Billy Grammer and Buddy Holly’s Opening Song, “Gotta Travel On”

Buddy Holly opened shows on his final tour in 1959 with “Gotta Travel On” a song that was not one of his originals.  Crickets drummer Jerry Allison once was asked why Holly performed the song so much.  He explained, “Because Buddy liked it.”

I’ve laid around and played around,
This old town too long;
Summer’s almost gone,
Yes, winter’s comin’ on;
I’ve laid around and played around,
This old town too long,
And I feel like I gotta travel on.

Tommy Allsup, who played guitar for Holly on The Winter Dance Party Tour, also has noted that Holly liked “Gotta Travel On” as the opener on that tour. There are no recordings of Holly singing the song, but here the late Tommy Allsup plays the song in 2015 in tribute to Holly.

Bob Dylan also had a fondness for the song.  He recorded “Gotta Travel On,” which appears on his Self-Portrait (1970) album.

And, perhaps because as a 17-year-old he had seen Holly perform the song on The Winter Dance Party Tour, Dylan also often closed with the song during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1976. Additionally, The Seekers, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Dean, The Limeliters, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, Boxcar Willie, and others have covered the song.

So, where did Buddy Holly’s opening song come from?

Origins of “Gotta Travel On”

“Gotta Travel On” is credited as being written by David Lazar, Larry Ehrlich, Paul Clayton and Tom Six.  But the song goes back quite a ways.

The first time one hears the song, a listener may think the song is just about an adventurous person off to see the world.  But upon closer listen, there is a darker undercurrent.  There is a reason the person must be traveling on:  The singer has been gambling (“played around too long”), perhaps fraudulently.   And the singer also notes,”High sheriff and police riding after me.”  And Johnnie (the singer’s brother?) has “been on the chain gang too long.”

The song has been traced to a song called “Yonder Comes the High Sherif” in 1891, although it also was called “I’ve Laid Around and Played Around.”  Ollis Martin made the first official recording of the song in August 6, 1927, with his version called “Police & High Sheriff Come.”

The melody appears in different songs with different lyrics.  One song that uses the same tune is “Long Journey Home,” as in this version by The Delmore Brothers.

A number of years passed before a variation of the original version of “Gotta Travel On” appeared through Sanga Music Inc. obtaining copyright in early 1959. The composers were listed as folksinger Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, and Tom Six.

Clayton was an important figure in the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s.  In addition to his work on writing “Gotta Travel On,” he was a fine singer and scholar of folk songs.  He influenced a number of more famous artists, such as Bob Dylan, and also loosely inspired a character or characters in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. [Thanks to @pangurdubh3 for the additional information on Clayton.]

The three latter names listed as writers were pseudonyms for members of The Weavers.  Ehrlich was a pseudonym for Lee Hays, Six was a pseudonym for Fred Hellerman, and Lazar was a pseudonym for Pete Seeger.

On February 22, 1958, The Weavers performed the song with the title “Done Laid Around” live at Carnegie Hall (appearing on their album Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall).

But it would take another singer to make it a massive hit.

The Hit Recording of “Gotta Travel On”

Billy Grammer — who was born on August 28, 1925 — took “Gotta Travel On” to near the top of both the pop and country charts in 1959.

After the success of the song, Grammer became a regular member on the Grand Ole Opry.  Regarding his recording career, Grammer is largely known for “Gotta Travel On,” his one big hit.  But he had an interesting life.

Billy Grammer’s Life

In 1963, Grammer also was the first to chart with the “I Wanna Go Home.” The song later was a much bigger hit as “Detroit City” for Bobby Bare. Below is Grammer’s version.

In the 1960s, Grammer formed a guitar company, RG&G Company, which after a sale was renamed Grammer Guitar, Inc.  Today, many collectors and musicians seek out Grammer guitars.  The first one made is on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Grammer was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.

Finally, Grammer and his band, “The Travel On Boys,” attended an infamous event in American history.  They performed at the rally in Laurel, Maryland where Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and paralyzed on May 15, 1972.

Grammer, who became blind in later life, passed away on August 10, 2011, after a long-term illness and an earlier heart attack.  He was 85.

Although Grammer was not in the news toward the end of his life, many still remembered his work. The Grand Ole Opry honored Grammer for his 50 years of membership in February 27, 2009.  He was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.

In this video from later in life with Grammer’s wife Ruth, Grammer tells the story behind another song of his and plays, “I’m Letting You Go, Goodbye.”

And that is the story behind the song.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    “Peggy Sue Got Married”: The Record That Buddy Holly Never Heard

    On September 7, 1936, Charles Harden Holley was born in Lubbock, Texas.  Through various circumstances, though, young Charles would become known as “Buddy Holly.”

    Regarding the first name, after the baby was born the family soon began calling the child “Buddy,” and the name stuck. Regarding the spelling of his last name, while young Buddy was a rising musician, Decca Records mistakenly spelled his last name as “Holly.” The singer decided to keep the new spelling, thus completing the final piece of the name of one of the greatest rock and roll stars in history.

    The Original Release of “Peggy Sue Got Married”

    In a previous post, Chimesfreedom examined the circumstances of Buddy Holly’s death, but the world did not hear some of his great songs until after his death. For example, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” was released after he died at the young age of 22 on February 3, 1959.

    A little more than five months after Holly’s death, Coral Records on July 20, 1959 released “Peggy Sue Got Married.” It appeared as a B-side to Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.”

    “Peggy Sue Got Married” was a the sequel to Holly’s hit “Peggy Sue.” The original hit was named after the girlfriend of Crickets drummer Jerry Allison.

    You probably have heard this recording of the sequel song.  The recording of “Peggy Sue Got Married” that most of us know features backup vocals and instrumentals recorded in June 1959 after Holly’s death.

    The Version Buddy Holly Knew (as a Demo)

    Because Buddy Holly had died in February, however, he never heard this version that we know so well.

    The record company created the record using a demo that Holly had recorded himself.  The demo features Holly with his guitar in his New York apartment in December 1958 before Holly left for his final tour.  Below, you may hear the recorded version that Holly knew below.

    I love the song in both versions, despite the fact that the original release was not completely the work of Holly. I have always wondered what Holly might have done with the finished product of the song, although the record company did try to stay true to his “sound.”

    The Crickets Version

    Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets, later made their own version of the song. They sped up the song in their recording, which features David Box on vocals.

    The Crickets version is not bad, but of course it pales in comparison to the Holly versions.  Check it out.

    The Tribute Version with The Hollies and Holly

    Finally, for a 1993 Buddy Holly tribute album, Not Fade Away: Remembering Buddy Holly, the English rock group The Hollies re-recorded “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Instead of adding new vocals, though, they used Buddy Holly’s original vocals.

    While some may be critical of the re-use of Holly’s vocals, remember that the original record did the same thing. And what better tribute than a re-working of the song by a band that named itself after Buddy Holly? Check it out.

    Rarely has one set of vocals created so many versions. And that is not even mentioning that the song also inspired a 1986 movie of the same name.  The movie Peggy Sue Got Married used the demo version of the song over the opening.

    In case you are wondering, the original “Peggy Sue” song helped Jerry Allison get back together with his girlfriend who inspired the song’s name.  And Peggy Sue Gerron did get married to Allison, although unlike like Holly’s song, the marriage did not last.

    What is your favorite version of “Peggy Sue Got Married”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Eddie Cochran’s Car Crash

    On April 17, 1960, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were taking a cab from a show in Bristol, England to the airport when the taxi, traveling at more than 60 mph through a dark and winding road, crashed into a light post. Cochran was thrown through a window and died at the hospital from a head injury. Vincent survived but sustained a broken leg and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Cochran — who had hits with songs like “C’mon Everybody”, “Somethin’ Else”, and “Summertime Blues” was only 21.

    Cochran’s girlfriend Sharon Sheeley, who was also in the car, survived, reportedly because Cochran had thrown himself on top of her to protect her. Sheeley was a songwriter and wrote songs such as Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” and she continued to write songs after the crash. She passed away in 2002.

    Despite his young death, the Minnesota-born Cochran and Vincent, who passed away in 1971, were a strong influence on the British rock scene. For example, John Lennon was playing Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula” at a 1957 garden party where he met Paul McCartney (whose first record purchase was of that Gene Vincent record). And later that afternoon when the two future Beatles met, McCartney taught Lennon to play Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.”

    In this video, Eddie Cochran performed on the Town Hall Party TV show on February 7, 1959. This performance took place not long after Cochran had lost two of his friends, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly in a tragic plane crash and a little more than a year before his own death. Check it out.

    What is your favorite Eddie Cochran song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Elvis Goes Into the Army: March 25, 1958

    On December 20, 1957, Elvis was drafted while he was celebrating Christmas at Graceland, and three months later on March 25 the 23-year-old Elvis went into the U.S. Army. During his time in the Army, Presley served as a member of two armor battalions, first completing basic and advanced training with Company A, 2d Medium Tank Battalion, 37th Armor, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas until September 1958.

    Starting in October 1958, Presley served in Germany until March 2, 1960, as a member of the 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32d Armor. It was during this time in Germany that he met the young teenager Priscilla Beaulieu, who would become his wife. Elvis left active duty on March 5, 1960 and received his discharge from the Army Reserve on March 23, 1964.

    This newsreel has the story of the induction.

    There were some downsides to these Army years. It was during this period that Elvis began abusing prescription drugs, a practice that would later lead to his death. As Elvis went into the Army, many wondered how his absence would affect his career.

    When Presley returned from the Army, he showed he could still generate pop hits like “It’s Now or Never.” Additionally, he would return to making movies, but he was an adult and further away from his teenage rebel rock and roll years.

    Although Presley still had good music ahead of him, the music scene had changed during the short time he was gone. In addition to the loss of Elvis during those years, Chuck Berry fell into trouble with the law, Little Richard joined the ministry, Jerry Lee Lewis lost his popularity when he married his young cousin, and Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in Iowa in early 1959. While the survivors of those years would resurrect their careers to varying degrees, American music was never again like it was before this date in 1958.

    Do you remember when Elvis went into the Army? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Who Flipped a Coin With Ritchie Valens?: The Day the Music Died and the Coin Toss Controversy

    February 3 marks the anniversary of the day Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens perished in a plane crash. You probably know the general outline of “the day the music died.” But you may not know the controversy surrounding the legendary coin flip connected to the tragedy.

    The Day the Music Died

    In early 1959, Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts toured through the Midwest in what was called “The Winter Dance Party.” Also on the tour was Holly’s new back-up band replacing the Crickets: Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass, and Carl Bunch on drums.

    Some of the performers were tired of traveling through the cold in an old bus that kept breaking down. The poor conditions led to drummer Bunch going to the hospital with frostbite. So Buddy Holly chartered a small plane for one of the upcoming trips on the tour.

    After their February 2, 1959 performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, three of the stars — Holly, Richardson, and Valens — boarded a three-passenger plane. The plane took off in the early morning hours of February 3 for Fargo, North Dakota but soon crashed in a snow storm.

    All three passengers were killed along with the pilot Roger Peterson. The young rock and roll music industry lost three of its brightest stars.

    The Competing Claims About a Coin Toss

    Although the story is familiar, there is still an ongoing question. Besides Holly, how did Richardson and Valens end up on the plane instead of the other headliner, Dion, or instead of other band members?

    Stories conflict about the events that night before the flight. Everyone agrees there was a coin toss. But survivors still debate who was the person who barely missed getting on a plane ride to their death, all due to the luck of a coin flip.

    Holly’s former band members tell one story. But Dion wrote in his book The Wanderer Talks Truth (2011) that the events “have been completely eclipsed by urban legends, cinematic retellings, gossip, and outright grandstanding.” (p. 41).

    Who is telling the truth? Let’s consider the different versions of the story.

    On a Behind the Music episode, “The Day the Music Died,” the producers presented the story that Buddy Holly planned for the airplane to the next stop on the tour for him and his two musicians, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. In the video, Waylon Jennings explains how he gave up his seat on the plane to the ailing Big Bopper (around 9:50). Jennings recounts that Holly had ribbed him about taking the bus. Jennings responded, jokingly, “I hope your ole plane crashes,” a retort that haunted him for years.

    In the same episode, guitarist Tommy Allsup recounts how when he went inside to make sure they did not leave anything behind, he ran into Ritchie Valens.  Then, Valens asked Allsup if he could take Allsup’s seat on the plane. Allsup then claims he flipped a coin, and Valens won the seat on the ill-fated plane.

    In other venues, Tommy Allsup repeated his version of the story of the coin toss that he lost to Ritchie Valens.

    Bob Hale, the emcee at the Surf Ballroom in Iowa for the last Winter Dance Party show before the plane crash, has a similar recollection. Hale remembers that Allsup suggested the coin flip. But Hale recalls that he was the one who flipped the coin for Allsup and Valens.  Hale remembers that Valens won by calling “heads.”

    Allsup, however, argues that Hale was not present at the coin flip. [February 2013 Update: See the comments section below for Mr. Hale’s comment on this post.][January 2017 Update: Tommy Allsup passed away on January 11, 2017.]

    Dion has yet another version of the events leading to the plane ride. According to Dion’s website:

    “Dion was, in fact, scheduled to fly in the fateful plane that went down. The headliners flipped a coin to see who was going to fly. The Big Bopper and Dion won the toss. Then he discovered that the flight would cost $36 — the exact amount of rent his parents paid monthly. He said, ‘I couldn’t bring myself to pay a full month’s rent on a short flight. So I said, ‘Ritchie, you go.’ He accepted and took my seat. Only the four of us knew who was getting on that plane when we left the dressing room that night. Of those four, I was the only one who survived beyond February 3, 1959.'”

    In his book The Wanderer Talks Truth, Dion explains that through the years he watched others (presumably Allsup who he never names) exaggerate their role.  Dion asserts that he only came forward to correct history when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame contacted him about the conflicting stories.

    Filmmakers created a documentary about the tour that includes Dion’s memories. 2015 Update: The Winter Dance Party video interview with Dion has been completed and is posted below. Dion’s explanation of the coin toss involving Holly, Vallens, the Big Bopper, and him begins at around 42:20, although the entire video is worth watching for his memories of the tour.

    Allsup has threatened to “whip [Dion’s] ass for claiming he participated in the coin toss with Valens.  Sometimes Allsup’s anger about the dispute unnecessarily digresses to attacking Dion’s musical talents.

    Readers of this blog know I am a Dion fan, so I hate to believe that he is lying. And to a large extent, it has been curious that as the fourth headliner he is often excluded in discussions of the fated tour.

    Then again, one may give some weight to Ritchie Valens’s sister, Connie Valens Lemos. She sides with Tommy Allsup on the issue.

    The Movie Versions of the Coin Flip

    The two major films about two of the stars on the tour do not add any insight. The Buddy Holly Story (1978) avoided the issue altogether. That movie ends with Buddy Holly on stage in Clear Lake, Iowa on the fateful night, playing his hits and having fun on stage.

    At the end of The Buddy Holly Story, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper join Holly on stage for the final song, leaving us with a happy moment. As in many retellings of the story, the film does not mention the fourth headliner, Dion.

    The film about Ritchie Valens, La Bamba (1987), also excludes all mention of Dion. A scene of a marquee on the final tour does not even show Dion’s name.

    La Bamba takes some additional literary license with the events leading up to the flight. Regarding the coin toss, in the first mention of the planned flight, the Big Bopper tells Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) that Holly reserved the plane for the headliners. This conversation in the film is consistent with Dion’s story.

    But later in the movie La Bamba, it shows the group standing next to the plane. There, Holly explains he is flipping a coin to decide whether Ritchie or “Tommy” gets to go. “Tommy” is also called “Allsup” in the scene, so the movie follows the Allsup-Valens coin toss story.  But La Bamba moves the private toss between the two men to one conducted by Holly on the airfield. Allsup has criticized the movie’s fictionalized version of the coin flip.

    What Really Happened?

    Is Allsup telling the truth? And did Dion’s imagination insert the singer deeper into the story of “the day the music died”? It is easy to imagine a toll on Dion from decades of hearing about the music dying when he survived.  For decades that tour headliner has been completely excluded from the legendary tale in many retellings.

    Or is Dion telling the truth, which would mean that Allsup and Waylon Jennings are wrong? And what about Hale’s version that he flipped the coin?

         Arguments Supporting Allsup’s Version

    Between Allsup and Dion, there is no way to way to be sure who is telling the truth. But some factors weigh in favor of Allsup. Since Holly arranged for the flight, it seems like he might first ask his friends and band-mates Allsup and Jennings.  This conclusion makes sense considering the band had lost drummer Carl Bunch for a while due to to frostbite.

    Also, Allsup’s wallet was found among the wreckage.  Allsup explains that  before the coin toss, he had planned to go on the flight. So he gave Holly his identification so Holly could pick up his mail waiting in Fargo. Still, even if Allsup had not planned to fly at some point, he could have given his wallet to Holly for the same reason.

    One strong argument for Allsup is that he consistently has told the same story since the crash. And most stories by other people are largely consistent with Allsup’s version of the coin flip. Bob Hale confirms that the coin flip involved Allsup and Valens, even though Allsup and Hale disagree about who actually flipped the coin. Jennings’ story also is more consistent with Allsup’s.

    Jennings’s story about Allsup seems truthful because he would have no motivation to make up a story that makes him look bad with his joking taunt about the plane crashing. Still, under Dion’s version, Jennings and Holly still could have had the exchange even if Jennings had not been one of the original passengers.

         Arguments Supporting Dion’s Version

    On the other hand, some reasons support Dion’s version of events. Holly might have asked the headliners first, expecting they most likely would be willing to have the money for the expensive flight.

    Also, according to Larrry Lehmer’s book, The Day the Music Died, Holly had asked Jennings to open for him in England but told Jennings that he was not going to tour in England with Allsup because he was going to get back together with his original Crickets. So maybe Allsup would not be the first person Holly would ask on the flight.

    There are other reasons why Holly might have first invited the headliners. For example, Valens and Richardson were both sick, so Holly might have asked them first, then included the other headliner, Dion.

    Waylon Jennings does remember that Dion was especially angry about the poor conditions of the bus that kept breaking down (Lehmer, p. 67). Thus, Holly might have thought that Dion would be the first to jump at the chance to fly. And Holly played drums for Dion for their last show, so they might have talked about the flight.

    Finally, there are questionable reports that Holly, Valens, and Richardson flew in a plane on some legs of the tour before the fateful trip. (Lehmer, p. 224) If true, it seems Holly was flying with the headliners, not his band members. If true, that practice would support the conclusion that Dion was invited on the final flight. On the other hand, many dispute the stories about other flights and even Dion does not remember any other flights.

    Trying to Put It All Together

    Larry Lehmer’s well-researched book is in the Allsup camp, recounting the version from Jennings and Allsup without mentioning the Dion controversy. Lehmer also quotes Carroll Anderson, the manager of the Surf lounge and the person who first contacted the pilot Roger Peterson, as saying that Holly said he wanted to get a flight for him and his band. (p. 95.)

    Maybe some combination of the stories is true. Maybe there was a coin toss among all of the men and Allsup and Dion both “lost” out on seats of the plane.

    Or maybe there were two coin tosses. Under both Allsup’s and Dion’s stories their coin tosses happened in different places at different times. Under this scenario, maybe Dion had a seat that he declined because of the cost.  Then later there could have been a coin flip between Valens and Allsup.

    Buddy Holly’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, similarly has suggested some merging of the two stories.  But it is reported that Allsup also has attacked the character of Ms. Holly too.

    If that is not enough controversy for the day, some people claim that the plane crash itself should be re-investigated. Some go as far to say that foul play was involved in the crash. But we will leave those “mysteries” for another day.

    Of course, the only people who know how these passengers were selected are Tommy Allsup, Dion, and Ritchie Valens. Whatever happened, the survivors’ trauma of hearing the news of the crash probably affected memories. Thus, it is likely both Allsup and Dion actually remember the story in different ways.  Neither of the men is probably intentionally lying.

    So that leaves Ritchie Valens. But unfortunately he is no longer with us and buried in California. Richardson was buried in Beaumont, Texas, although his body was exhumed in 2007, underwent an autopsy, and reburied. Holly is buried in Lubbock, and the pilot Peterson is buried in Iowa.

    Ultimately, to paraphrase Don McLean’s “American Pie,” all of this arguing about the coin toss just may be keeping Satan laughing with delight. It may not matter who lost the coin toss that night, as those who won the toss and those who were on the plane constituted our great national loss.

    What do you think happened with the coin toss? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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