“I’ve been a Buddy Holly fan for a long time, going back to when I first started playing. In fact, the Strat that I play is the first electric guitar that I owned. I used to live in Colorado and I actually drove to Clovis, New Mexico to check out the studio (where Holly recorded). I was a big fan.”
Hetfield had been playing Holly’s songs since 1981 and had the tribute in mind for years, but it wasn’t until he hooked up with fellow musicians Barry Eli, Mike Long and Ken Schleifer that Oh Boy! – named after one of Holly’s biggest hits - started to take fruition.
At one point, Hetfield was part of an R&B band called Lisa Scott and The Melting Pot. One night, the band got stuck in traffic on their way to a show at the Lighthouse, leaving Hetfield to go on-stage by himself.
"And I started doing my repertoire of Buddy Holly songs on acoustic guitar and the people really got into it. I was like, ‘Wow, I really got a good reaction for that,’” Hetfield said.
When Lisa Scott and the Melting Pot ran its course, Hetfield started looking for another project and decided to do a Buddy Holly tribute as a one-off type show. After that first show, it was suggested that Hetfield do the show in character as Buddy Holly.
To get into character, Hetfield had to study interview tapes of Holly to get a handle on Holly’s West Texas drawl and mannerisms. Hetfield said when he puts on the Buddy Holly glasses, he looks like his dad.
“I have to get in a certain frame of mind. And after a show it takes a while to come out of that,” he said.
On stage, Hetfield tells stories about the songs, never using a script. He said the talent and versatility of his bandmates makes his role easier
After Hetfield put on Holly’s trademark glasses, Oh Boy! became a local favorite The band has since evolved into two other tribute acts, one to the early rockabilly music of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, among others, and a surf music show called Sun, Surf and’65. Hetfield said the rockabilly show has fewer stories and more playing, while the surf show features a mix of surf instrumentals and songs from 1965 by British Invasion artists such as The Kinks and The Yardbirds.
The versatility of the bands can be attributed in part to the fact that three of the four members, including Hetfield, are music teachers.
“We all enjoy the music, and we’ve been playing it long enough that we really have it down,” he said.
A native of Plainfield, N.J., also the hometown of Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famers Parliament-Funkadelic, Hetfield started playing music in 1968, trying the trumpet as his first instrument.
“I remember the teacher, Mr. Olivia, looked at me, I played the first lesson, he looks at me and goes, ‘At least you know how to hold the damn thing,’” he said.
After five years of playing trumpet, Hetfield discovered The Beatles and '50s music. For his 18th birthday, Hetfield’s grandmother, a former music teacher, bought him a guitar. He then moved to Colorado and joined his first band, the Sideminders, a psychedelic jam band in the vein of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, complete with light show.
“We had a light show that would project stripes on us to look like we were vibrating. We’d play these cowboy bars in Colorado, and these guys would almost get seasick watching us,” Hetfield said.
Even then, Buddy Holly songs were part of the act.
“We’d play an 18-minute version of “Not Fade Away.” I called it the ‘Walt Hetfield Weight Reduction Plan’ because people would dance and they’d dance and wonder, ‘Are these guys ever going to quit?’” he said.
Hetfield came to Delaware after his father died. Right away, he found a nice little music scene in his new home. Moving to Delaware also led into Hetfield’s next career, teaching at Rehoboth Elementary School.
“In 1988, I got married to my first wife and the plan was I was going to go to school and get a music degree, because, playing in bar bands, I needed something a little more stable. So I went to West Chester University and got my degree in education,” he said.
Hetfield said landing at Rehoboth Elementary to teach music was a lucky break.
“They had a band program already started there. Boy, it was like the dream job. It was the job I wanted – I couldn’t have been luckier. I’m still there; I’m still loving it. It’s a great job,” he said. “Just being part of a nice community and feeling like you’re making a difference in kids’ lives.”
To help make music fun, Hetfield started his own rock ‘n roll music camp for students. The camp, an offseason program at Rehoboth Elementary, just completed its 12th year.
“I take two dozen kids that are taking lessons on guitar, bass lessons or on the drum set. Those are things that don’t fit in with your regular school band kind of thing," he said. "I’ll make little rock bands out of them. We’ll do a lot of oldies, but some new stuff too. I like to show them what it’s really like: you have to rehearse; you have to practice; you have to get along with each other,” he said.
Hetfield said he likes to keep the camp fun, and some of his past students have either gone into bands or into the music industry.
“It’s a good way to get started, to get pointed in the right direction,” Hetfield said.
The last day of rock ‘n roll camp, which is geared more towards middle school age kids, is a Thursday performance at the Rusty Rudder, opening for local favorites Love Seed Mama Jump.
“I’m trying to get the kids that aren’t fitting in in other areas to give them an opportunity to shine," Hetfield said "Music isn’t the magic bullet for every kid but for some kids it is,”
“It keeps them involved over the summer. It keeps it fun,” he said.
Hetfield said he hopes to take the Buddy Holly show to other places outside the Mid-Atlantic and possibly spin-off other shows, like a British Invasion-style show. He is also considering band management. Still, on-stage is where Hetfield feels comfortable.
“I think we can work as much as we want, really,” he said. “I’m gonna keep playing until I drop.”