Gary James' Interview With John Pickering of
The Pickering Brothers
Few people realize that Buddy Holly's backing vocals on records did not belong to his fellow band members. They belonged to two brothers and a friend known as The Pickering Brothers. Never credited on records until years later, what a tale John Pickering has to tell! It's almost like having a First Class ticket to the beginnings of rock 'n roll.
Q - I never realized it wasn't The Crickets doing the backing vocals for Buddy Holly records.
A - I hear that every day.
Q - I guess that's why you started your website.
A - Exactly. For the Holly Crickets, we, The Picks are the voices. We're the primary voices. There are others. I don't want to not credit them. There's Gary and Ramona Tollet. Later, it was The Roses in '58 with "It's So Easy" and "Think It Over". But, for two of Buddy's top five or six songs, we're doing the vocals. That would be "Oh Boy", "Maybe Baby" and "Tell Me How". And there's one coming up getting more popular all the time called "Rock Me My Baby". But, the post Holly Crickets is an entirely different story because the only originals there are, are the drummer and the bass. They hired sound-a-likes for a while. The best thing that ever happened to them was Sonny Curtis. He's a star in his own right and a heck of a song writer...and a great guy on top of that.
Q - Where did the vocals come in when The Crickets performed live?
A - Well, on the Dick Clark Show, they lip-synched.
Q - Did the audience catch on?
A - Apparently not. I'm sure the audience had no idea it wasn't them. When they went to England, I don't know. I wasn't there, but I heard when they first went to England, they were booed because they didn't sound like the records. It was just him soloing. So, The Crickets started moving their mouths as if they were singing. I think it was 1977 before I first heard The Picks mentioned in conjunction with Buddy Holly. In 1987, thirty years after the original "Chirping Crickets" album, they re-issued it and finally put our names on the back. Small letters, but that's better than nothing. (laughs)
Q - Have you always worked in the music business?
A - My family were professional singers. From the time I was five, my brother before me, who's six years older than I, started at five too, on the radio. So, I was always on the radio. When I went to Texas Tech, I went and sang for The Music Man and they offered to give me a scholarship, but they said if they did, they would try to teach me to be a classical singer. Since I was already on the radio and a professional singer, I thought 'someday, I might want to eat better than we're eating now'. So I went to Texas Tech and majored in Petroleum Geology...got out in the same year we sang behind Buddy Holly. In '57, I went to work for Humble Oil in Corpus Christi, Texas. I was singing with Buddy Holly! Got married between "Oh Boy" and "Maybe Baby" and went to work for Humble Oil. It was the forerunner of Exxon. I did not retire from working for oil companies until 1978 or 1979. Then I generated prospects and sold oil deals to various companies. All through the years, I've kept in music too.
Q - Doing what?
A - We did nine of Buddy Holly's twelve Crickets releases. I did more recordings for Norman Petty's studio. Then, in 1969, Bill and I got back together as The Pickering Brothers and went to Nashville and got a recording contract with Stop Records. We had a hit with the first country cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary". It was before Tina Turner's version. We did well in about twenty-eight major markets in country music. We made a lot of personal appearances with country stars of that day.
Q - Like who?
A - Ray Price, Johnny Bush, Mickey Gilley. We were on the Ernest Tubb Record Shop Show. We sang for the Country Music Association Directors. On our Stop Records sessions, we had Ben Keith (Elvis' steel player), DJ Fontana (Elvis' drummer), and Scotty Moore (Elvis' guitarist) was our producer. Pete Drake was also a producer for Elvis. He had the talking steel guitar. George Ritchie played piano on some of our stuff. We did three sessions in Nashville, in '69, '70 and '71.
Q - Would it be fair to say that, had your brother not known Norman Petty (Buddy Holly's producer) you would never have had the chance to do what you did?
A - Well, Bill and I both knew Norman Petty because we lived in Clovis (New Mexico) when I was seven years old. He was about thirteen, as was my brother Bill. They went to junior high school together. So, I saw him every day. He had a piano radio show that followed our morning radio show. I don't think that if Bill hadn't been working as a disc jockey in Clovis at the time, that we would've done the Buddy Holly stuff, no.
Q - Had the record label listed The Pickerings as back-up vocalists, would that have taken away some of the fame or glory from The Crickets?
A - No. Well, let me ask you this. Did the fact that the labels for Elvis Presley said 'With The Jordanaires' take away from Elvis' fame?
Q - Not at all.
A - Well, see, it would not have made any difference what-so-ever. But, there was a cover-up going on. They couldn't use Buddy's name. So, they used a group name of which Buddy was just a member. It wasn't Buddy Holly and The Crickets. It was 'The Crickets, vocal group with orchestra' on the Brunswick label. Of course, the actual Crickets, the drummer (Jerry Allison) and the bass (Joe Mauldin), they're the orchestra. The vocal group for "That'll Be The Day" was Gary and Ramona Tollett and Nikki Sullivan backing Buddy. The Crickets won Best Vocal Group in both the US and Great Britain that year. We didn't know about it until '69 when we went to Nashville. Bob Montgomery told us. It should've said "With The Picks" because that was the agreement.
Q - Was Buddy a fast worker in the studio? Were you working under time limits?
A - Actually, we didn't have any time limits on us. I think we did about nine versions of "Oh Boy". We actually got it real good by the seventh and even better in the eighth. Norman said 'Hey, that's good enough. Why don't you do one just for the fun of it?' So, we did one more for the fun of it and that's the one that was the best. (laughs) 'Cause we were relaxed.
Q - Were you in the studio with Buddy at the same time for the recording of these records?
A - Oh, yeah. We were on sessions with him as a guitarist. He played on Norman Petty Trio's "Moon Dreams". We were there and did the vocal backup for that. And then he played guitar, duet guitar with Jack Vaughn. We did all of the backup vocals on that. He also played for Gary Wayne. The next day after we did "Oh Boy" on a Saturday, we went back on a Sunday. Buddy and The Crickets did the instruments and we did the vocals for several songs for Gary Wayne. And you know, we were with him other times. We were in and out over there. I was working three jobs. Recording all night. Going to school at the same time. So, a lot of times, I wasn't too sure who was there.
Q - What kind of personality did Buddy Holly have? Was he easy going?
A - No. I wouldn't call him easy going. I would call him polite and amiable, but he was not the same person in the studio that he was out eating a hamburger.
Q - You mean he wasn't this hot-head that the 1978 movie portrayed him to be?
A - No, because if he had taken a swing at the guy in Nashville, the guy would have beat him to death. (laughs) Buddy never took a swing at anybody. He was scared to death in Nashville and you can hear it in his voice on those songs. That's why it was considered a failed session. When he wanted his way, he got his way. When he began, he didn't know exactly how he wanted things done. He worked on his style, voice and his hiccup. He would hear different people and try it out. He picked up a lot of guitar riffs from other great guitarists. Then, he would put them in his repertoire. But, in the studio, he didn't say hardly anything. He'd sit there real quite. Basically, he had very little to say when he was working on music. And we didn't either 'cause we were doing the back-up vocals. Usually, when it was a 'live' session, they'd just about work us to death. That's why we loved to do the overdubs, because we were only responsible for our mistakes. And Bill and I had worked together on harmonies for so long that we were quick.
Q - Did you ever have your picture taken with Buddy?
A - No. I didn't have a camera. When Buddy was there (Norman Petty studios) it was like two or three in the morning. We did eight songs on a Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday morning, and we didn't sleep. And we didn't sleep much on the way over there. If I would've have had a camera, I wouldn't have had the money to have them (the pictures) developed. (laughs) My total income was sixty-five dollars because I came the furthest from Corpus Christi to Clovis. It was seven hundred, ten miles round trip. It's a wonder I didn't get killed, 'cause I didn't get any sleep. My income was reimbursement for expenses. I wasn't receiving any money for the session pay. We did it for the publicity. We weren't expecting to get an over-ride. We agreed to do it because we were told being associated with a hit singer like Buddy Holly would enhance our careers and also develop our own record, which we did with Columbia. Unfortunately, I discovered we were left off of the first 45 which was "Oh Boy", backed by "Not Fade Away". Then we were left off of the next one, "Maybe Baby" backed by "Tell Me How". I was complaining each time and each time I was being told 'that was an 'oversight'. The record company did it. Then the album came out and not only did it not credit us, it says that the guys on the front, which was Buddy and the three instrumentalists...well, Nikki did some singing...it said 'sparkling young quartet, delightful, chirping'. Why would anyone believe that they didn't do their own singing? We complained, but were poor, man. We lived a long way off. I never knew a lawyer in my life until I got in the oil industry. Our raising was, you don't sue people, especially friends.
Q - Did anyone ever suggest bringing The Picks out on the road, even if it meant hiding you behind a curtain?
A - Yup. Buddy wanted us to come on December of 1957 on The Ed Sullivan Show. Buddy got word to Norman (Petty) to purchase tickets for us and the tickets were purchased. Bill and Bob were in Lubbock and Clovis. I was in Corpus. I was going to fly to Lubbock and we were going to fly back to The Ed Sullivan Show and back Buddy. He was sick of not sounding like the records. But, I've heard several stories. The main story is, since we were not union members, Ed Sullivan would not allow a back-up group that was not union. What I think happened is, somebody said 'hey, if you have them and you get the sound like you do on the records, which you will, then you're gonna have to have them everytime and you got three more guys that have to be in your entourage. You're also going to have to pay them'. I just think they didn't want to expand the group from four to seven. So, that was when they continued lip-synching. It's interesting that all of the Dick Clark tapes have disappeared. (laughs) They disappeared about 1978 when all that Milli-Vanilli stuff came up.
Q - Have The Picks ever been approached by the people at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame?
A - We're in the internet Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. The Cleveland Rock 'n Roll museum either don't know who we are or found out so late, they don't want to know about it. Or, they say things like 'you guys were just like a saxophone on the records. You're just back-up singers'. The only problem with that is, that labels called us a vocal group and so did the 1957 Awards in the US and Great Britain.
Q - I was listening to "Oh Boy" the other day and it sounds like a one point, Buddy Holly took a breath.
A - He cleared his throat. You know, it kind of adds to it. It kind of makes it sound natural.
Q - How you ever seen a Buddy Holly tribute act that you liked?
A - Oh, yeah. I saw Johnny Mueller. I think he's probably the best around. And I've seen some others. Maria Elena (Buddy's widow) kind of frowns on a lot of that. She has to give her permission for you to even wear those dark glasses. Our agreements preceded her before she even met Buddy. So, we don't have to deal with her. We have, out of courtesy. She seems to be a good friend to us and I hope that's true.
Q - I gather the guy making all the money in the Buddy Holly Story was Norman Petty?
A - Yeah, pretty much. He had the purse strings. He had power of attorney over Buddy until Buddy became twenty-one. Then when Buddy got to be twenty-one, he got tired of the teenage Crickets. They wanted to drink and carouse and run around like teenagers would. Buddy was mature for his age because he was raised by sincere Christian people. He himself was a sincere Christian. Though he twisted off like everybody and did some things he might be ashamed of, and I'm sure he was, that kind of stuff was getting old.
Q - You mean 'groupies'?
A - Yeah. Groupies and drinking. Just the scene. Then he met Maria Elena. After he got married, they traveled in a separate car. Buddy just got tired of putting up with the childishness. Besides, he had a separate Coral (Records) solo career, a contract. Those things were tanking on him. Look at a record of the old Billboard charts and you'll see what was happening. I think the orchestrated versions are wonderful now, but at the time, they weren't selling with the fans that The Crickets had. So, Buddy told The Crickets to straighten up, and they all got mad. They went to Norman and he told them 'you are The Crickets. You don't have to have Buddy Holly'. So, Buddy came in and said 'I don't need you'. Of course the truth of the matter is, they all needed each other. So, that's what happened. Buddy went back to New York and was living in an apartment there, writing songs. He also bought land and had plans drawn up for his own recording studio in Lubbock. New York was an experiment that wasn't working out. So, he was gonna move back. In the meantime, they got sued. Norman Petty and The Crickets got sued by...I don't even know his name. He claimed he was supposed to get five or ten percent of anything they earned through bookings. They said no, he was only supposed to get it for the ones he booked. So, he filed a lawsuit and the money was frozen. Well, you don't hear about that. You just hear that Norman was starving Buddy out. I noticed that Maria Elena was working and had a good job when she met Buddy, according to all the Broadway plays. I've seen where he received fourteen thousand dollars in one check not long before that Winter tour. So, why did she quit her work if they were having such a hard time? And why did he go on the Winter tour? Except that he wanted to go. I don't like to see somebody accused of something they probably didn't do. I knew Norman and Vi (Norman's wife) Petty from the time I was seven. And he was not the kind of guy that would starve somebody. And Buddy wasn't starving!
Q - Is it true that Norman Petty was holding back something like thirty thousand dollars in royalties from Buddy? That's what I've heard.
A - Well, I think the reason he was holding it was probably because of the lawsuit. Now, I'm sure Norman had a temper and if you ever got on his wrong side, whoa be to you. His name was Petty. I'm not sure he wasn't petty on some things, but I suspect he did have in his mind to punish Buddy. I don't like to hear Maria Elena accusing him of causing Buddy's death. Buddy broke up The Crickets. People can say if The Crickets hadn't left him, he wouldn't have been on that tour. And they could say if he hadn't married Maria Elena, The Crickets wouldn't have left him and he wouldn't have been on that tour. If Norman Petty hadn't held the money, Buddy wouldn't have been on the tour. The truth of the matter is, it was his time to die. It's a sad, sad thing, but his life was pretty much a short story and he did a great deal during his lifetime. It was fate.
Q - What did Buddy think of rock 'n roll?
A - He thought it was a flash in the pan. He did an interview and was asked 'will it last?' He said 'I really want to do more serious kinds of music.' Norman didn't like rock 'n roll anyway.
Q - What then did Buddy want to do, score movies?
A - No. He wanted to be a pop singer like Bobby Darin. Look what he (Buddy) was singing, "True Love Ways", "Raining In My Heart". It's beautiful. I love 'em. He was going to do more of what brought him (up)...he got killed unfortunately. That made a big difference in an awful lot of people's lives. Not to mention the great loss he was to the music world.
Q - Where were you when you heard the news that Buddy Holly died?
A - I was working as a junior geologist in Corpus Christi, Texas. My wife heard about it on the car radio and stopped and called me and said 'Buddy's been killed.' I couldn't believe it. I thought well, they haven't mentioned us and that's the end of it. Now, no one will ever know.
The Pickering Brothers were John Pickering, Bill Pickering and Bob Lapham.
They sang background vocals for Buddy Holly on "Oh Boy" (Billboard #10) and "Maybe Baby" (Billboard #17)
For more information, see The Picks website