The actors did their own singing and played their own instruments live during the filming of the production numbers. This included the film's main players Gary Busey, Don Stroud (I)', and Charles Martin Smith.
According to rock-n-roll legend Little Richard, the Apollo theater performance by Buddy Holly and The Crickets in front of an all black audience is pretty accurate. Buddy Holly and his band were booked into the all black hall "sight unseen" because the owner thought they were black and the audience were shocked to see white performers on stage. But as in the movie, the audience embraced Buddy Holly and his band.
According to director Steve Rash' and actor Gary Busey, the scene at the roller rink after the band's first rock number in which the extras clapped and cheered was an unexpected reaction to their performance. As you can see in the film, Busey, Charles Martin Smith, and Stroud sort of lose their place and start nervously laughing.
Paul McCartney, who is a huge Buddy Holly fan, used to hold an annual "Buddy Holly Birthday Party" in New York, and would always showcase this film during the party. The Beatles were named in tribute to The Crickets, the band Holly performed with. McCartney bought the copyrights to Holly's published songs in 1977.
Since widow Maria Elena Holly was in control of Buddy Holly's estate as executor and administrator, it was she with whom producer Fred Bauer, director Steve Rash, and executive producer Ed Cohen (Edward H. Cohen) made a film agreement. Once the details were settled, the crucial area of casting was approached. It was agreed upon by all that no big-name star could fit the bill because emphasis would be shifted away from Buddy Holly and toward the particular celebrity playing the part. Further, whoever played the role had to be able to perform professionally in the numerous music sequences depicting highlights in Buddy Holly's career. With this in mind, it was decided that unlike most previous music-oriented films, no pre-recorded and lip-synched techniques would be employed. All the music would be staged, performed, and recorded on the film's soundtrack.
The members of Buddy Holly's band The Crickets had already sold their portrayal rights to the producer of a different Buddy Holly movie, so fictitious names had to be used for The Crickets for this film. Also, for story simplification, the number of The Crickets band members was reduced from three people to two.
Although the original name in the song "Peggy Sue" was Cindy Lou, as depicted in the movie, this was after Buddy Holly's niece, not his girlfriend. Buddy Holly renamed the song for Jerry Allison [J.I. Allison]'s girlfriend and future wife, Peggy Sue Gerron.
Evidence of the obvious commercial attributes to be found in a movie based on the Holly phenomenon is to be found in the fact that Universal Studios tried no less than three times to obtain film rights to the singer's life. The studio even commissioned a screenplay and submitted it to Buddy Holly's widow, who turned it down. Another major studio, 20th Century-Fox, actually completed two weeks of filming, even though they, too, had failed to acquire film rights. They halted production and wrote off the experience as a loss. It was [widow] Maria Elena Holly's feeling that what her husband best stood for would be more accurately captured by a smaller, independent, more dedicated company which had much to gain or lose by doing justice to the project.
In an interview for VH1's Behind the Music, "The Day The Music Died", at the premiere screening of the film, Buddy's widow, Maria Elena Holly, ran out of the theater crying when Busey, as Buddy, sang "True Love Ways" during the final concert. "True Love Ways" was Buddy's personal love song for Maria.
The family's truck shows the last name "Holly". The family's actual surname is "Holley", Buddy's name was misspelt on a record contract.
According to actor Gary Busey on the DVD commentary, the line that Charles Martin Smith says about "a fighter who strafes and trains . . . " during the drive to Nashville was just Smith accidentally blurting out loud something he was thinking, thus Busey and Stroud's genuine reactions.
Because of the film's budget constraints, most of the performances were done in one or two takes, according to director Steve Rash. This led to some "happy accidents" of realism. For instance, Gary Busey refers to handwritten lyrics on his guitar when singing "Mockingbird Hill"; he flubs some of the lyrics on The Ed Sullivan Show [The Ed Sullivan Show (1948)] performance of "Maybe, Baby"; Buddy's vibrant concert performance with Eddie Cochran was actually a "rehearsal" that the director decided not to film again; and Busey's guitar cord got wrapped around his leg during the final concert.
Just before a recording session that Buddy Holly is about to start with the use of an orchestra, a violinist comes up to Buddy and remarks at how the music was written to make it sound like raindrops. It's possible that the song that was about to be recorded, which is not heard in the film, is "Raining In My Heart", a Buddy Holly track that does indeed include an orchestra of violinists playing accompanying music that imitates rain falling.
In the film, Buddy Holly plays several shows and goes on tour with Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke also died young (at age 33), untimely & suddenly in 1964 after being shot outside a hotel.
Madman Mancuso, played by comedian-impressionist Fred Travalena, is based on a true story about Hall-of-Fame DJ Dick Biondi. Travalena even managed to look and sound like the real Biondi himself.
Jesse Charles (Don Stroud) and Ray Bob Simmons aka Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith) were the names of the characters used instead of The Crickets band members of Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin respectively.
According to DVD commentary, in the scene where Cindy Lou gets on the bus to go back to college, Gary Busey was originally supposed to answer her question of "What am I gonna tell the kids at college?" with "Cindy Lou? . . . Kiss my ass!". But director Steve Rash didn't like that line, and so they came up with the "Boola, Boola" dialogue instead.
Maria Elena Holly, the widow of Buddy Holly, was in complete agreement with "The Buddy Holly Story" film as envisioned by producer Fred Bauer, director Steve Rash, and executive producer Ed Cohen (Edward H. Cohen). Her marriage to Buddy Holly was tragically brief and she was pregnant with their first child when Buddy Holly died. She later suffered a miscarriage and lost the baby. She had consistently encouraged her husband and convinced Buddy Holly that he was indeed a musical giant, as he often would say to her, that he felt he was "just another musician".
Buddy Miles, one of the foremost rock drummers of the time the film was made, portrays one of the musicians Buddy Holly encounters during the course of his career. Miles, too, was used in the movie strictly as an actor, and did not perform. Producer Fred Bauer and director Steve Rash had met Miles a few years earlier in San Francisco, California while they were producing a television special on Sly Stone. Buddy Miles visited the "The Buddy Holly Story" shooting location to watch the filming and Bauer was so impressed by his enthusiasm, that he cast him in the movie.
Gary Busey had previously been cast as Buddy Holly's drummer, Jerry Allison, in a previous attempt at a Buddy Holly biopic titled "Three-Sided Coin". The film was canceled by 20th Century Fox under pressure from producer Fred Bauer. So Busey had already an extensive knowledge about Buddy Holly from the screenplay for "Three-Sided Coin" written by Jerry Allison and Tom Drake and as well through conversations with Allison.
The picture was Oscar nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Sound and Best Actor in a Leading Role - Gary Busey; however the only one that the film won was for Best Music, Original Song Score and its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score for Joe Renzetti.
While teaching the two little boys to play guitar, Buddy Holly (Gary Busey) sings, "...we're gonna love Teddy Jack with all our might". Busey was a drummer with the stage name of "Teddy Jack Eddy".
Contrary to what is shown in the film, Buddy Holly did not punch out the music producer in Nashville. In reality, Buddy, along with his singing partner Bob Montgomery, spent a few months in Nashville writing and recording songs. Although they ultimately got nowhere, their compositions were covered by other artists. Buddy's most prominent song from his time in Nashville is "Blue Days, Black Nights". It was after returning to Lubbock from Nashville that Buddy Holly and Bob Montgomery went their separate ways and Buddy formed The Crickets and went into Rock N Roll.
In the opening sequence in which the roller rink manager tells the organ player: "You're gonna have to quit now, we're goin' on the air". The over-dubbed voice of the manager is director Steve Rash.
Why was a biopic of Buddy Holly made instead of any of the host of other rock stars who were his contemporaries? The film's production notes stated: "Because Buddy, despite his brief musical career (he died at age 22 and had 45 hit tunes . . .", many of which were currently being revived by such stars as Linda Ronstadt), ". . . set the tone and established certain standards for the rock 'n' roll idiom. He was the first of his genre to write, produce, sing and perform his music during a career. He also was the first to gain wide acclaim for being the progenitor of a succession of white singers and instrumentalists to combine the black rhythm-and-blues sound with the country sound of the '50s, a feat which caused young Buddy no small amount of turmoil during the early days of his brief career. As well, it would be difficult, at least from an ethical perspective, to glamorize the lives of many of the other famous rock stars, some dead and others still living, because of their heavy involvement in the drug scene. Dramatizing the tragic ends of Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, for example, could have a profound effect on youthful moviegoers who would see such a film. No such association with drugs touched Holly's life. He also happened to be a genius whose music has stood the test of time. His original compositions of "That'll Be the Day", "Peggy Sue", and "It's So Easy", are being recorded today by top contemporary artists and Buddy's own albums are still racking up impressive sales throughout the world".
The movie debuted in cinemas after about four years of research and preparation by its three core filmmakers: executive producer Ed Cohen (Edward H. Cohen), who raised the two-million dollar production budget; producer Fred Bauer (billed as Freddy Bauer), who obtained the screen rights to the story and melded the project into a cohesive unit; and the film's director, Steve Rash.
Gary Busey and Gailard Sartain (who plays the "Big Bopper") started their careers in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They appeared together on "The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting," a late-night comedy program created by Sartain, which featured B-movies and crazy comedy skits. The show was hosted by Sartain, who appeared as "Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi," a wizard in a pointed cap and dark blue robe. It was broadcast on Tulsa's CBS affiliate KOTV, and later on the ABC affiliate KTUL.
The idea for a movie based on the life and brief but spectacular career of Buddy Holly took seed when producer' Fred Bauer' and director Steve Rash visited executive producer Ed Cohen (Edward H. Cohen) one day in his New York offices. They noted that no one had yet produced the definitive motion picture on the early rock 'n' roll era. This, even though the enduring musical art form was now twenty-five years old, having started with 'Bill Haley and His Comets', who introduced "Rock Around the Clock" in the 1950s Sidney Poitier movie the Blackboard Jungle (1955).
The film's 1979 press kit stated: "Nearly everyone over the age of 25 knows that in 1959 Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper died in that plane crash in Iowa. Many know that Don McLean's popular tune, "American Pie", eulogizes Buddy [Holly] when he refers to "the day the music died". Contemporary artists such as Linda Ronstadt are reviving Buddy's songs and earning gold records with them. Just about any 'golden oldies' [radio] station will play [Buddy] Holly's records within any given 24-hour period, and young people are reviving an interest in Holly [Holly] and music of the '50s. All of these commercial factors helped to make this project a viable production".
Once producer Fred Bauer had secured the three principals who also could play the musical instruments with professionalism, he engaged a long-time friend, Joel Fein, to complete yet another crucial aspect of this innovative production. Fein, well known throughout the audio profession for his work in producing and designing sound for live music events on both radio and television across the country, was brought in to stage and record the live concerts in which the movie's fifteen musical numbers are performed. Most music-oriented pictures employ the lip-synchronized method of pre-recording music and matching it to the actors' performances later in the film's post-production stages. All the music in The Buddy Holly Story (1978) was performed and recorded on the scene.
Executive Producer Ed Cohen (Edward H. Cohen) affirmed with more sincerity than bravado: "The picture is blessed. There's a certain feeling about it. It's a Cinderella film. Everybody working on the picture had that feeling".
The movie's producers considered playing the first and last verses of Don McLean's "American Pie" over the closing credits (while the camera pulls in on the freeze-frame of Buddy's smiling face). This idea was dropped, however.
The movie's closing credits dedication states: "This film is dedicated to those who loved him [Buddy Holly] first [:] Mr. & Mrs. Laurence Holley [and] Maria Elena Holly [nee Maria Elena Santiago]".
Casting director Joyce Selznick had attempted to cast Gary Busey for the lead in an earlier 20th Century-Fox film on Buddy Holly but had been unsuccessful. When Selznick was contacted by producer Fred Bauer regarding the casting of the role for his own production, she was elated, and again suggested Gary Busey.
The film was made and released around three years after its source biographical book "Buddy Holly: His Life and Music" by John Goldrosen had been first published in 1975.
Robert Gittler was the second scriptwriter on "The Buddy Holly Story" and toiled on nine rewrites before his final draft was felt right by all concerned.
The actors who played Buddy Holly and his band would of necessity have to be accomplished musicians and, naturally, this made the casting most difficult. Ultimately, it was believed that the film would be far more rewarding once that casting goal had been accomplished.
Maria Richwine portrayed a character, Maria Elena Santiago aka Maria Elena Holly, who had the same first name as her own.
The name of Buddy Holly's father's family business was: "L.O. Holley & Sons Lubbock Brick & Tile Company".