‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
The so-called “Day the Music Died” occurred 60 years ago this month. One night after an Iowa concert, that fateful plane crash took out a host of young pioneers of the first wave of rock and roll: Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (in a last minute seat-trade with Waylon Jennings), and, of course, Buddy Holly.
Over at 22, Holly’s career had barely begun. But in a few short years, he’d written and recorded some of the most foundational tracks of rock and roll. So, to remember him six decades on, we’re ranking the best covers of his songs – from “Rave On” to “Not Fade Away” to a host of deep-cut gems that deserve wider recognition.
We were going to include 22 covers to honor Holly’s age but – in a testament to how much he accomplished in such a short time – that turned out to be not nearly enough. So we expanded the list to 36, his birth year. And frankly, we could have easily doubled it. That’s how often his songs have been covered by his admirers of yesterday and today. So rave on, Buddy, with these 36 fantastic covers of your songs.
36. Gary Busey – Rock Around with Ollie Vee
It all began as another quiet night at the roller rink. The local band was playing civilized music that everybody could enjoy. Suddenly, the gawky, bespectacled guitarist decided to shake things up with “Rock Around With Ollie Vee.” All the kids went crazy, as they rocked “to the rhythm and the blues.” The parents covered their ears, no doubt scandalized by lyrics like “I’m gonna shake it just a little in the middle of the night.” While the 1978 biopic The Buddy Holly Story might have played it fast and loose with the facts, there’s no denying the power of the music in the film. Gary Busey gave a performance for the ages as Buddy Holly, singing and playing on the tracks. In the years before YouTube, it was, for most of us, the only way to experience Holly live, the way he was meant to be heard. Though that scene might have been entirely fictional, as you watch Busey’s hypnotic performance you feel like you’re witnessing the birth of a new era. – Curtis Zimmermann
35. The Flamin’ Groovies – That’ll Be the Day
Coming out of San Francisco in the mid-to-late 1960s, the Flamin’ Groovies were overshadowed by other bands from the city, but their longevity and clever and oft-changing retro sound (and lineup) eventually turned them into a cult band with claims to have influenced the development of power pop and punk. Their cover of one of Holly’s masterpieces, “That’ll Be The Day,” which was released as a bonus track on the reissue of their third album, 1971’s Teenage Head, sounds much like the original, if a bit fuzzier and scuzzier. For what it is worth, Mick Jagger is reported to have stated that Teenage Head, released the same year as Sticky Fingers, did a better job at translating blues and rock to modern times. – Jordan Becker
34. Elvis Costello – True Love Ways
On his 1986-87 tour with King of America backing band The Confederates, Costello often adopted an early version of his lounge crooner persona to belt “True Love Ways.” The accordion-driven band swings along just loosely enough to hold it together, but it’s Elvis pushing his nasal voice to its absolute limit that sells this. – Ray Padgett
33. Marshall Crenshaw – Crying, Waiting, Hoping
The 1987 film La Bamba revived the legacy of Ritchie Valens from the footnote file of music history. With a dazzling performance by Lou Diamond Phillips, miming covers of Valens’ songs recorded by Los Lobos, the film reminded ‘80s audiences just how cool ‘50s rockers were. Naturally, Buddy Holly makes an appearance, too. He was played by Marshall Crenshaw, an artist who had already earned comparisons to Holly for both his look and music. In the film, Crenshaw delivered this updated version of Holly’s original, adding in a bit more echo and a fiery guitar solo. Like the rest of the soundtrack, it pulled off the not-so-easy task of paying homage to the original, while still sounding fresh when it debuted. – Curtis Zimmermann
32. Tashaki Miyaki – Heartbeat
Tashaki Miyaki weren’t the only band to hear the simple lines of Holly’s “Heartbeat” and think “This is a garage rock banger!” Check out the equally rocking versions by Black Tambourine and the Detroit Cobras for proof, but then come back for this incredible Tashaki Miyaki version. Singer Paige Stark’s lines are dreamily sung and could easily be dropped into a much softer version of this song. But the wash of guitar distortion and noise that accompanies her sway in and out like waves, punctuated by simple kick drum and tambourine. The juxtaposition is enough to make your heart skip a beat. – Mike Misch
31. Linda Ronstadt – It’s So Easy
In the 1970s, Linda Ronstadt released a trifecta of Buddy Holly songs, which all charted as singles, including, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy.” While all three are solid covers, “It’s So Easy” has held up the best in the ensuing decades. For her cover, Ronstadt gave the track an alt-country rock feel that owes just as much to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” as it does to Holly’s original. Listening to the song, one can almost imagine Christopher Walken in the studio shouting “I gotta have more cowbell,” as the farm implement turned percussion instrument dominates the track. – Curtis Zimmermann
30. The Perks – Reggae Sue
This song gives the bottom line up front: an excellent reggae cover of “Peggy Sue.” This 1980 jam has a great call and response between the singers and maintains its laid-back groove throughout, driven by an excellent bass line. The original lyrics, with their repeating hook, translate surprisingly well to the new genre. – Mike Misch
29. Mickey Gilley – True Love Ways
Buddy Holly’s music always blurred the lines between rock and roll and country. Had he survived, it would have been intriguing to see what direction his music ultimately would have taken. As this cover of Holly’s string-laden pop ballad demonstrates, Holly would have been a formidable songwriter for Nashville’s Music Row. On this 1980 cover, country crooner Mickey Gilley keeps the orchestration largely similar to Holly’s original, but he also throws in a bit of countrypolitan twang to make this a great track for slow dancing at an all night saloon. – Curtis Zimmermann
28. Fiona Apple & Jon Brion – Everyday
Fiona Apple and Jon Brion slow down “Everyday” considerably, giving it a sweeter and less poppy vibe. They harmonize from the very beginning, and the background bells add to the ethereal quality of the cover. It’s a completely different interpretation than the rockabilly original, but both succeed on their own terms. – Angela Hughey
27. Bruce Springsteen – Not Fade Away / Oh Boy / Rave On (Live 1978)
Among Springsteen aficionados, 1978 often gets cited as the greatest live band of all times’ greatest live year. Marathon shows lasting three hours mixed new Darkness on the Edge of Town tunes with ten-plus minute reinventions of early favorites with a whole lot of unexpected covers. This included three separate Buddy Holly songs: “Not Fade Away” (played many times to intro his own Diddley beat-ed “She’s the One”), “Rave On” (played 13 times) and “Oh Boy” (only 3 times). None over the marathon run times of other songs that year, but they pack mountains of energy in small packages. [“Rave On” up top, click here for “Oh Boy” and here for “Not Fade Away”] – Ray Padgett
26. Cat Power – Crying, Waiting, Hoping
Holly’s original “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” is one of those great songs that gets you to happily bob your head to unbelievably sad lyrics. Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, brings the tempo down a bit, bringing the lyrics and music into a little more congruity. She still keeps a little bit of rock in her delivery, but what really make this one a great cover is Marshall’s enchanting voice which sounds incredible in this live studio version. It’s short and sweet, clocking in under two minutes even at the slow pace, and it’ll certainly leave you waiting and hoping for more. – Mike Misch
25. Kid Rock – Well All Right
It seems a bit strange to say this, but one of the best R&B covers of a Buddy Holly tune comes from the godfather of rap-metal. Seriously. We have to give credit where credit is due. On the 2011 Holly tribute album Rave On Buddy Holly, the self-styled “American Badass” delivered a knockout performance of the track. Rock does his best to channel the great soul singers of the ‘60s, backed by blazing horns, some mean slide guitar and a funky bassline. “Well… All Right” is a great cover worth listening to, even if you hate Kid Rock. – Curtis Zimmermann
24. Steve Hillage – Not Fade Away
Steve Hillage, originally known as a spacy/prog rock guitarist who came to prominence with Gong, turned to electronic dance music later in his career. But before that, in the late 1970s, he wanted to do a solo album that incorporated elements of funk. You can hear that in some of the songs on Motivation Radio, but still, the emphasis is on spacy synthesizers and Hillage’s remarkable guitar playing, often using a glissando effect. The album closes with a loose cover of “Not Fade Away,” which uses the song’s basic “Bo Diddley” rhythm and some of the lyrics, as a basis for some stellar guitar work at the beginning (based on “I Never Glid Before,” a Gong song written by Hillage, explaining the subtitle), and atmospheric synthesizer. It is unlikely that Holly, as forward-looking as he was, would have foreseen a cover like this. The record company, remarkably, released the song as a single, because in 1977, you could release spacy Buddy Holly covers as singles. It did not chart. – Jordan Becker
23. Imelda May – I’m Lookin’ For Someone To Love
Beloved 2011 indie-rock tribute Rave On Buddy Holly gets all the glory, but its ugly-duckling cousin released that year – the awkwardly-titled Listen to Me: Buddy Holly – boasts some gems. Though the household names (Brian Wilson, Stevie Nicks) mostly phone it in, a few of the lesser-known artists seize the opportunity. None more so than rockabilly revivalist Imelda May, who seizes her moment to positively roar through a gritty “I’m Lookin’ For Someone To Love” that sounds like Motown being recorded at Sun Studios. – Jane Callaway
22. Justin Townes Earle – Maybe Baby
From the Rave On Buddy Holly tribute album, Justin Townes Earle takes “Maybe Baby,” a simple rockabilly influenced song when performed by Holly and the Crickets, and simply makes it his own. He does not try to copy the original, but as Earle rocks through the song, there are touches—rhythmic, instrumental, and especially with the backing vocals—where Holly’s influences shine through. Sometimes, it doesn’t pay to overthink a cover, and by staying in his lane, Earle creates a great one. – Jordan Becker
21. Eva Cassidy – It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
Buddy Holly’s last US top 20 hit was released a month before his plane went down; it would go on to be the first posthumous number 1 in the UK. In 2002, it was part of another posthumous number 1 – Eva Cassidy’s Imagine album, released six years after her death from melanoma. The album led off with “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” and where Holly made it sound like it belonged in a ’50s Western soundtrack, Cassidy caresses the words of heartbreak with sweetness, banishing the bitter feelings behind the words with love and light. – Patrick Robbins
20. Lyle Lovett – Well All Right
If the original sings to teenagers, this version is clearly for and by grown-ups, proof that older people fall in love too, sometimes when they shouldn’t. Lovett has always looks battered and world-weary. He imbues this song of resignation with just the right sense of defeat and acceptance. I feel he should know. – Seuras Og
19. The Beatles – Words of Love
Of course, the Beatles were influenced by Buddy Holly—it is common knowledge that their name was a riff on the name of Holly’s band, the Crickets. And Lennon and McCartney credited Holly for inspiring them to write their own songs. So it is somewhat surprising that the Beatles “officially” covered only one Holly song, and a lesser known one at that, “Words of Love.” (To be fair, there are a batch of Holly covers out there. The proto-Beatles band, the Quarrymen, recorded “That’ll Be The Day” in 1958, but it was never released until many years later, the Quarrymen & Beatles performed a bunch of Holly songs live, recordings of which have surfaced over the years, and the Beatles first recorded "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" as part of their ill-fated Decca audition on New Year's Day 1962. And John Lennon did “Peggy Sue” on a solo album.) The Beatles’ cover, released initially on 1964’s Beatles For Sale in the UK (and on Beatles IV in the US and Canada), is a very faithful cover of the original featuring Lennon and McCartney sharing the lead, and George Harrison providing harmony. – Jordan Becker
18. Pat DiNizio – That’ll Be the Day
Buddy Holly will forever be linked with Lubbock, Texas. But prior to departing on that final Winter Dance Party tour in 1959, he actually lived in New York City. The singer resided there during the height of the doo-wop era, leaving you to wonder if he ever heard his songs performed by a group of street-corner serenaders. If he did, it might have sounded something like Pat DiNizio’s acapella doo-wop cover of “That’ll Be the Day.” DiNizio, best known as the lead singer of the Smithereens, included the song on a 2009 solo album of Holly covers dubbed Pat DiNizio/Buddy Holly. Listening to the track, it’s easy to imagine it might have been a big hit had it been recorded by a group of kids from Brooklyn in 1959. Alas, it was only five decades too late. – Curtis Zimmermann
17. Los Lobos – Midnight Shift
In 1987, Los Lobos had a number-one hit with a relatively pedestrian cover of “La Bamba” (off the same soundtrack as Marshall Crenshaw’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”). The chart success should have come nine years later, when they executed a much more dramatic makeover to Holly’s “Midnight Shift.” Swampy and spooky, this cover brings in a goblet of Dr. John-style voodoo. It makes you wish Buddy Holly and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins had crossed paths sometime in the ’50s. – Ray Padgett
16. Karen Elson – Crying, Waiting, Hoping
A fairly orthodox romp through of the song, remarkable more for the arrangement. What is the backing? Is it fiddles? Steel? Or both? But not a hint of country. I think most of Holly’s songs translate effortlessly into a female interpretation, and this no exception. Elson is the model and ex-wife of Jack White. The story goes she recorded her first record in secret from him. – Seuras Og
15. Johnny Hallyday – C’est Bon
The Brits weren’t the only ones on the other side of the Atlantic to be influenced by Holly’s music. Johnny Hallyday is largely considered to be the French Elvis and is credited with introducing rock ‘n’ roll to the Francophone world. Though he had a recording and film career that lasted more than 50 years, the late singer/actor remained largely unknown in the United States. This cover should have been enough to win him a few converts stateside. On his 1975 album La Terre Promise, he reworked “Rave On” as “C’est Bon” (translation “It’s Good”). The hard-pounding, country-rock cover will have have you singing along almost immediately, even if you don’t speak the language of Molière. – Curtis Zimmermann
14. The Bunch ft. Sandy Denny – Learning the Game
A collection of once and future members of Fairport Convention and friends, The Bunch did a single album of covers that was released in 1972. The talent on the album is unmistakable, as is the fun they had recording some of their favorite songs by, among others, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, and the Everly Brothers. There are three Holly covers on the album, all sung by Sandy Denny, and their cover of “Learning The Game,” a “sweetened” demo first released after Holly’s death, is the best. Denny’s otherworldly voice conveys the wistfulness maybe even better than the original, and features a nice piano solo by Ian Whiteman, subtle acoustic guitar from Richard Thompson, and just-right drums and congas by Gerry Conway and Dave Mattacks, respectively. – Jordan Becker
13. Erasure – Everyday
Not enough artists have done electronic-leaning Buddy Holly covers. Thankfully Erasure picked up the slack. On their 2003 covers album Other People’s Songs, the veteran synth-pop duo tackled two Buddy Holly songs. “True Love Ways” showcases Andy Bell’s stunning falsetto, but the electronic touches seem too subtle compared to the overwrought strings. From the opening record scratch sound effect, “Everyday” offers a more radical reinvention. Is it too late for a 1980s New Wave Tribute to Buddy Holly album? – Ray Padgett
12. Hot Tuna – It’s So Easy
Hot Tuna’s 1976 album Hoppkorv appears to have been an attempt to tighten up their sound for more mainstream appeal. It didn’t really work, and after releasing a live album, the band broke up for years, before becoming a great touring band and mostly eschewing studio album releases. Their cover of “It’s So Easy,” which was Holly’s last release with the Crickets (and which, surprisingly, failed to chart), is short, uptempo, and features a nice guitar solo from Jorma Kaukonen. It’s good, but it was definitely overshadowed by Linda Ronstadt’s better cover released the following year. – Jordan Becker
11. Mary Chapin Carpenter & Kevin Montgomery – Wishing
Buddy Holly co-wrote this song, but upon hearing this cover, I had to double-check it wasn’t originally an Everly Brothers tune. Carpenter and Montgomery’s voices blend together beautifully on this tender country ballad. It elevates a relative deep cut in Holly’s catalog into instant-classic status. Had he released this before he died, it might have taken its rightful place next to Roy Orbison’s “Crying” as one of the great early rock and roll ballads. – Ray Padgett
10. The Black Keys – Dearest
The Black Keys’ cover of Buddy Holly’s “Dearest” is the epitome of cool. Dan Auerbach croons the lyrics with a silky smooth finesse, accompanied by chunky guitars and drums. Add some hand claps and finger snaps and you’ve got a perfectly modern version with a dash of nostalgia. The song was the first to be released ahead of the full Rave on Buddy Holly album we’ve already heard so much about. – Angela Hughey
9. Serena Ryder – It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
One of the last songs Holly recorded before the crash, it was written for him by Paul Anka (who was also at the show in Clear Lake, but declined a seat on the plane), and is about post-breakup emotions. It was a posthumous hit for Holly, and introduced a string arrangement to the mix, which to my modern ears is reminiscent of the soundtrack to a 1950’s commercial featuring a gleaming kitchen. But the song, and Holly’s anguished-but-trying-to hide-it delivery, ultimately redeems the track. Serena Ryder, who is big in Canada, covered the song on her 2006 album of covers of Canadian songwriters (with two originals and a co-write with fellow Canadian Randy Bachman), If Your Memory Serves You Well. Her version is bluesy and sultry with New Orleans influences, and ultimately invests the song with more emotion than Holly allowed himself. – Jordan Becker
8. Grateful Dead – Not Fade Away (Cornell ’77)
For a band like the Grateful Dead, which mixed up its setlists every night, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” was probably the closest thing they had to a standard. First introduced in 1968, the track was a regular part of their repertoire up until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Like much of their music, the group’s approach to the song evolved through the decades. With so many versions to choose from, we recommend the cut from the band’s fabled 1977 show at Barton Hall on the campus of Cornell University in upstate New York. The 15-minute plus rendition is part of a larger song cycle, wedged in between two versions of “St. Stephen.” It features the band at their late ‘70s musical peak, with an extended guitar solo from Garcia and a lengthy drumming outro from the Rhythm Devils Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. An epic jam from a night that included many epic jams. – Curtis Zimmermann
7. M. Ward ft. Zooey Deschanel – Rave On
“Rave On” is an upbeat, swinging tune that makes you want to get up and dance. In the hands of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, it’s a gooey harmonic haze. Considerably slower and chalk full of luscious harmony, the song just makes you want to chill. Easy guitar and drums round out the instrumentation which is no longer the rock band vibe of the original. – Angela Hughey
6. The Fray – Take Your Time
I’m not sure any artist on this list made their chosen song their own more than The Fray. If you encountered this recording in the wild, I doubt you’d realize it was a Buddy Holly song, or an oldie at all (it helps they picked a relative obscurity). Though I haven’t followed them since, I had their huge debut record, and this cover would have fit in seamlessly. They bring in their typical lite-rock emoting on a recording that, cover or no, they should have released as a radio single. – Ray Padgett
5. Steeleye Span – Rave On
Proving you didn’t have to be a po-faced academic to appreciate the joys of traditional folk. Or do I mean rock and roll. They all seem so long ago. Dating back from an early Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy version of this warhorse of English folk-rock, the original came with a circular groove so it wouldn’t ever end. – Seuras Og
4. John Doe – Peggy Sue Got Married
Buddy Holly was truly the Tupac Shakur of his day. Though he only recorded for a few years, he laid down enough tracks that record labels kept releasing new music for years after he died. One example is the song “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Holly originally recorded it as an acoustic demo a few weeks before his plane crash. Several versions of the tune were later released with added music and vocals recorded and overdubbed after his death (though the original demo is far superior). The song is a sequel to his famed 1957 smash “Peggy Sue” and features Holly lamenting about her nuptials. The real Peggy Sue did in fact get married to Holly’s drummer Jerry Allison. For his 2011 cover on the Rave On Buddy Holly tribute album, singer John Doe explores a dark side of Holly’s lyrics. While Holly’s original vocals on the song are upbeat, Doe revamped the song as a dark, mournful piece about the loss of true love. – Curtis Zimmermann
3. Blondie – I’m Gonna Love You Too
This is the sound of the sheer unbridled joy of being in mutually reciprocated love, the musical equivalent of a fists-in-the-air yeeeeeeeah, world do your worst cos I don’t care, we don’t care. This cover can do no wrong. If you don’t like it – hell, if you don’t love it – you are a cold unloved toad. Or undeserving at least. – Seuras Og
2. The Raveonettes – Everyday
Sharin Foo and Sune Ros Wagner so revere Buddy Holly that they made “Rave On” half of their band name. It’s perhaps surprising that they haven’t covered him more (including their titular track) – though if you name your son Bowie, you probably don’t need to paint a lightning bolt on his face too. They made their one foray into a Buddy song count, though, bringing both shoegaze and Motown to a storming take on “Everyday” that sounds pulled from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. – Ray Padgett
1. The Rolling Stones – Not Fade Away
“Buddy played it very lightly,” Bill Wyman said of the song “Not Fade Away.” “We just got into it and put the Diddley beat up-front.” By the Diddley beat, Wyman is referring to the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm perfected by Bo Diddley. And by “we,” of course, he’s referring to the Rolling Stones, who took Holly’s pop song, revved it up, and turned it into aggressive rock ‘n’ roll. When Holly sings “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be,” it sounds like something he hopes will happen someday soon; the way Mick Jagger sings it, it’s a flat statement, one you better get straight, and the follow-up of “You’re gonna give your love to me” becomes a foregone conclusion. The band’s going full-bore behind Jagger, much faster than the original track, with human-riff Richards bearing one of his earliest fruits and Brian Jones playing some superb harmonica. It’s a great song made greater, and in under two minutes to boot – and fifty-five years later, it’s proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.- Patrick Robbins
Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including the Rolling Stones, Madonna, and Pink Floyd.
Humble Pie’s “Heartbeat” is a glaring omission. They were going to cut Well All Right for their second album Town & Country–but then the Blind Faith album came out (another prominent omission). So they switched to Heartbeat.
1. Fantastic collection you’ve curated. I’m going to keep going back to this one.
2. The only omissions I can think of (other than Humble Pie, mentioned in another comment) that I miss are the cover of “Midnight Shift” by Commander Cody &His Lost Planet Air Men, and “Ting-a-ling” by The Knack.
Patti Smith’s version of Words of Love deserves a mention too.
You missed off The Bluejays – a UK group who do Buddy Holly better than anyone in my opinion. https://youtu.be/paLMQq19n0E
‘dearest’ by mickey and sylvia is a classic
The Detroit Cobras version of “Heartbeat” is tremendous..
How could anyone not include Bobby Fuller’s version of “Love’s Made a Fool of You” ?
Greg Kihn does a vice version as well.
#!?*##!!?? You forgot Brian Wilson’s version of “Listen To Me!” Every Holly fan I know who has heard it has loved it. Unbelievable!!! Also missing – Waylon Jennings’ version of “Learning The Game” captures the sadness Waylon feels about Buddy. Bobby Vee’s medley of “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” “Learning The Game” and “What To Do” is also fantastic.
How about Patti Smith doing “Not Fade Away”?
Not sure how it can be said Linda Ronstadt’s version of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” is just a straight cover of Buddy’s. She rearranged it and then Eva Cassidy covered the rearranged version, yet in Eva Cassidy’s review it is acknowledged that it’s a different take on a Buddy classic…yup, that’s because it’s the Ronstadt version lol.
I love both Buddy’s version and Ronstadt’s, both are so different and yet both have a level of emotion that makes you feel like the lyrics were truly “lived” by both artists.
Skeeter Davis tribute album Skeeter Davis Sings Buddy Holly (1967), a nice album with Waylon Jennings. Visitors were Mr. and Mrs. Holley.