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Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, She & Him and more offer a fresh spin on Buddy Holly

June 27, 2011 |  5:24 pm

Top artists like Paul McCartney, Lou Reed and Florence + the Machine pay tribute to the rock ’n’ roll legend on new album ‘Rave On Buddy Holly.’

Buddy holly live

The pop music world has no shortage of Buddy Holly fans, a fact that’s evident from the roster of artists on a new star-studded tribute album being released Tuesday, “Rave On Buddy Holly.” Leading the list is Paul McCartney, the ex-Beatle who’s joined on the collection by a cross-generational group of musicians including Cee Lo Green, Nick Lowe, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, She & Him, the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, the Black Keys, Florence + the Machine and several more.

Veteran British rocker Lowe thinks the very notion of fandom figures strongly into Holly’s original appeal as well as to the ongoing popularity of the music he left behind, from his first hit in 1957, “Peggy Sue,” until his death at 22 in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959 — an event Don McLean called “the day the music died” in his 1972 hit “American Pie.”

“In my mind, he was the first fan of rock ’n’ roll to make it big,” said Lowe, who chose one of Holly’s more obscure tunes, “Changing All Those Changes,” for the album that is being released in anticipation of what would have been Holly’s 75th birthday on Sept. 7.

“There’s that famous picture of him standing in a record shop to get an autograph of Elvis Presley,” Lowe said, noting that he and his peers could more easily identify with Holly than with larger-than-life figures such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. “Even though he was hot on the heels of those first people like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, he was a fan, and that’s why I dug him as well.”

Lowe also noted the huge impact Holly and his band, the Crickets, had when they toured in England in the late ’50s, something Presley never did.

“He toured over here under really bloody awful conditions, and it’s not pleasant doing it here now,” Lowe said with a laugh. “So the ones who did, people really took them into their hearts and nowadays people still remember them.”

One of Holly’s biggest fans by any measure would have to be McCartney, who not only spent time in a band whose name was inspired by that of the Crickets, but in the 1970s, when Holly’s music was at a low ebb of popularity, bought the rights to his song catalog. That’s partly why McCartney has a prominent role in “Rave On Buddy Holly,” with a raucous cover version of “It’s So Easy” as well as lending his marquee name as incentive for others to jump aboard when co-producers Randall Poster and Gelya Robb came calling.

“Everybody did seem to feel like ‘This is a great party to be invited to — look who else is here,’” said Poster, best known for his work as music supervisor on movies for Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and Todd Haynes. “There wasn’t anybody who was going to do this if they weren’t really into it.”

Most of the performances veer substantially from Holly’s stripped-down rockabilly and country-infused sound. Green puts his sassy R&B spin on “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” Casablancas brings a metallic edginess to the title track, Jack White produced a rowdy track on “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” for Karen Elson (just before the pair announced their divorce), and punk poet Patti Smith transforms “Words of Love” into a hymn-like meditation.

“This has really been a fan fest,” Poster said, adding that the album allowed him to fulfill a decades-old wish to work with Lowe. “Everyone has had a great appreciation of what this music was, and it’s really been fun to do.”

That applies as much to Poster and Robb as to the performers.

“One of the most fun things for me,” Poster said, “was getting Lou Reed to do ‘Peggy Sue’ and then go out and get John Doe to do ‘Peggy Sue Got Married,’ and I didn’t have to squeeze them down to 40 seconds for a scene in a movie.”

Robb said she first became aware of Holly through the reference in “American Pie,” a song that was a favorite of her father’s. Poster traces it to the exposure his music got in George Lucas’ 1973 film “American Graffiti,” which helped canonize ’50s rock in the ’70s.

For both there’s a real musical mission at work.

“I think that a lot of young kids who might not know who Buddy Holly was may see Julian singing one of his songs and start digging a little deeper to understand what Buddy Holly was,” Robb said.

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--Randy Lewis

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