It didn't take long for the word to get out about Norman Petty's recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico (a dozen or so miles west of the Texas state line); shortly after its founding, the facility was booked solid with ambitious singers and bands from around the region. Hundreds of recordings produced at Norm's West 7th Street studio were released on labels large and small between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s. The first two to become major sellers were committed to tape on the same day in the spring of 1956 by the same band, The Orchids; guitarist Don Lanier, singer-bassist Jimmy Bowen and singer-guitarist Buddy Knox made up the group's core. The A sides, issued as consecutive Roulette Records singles, were Jimmy's "I'm Stickin' With You," a top 20 hit, and Buddy's smash "Party Doll," one of rock and roll's classic and most recognizable early songs.

Buddy, born in 1933 in Happy, a small town on the Texas panhandle with only a few hundred residents, formed a band with Lanier and Bowen while attending West Texas State College in nearby Dumas. Originally they called themselves The Serenaders and strictly played country songs, partly because they had no drummer and few, if any, of the C&W artists they followed had one either. Another student, Don Mills, sat in as their drummer for a short time. Rhythm and blues was popular on campus and Buddy patterned his band as a cross between Hank Ballard's Midnighters and country legend Hank Williams. Seeing Elvis Presley's show when the up-and-coming King rolled through town, and the reaction of his young female fans, convinced the Orchids that rock and roll was the way to go. When Roy Orbison did a show at the college with his Teen Kings, he tipped them to what was going on in Clovis, just a couple of hours' drive (if they kept an eye out for cops) down highway 60.

What resulted was Jimmy's "Stickin'" song and Buddy's "Party" tune coming to life in a quick session. About 1500 copies on Triple-D (which stood for KDDD, the station in Dumas where they had made their live radio debut) were pressed (one side: Jim Bowen with the Orchids, the other: Buddy Knox with the Orchids), anticipating airplay and sales in the area. Roulette picked up the masters, the band went to N.Y. and Dave Alldred took the role of regular drummer (though he would leave later in 1957 to start up Dickey Doo and the Don'ts with Gerry Granahan). Two more songs were recorded at Bell Sound (Jimmy's "Everlovin' Fingers" and Buddy's "My Baby's Gone") and two separate singles designated the band as the Rhythm Orchids (heading off any possible confusion with Chicago's R&B Orchids). Buddy's hit took a dominant male point of view: 'Well, all I want is a party doll...t'come along with me when I'm feelin' wild...to be everlovin', true and fair...to run her fingers through my hair' spoke for most men while 1950s women (as opposed to the women of later decades) probably didn't feel too objectified. While holding a pop cover version by Steve Lawrence at bay, the record went all the way to number one.

Welcome to life on the road: the two-acts-in-one stayed busy with live performances while doing recording sessions in both Clovis and the Big Apple. Then Buddy was drafted by the U.S. Army (seems Uncle Sam went after all the young rockers as soon as they rose to prominence); follow-up single "Rock Your Little Baby to Sleep" gave credit to Lieutenant Buddy Knox as the artist. Lyrics caused nary a stir despite being easy to interpret in a lascivious way: 'Take her into your arms...tell her you love her, tell her you care, tell her about all her charms...well then you rock your little baby to sleep...' and the single reached the top 30. After basic training, Buddy was stationed for a time in Fort Hood, Texas and was often able to join the group for scheduled shows.

The third single was an updated version of "My Hula Hula Love," composed by Percy Wenrich and Edward Madden and released on Victor in 1911 by popular duo Ada Jones and Billy Murray; although he claimed writer credit for the song, Buddy's version bears a striking similarity to the earlier one. It became his third major hit in a row in the fall of '57. The group donned Hawaiian leis for a filmed lip-sync of the song in the summer rock and roll movie Jamboree! Separate Knox and Bowen discs kept coming, though sales of Jimmy's fell off rather quickly. As the two traveled more frequently to New York City, they worked less often with the rest of the Rhythm Orchids band.

Another Clovis regular named Buddy hailed from Lubbock, Texas and started hitting big on the charts with his Crickets towards the end of summer. His work would soon overshadow that of the "Party Doll" hitmaker. But one thing is fact: Buddy Holly's real name was Charles...Mr. Knox as born Buddy! Both bands converged in Seattle, Washington in October while the Rhythm Orchids were touring. The rocking (but disappointingly not-so-big hit) "Swingin' Daddy" was recorded there with Crickets Joe B. Maudlin on guitar, Jerry Allison on drums and Holly on guitar. The song's about dancing, right? 'Throw me a woman with-a style and grace...then stand back, buddy, an'-a give me space...kick off her shoes and I mess her hair and I watch a real swingin' pair...rave on!' I have my own ideas on what all that's all about!

The following June, Knox and his group remade "Somebody Touched Me," an Ahmet Ertegun song introduced by Ruth Brown in 1954 on a topic that must have appealed to Buddy's sensitive area ('...well, somebody touched me in the dark last night...'); it came off as an easygoing rockabilly jam and landed in familiar top 30 territory in August '58. Other songs from the same session (Knox's assertive "C'mon Baby" and a syrupy two-sider, "That's Why I Cry" and "Teasable, Pleasable You") made minor chart appearances in the latter part of the year. Those last two were written by Knox under a pen name, Jack Dixon, that he later admitted was a mistake; he neglected to tell BMI publishing who Dixon was, so no royalties were paid.

Don Lanier, Jimmy Bowen, Buddy Knox, Dave Alldred

Is it possible to approach the subject of suicide in a clever, relatively harmless way? That would depend on how each person interprets the lyrics of "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself," recorded in early 1959: 'So long...to you...I hope I don't make you blue, but I think I'm gonna kill myself...' Hmmm...it's pretty depressing stuff on paper: 'I bow...my head...'cause in the myoo-nin' I'm gonna be dead...send my remains to my best friend, yeah the rest to my hole in the ground...' The song wasn't a huge hit but its easygoing arrangement, hot-button lyrics and Buddy's lighthearted reading of those words make it worthy of discussion even today. After autumn '59's "I Ain't Sharin' Sharon" (a Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman ditty) and a not-so-tragic spring '60 Knox original, "Long Lonely Nights," Buddy, Jimmy and the Rhythm Orchids parted ways with Roulette. Bowen made a couple of records for the Capehart and Crest labels, then decided he'd rather work behind the scenes.

Liberty Records offered Buddy a contract and he began working with the young but successful producer Snuff Garrett, who seldom strayed from proven formulas. "Lovey Dovey," a teen-leaning take on a 1954 hit by The Clovers, drew from the same source as Bobby Vee's Garrett-produced "Devil or Angel," another Clovers tune. Borrowing the 'Bop-bop-a-chuly-bop-a' hook that had helped the "Gonna Kill Myself" single seem less dire, this formulaically delightful production brought Buddy, once again, to Billboard's top 30 at the beginning of 1961. "Ling-Ting-Tong" similarly softened the urgency of The Five Keys' '55 original and made a minor chart appearance a few months later. Material became increasingly juvenile, with occasional bright spots like "She's Gone," until 1964, when Joe South's "Hitchhike Back to Georgia" seemed to indicate Buddy was moving in a country-rock direction. But he left Liberty soon afterwards.

In the meantime, Jimmy Bowen had been steadily gaining momentum as a producer and arranger. By 1965 he was well established at Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records and in a position to sign Buddy Knox (the company, staunchly against rock and roll when first established in 1960, had recently rescinded its restriction). Buddy's Reprise offerings (recorded in Los Angeles and Nashville) rocked more than his Liberty output, but by late '66 he was back on the street. He teamed with Ray Ruff, a singer with several Petty-produced early-'60s records to his credit, to form the short-lived Ruff label; "Jo Ann," an acoustic guitar rocker, was the only release. In 1968 he made an album for United Artists under producer Bob Montgomery and had a minor run on the country charts with "Gypsy Man," penned by former Cricket Sonny Curtis.

A migration of rock artists to Canada seemed to be taking place, led, perhaps, by Conway Twitty, who'd begun performing there regularly in the late '50s and Ronnie Hawkins, who'd moved to the Toronto area and hadn't bothered to move back. Buddy lived in Vancouver, British Columbia and later near Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1983 he starred in a Canadian-produced film, Sweet Country Music, written by Gordie Tapp of TV's Hee Haw. Buddy Knox died in 1999 at age 65; the music of The Rhythm Orchids' lead man, particularly his Clovis and New York recordings, rank as some of the best early rock and roll...with just a hint of controversy, an added bonus.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Party Doll Ling-Ting-Tong