Buddy Holly, Norman Petty at the heart of the ‘Clovis Sound’

Don McAlavy

In 1949, Hank Williams was all over the radio, as were a dozen cowboy, western and hillbilly singers.

A few years later, Elvis Presley came out with his first hit, “That’s Alright, Mama,” and popular music would never be the same again.

Then came Buddy Holly, who in 1957 soft-rocked the world with his first hit, “That’ll Be the Day,” recorded in a small Clovis recording studio by Norman Petty.

Many more hits were to be recorded in Clovis by Buddy Holly, with one backup vocal group being The Roses.

One member of that trio, Bob Linville, came to Clovis to back up Buddy Holly, and Norman Petty hired The Roses to be his backup singers.

Today, Bob Linville, still living in Clovis, produces the annual Norman and Vi Petty Clovis Music Festival in the second studio that Petty established in what was the Mesa Theater on Main Street.

Some of the singers that Petty produced hits for included Buddy Knox, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, the Fireballs and Charlie “Sugartime” Phillips.

Most recently (1996), the Norman Petty studio, under the direction of Johnny Mulhair of Clovis, recorded the hit song, “Blue,” by LeAnn Rimes.

Norman Petty died of leukemia on Aug. 15, 1984.

He was a Clovis-grown son, born here May 25, 1927. He was a natural piano player, and while still in Clovis High School (graduated in 1945), he had a 15-minute show on KICA radio.

He served in the Air Force, and in 1948 married local girl Violet Ann Brady, known since as “Vi” (she died March 22, 1992).

Norman founded the Norman Petty Trio, composed of himself, Vi and Jack Vaughn (who died May 20, 1984).

Later, Mike Mitchell became one of the trio. This trio toured the Southwest and Illinois and Michigan.

Petty had a small building on the alley at 1313 W. Seventh St, which became his recording studio, and there recorded his first hit by the trio, a vocal titled “Mood Indigo” in 1954, which sold 500,000 copies.

He composed and recorded the trio’s “Almost Paradise” (at the Lyceum Theatre) in 1956, which sold more than 1 million records in the Roger Williams cover version alone.

Norman’s most successful instrumental composition was “Wheels” in 1961. This song was so popular that it has been recorded by countless artists around the world. Billy Vaughn’s version earned Norman a gold record for sales in West Germany.

The Norman Petty Trio subsequently recorded many singles and albums for RCA, Columbia and Top Rank, as well as for Norman’s own Nor-Va-Jak label.

Petty was known throughout the world as a recording pioneer and genius whose reputation gave Clovis and New Mexico an international status. The range of his work covered not only the trio’s own soft-dance music, but country, rockabilly, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll.

His work influenced such contemporary musical greats as Paul McCartney (who, after Norman died, purchased all the original tapes from Norman’s old studio), Mick Jagger and Linda Ronstadt.

The respected producer Phil Spector, who produced many Beatle songs, cited Petty as one of the handful of independent producers in the U.S. who shaped modern pop music.

Other artists produced by Norman included Jimmy Self (who still lives here), Jimmy Gilmer, Charlie Phillips (a Texico son), Jimmy Bowen and Johnny Duncan.

Of course, his hits mostly came from Buddy Holly, who was a Lubbock native.

Petty produced 40-50 Buddy Holly songs (and co-wrote many) at his studio in the space of 18 months, and almost every song has since become a million-seller, either as a single or on an album collection.

The Fireballs’ song, “Sugar Shack,” was the No. 1 hit for 1963, earning Petty another gold record.

Petty acquired the Mesa Theater in Clovis in 1960 for his second recording studio, and from there gave this area its first FM radio station, KTQM, in 1963.

Although Norman Petty was truly an international citizen who could have lived and worked successfully in New York, Los Angeles, London, West Germany or France, he chose to live and work in Clovis because he loved it here.