Bad business decisions practically defined Buddy Holly as much as his role as a rock n' roll icon/pioneer/visionary/legend/statue/freakish cult figure (for some). During his short musical career, Holly ended up on the losing end of many legal entanglements (like signing away co-writing credit to producer Norm Petty) however double-crossing Decca record executive Paul Cohen was one of Buddy's savviest business moves.
After a couple of dud releases, the suits at Decca were scratching their heads and wondering out loud whether they didn't sign the right hick rock 'n' roller. A&R suit Paul Cohen took the brunt for this misfire and was held responsible for the Holly account. After expertly steering the careers of Red Foley, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce and Patsy Cline among others, he was badly out of his element with these Young People and their pimpled rock 'n' roll transistor crap. He spoke hillbilly, mainly to hillbilly adults--but rock 'n' roll? Cohen thought he'd ride this fad out like he did with the rumba and the mambo but this noise wasn't going away so fast. He could care less about rock 'n' roll and even less about that pest from the west: gangly, four-eyed Buddy Holly. "The biggest no talent I have ever worked with," muttered Cohen under his breath as he went over the crunched numbers for Holly's releases again. He sat in his late winter office and exhaled loudly. A cold wind whooshed by the thirtieth floor and Cohen sank in his chair and removed another Cuban from the walnut humidor. These numbers were not good. The phone rang. It was Buddy Holly on line one.
Holly assumed that Decca had dropped his contract and he was fine with that--he just wanted permission to re-record the songs that Decca had no intention of releasing. Due to various screw-ups, Holly's last session at The Quonset Hut in Nashville was a big fat waste of time. It didn't help that they had to find a last minute bass within twenty minutes or that producer Owen Bradley was running late for a waterskiing appointment (wtf?) or that Webb Pierce dropped by with some terrible idea about raising the octave on "That'll Be the Day." It was a total Nashville three hour rush job and Buddy and his band felt bulldozed by the experience. The session yielded zero out of five usable takes (at least according to Decca) and Buddy's recording career was stillborn. The Decca suits shipped the Quonset Hut master tapes into cold storage and resumed playing golf on their office carpets with sideways plastic cups.
On Thursday afternoon, February 28, 1957, Buddy threaded his reel to reel tape recorder and dialed up the long distance operator. Holly was getting the royal Decca treatment from the New York boys and he wanted his songs and he wanted out. He especially wanted that Quonset Hut clunker where Webb Pierce weighed in with the crummy advice. Buddy knew "That'll Be the Day" had hit written all over it and his instincts were never better. Three days earlier Buddy and his band re-recorded a killer demo of "That'll Be the Day" in Clovis, New Mexico with future song-stealing headache Norm Petty. Holly had plans to peddle the demo to Moe Levy up at Roulette. That's how bad things were. Even Levy was starting to look good.
The operator connected Buddy with Milt Gabler's secretary but Gabler was allegedly in the recording studio and not waterskiing on the day in question. The operator next rang up point man Paul Cohen.
Buddy Holly phone call (mp3)
Didn't much matter that Cohen wouldn't budge on the five-year ownership clause; Buddy ended up selling the future hit to Brunswick and when Decca got wind of that they tried to sue Brunswick until they realized that they owned Brunswick and all the carpeted golf games stopped on the thirtieth floor for five minutes while Accounts passed around the memo.
"Back on those dates I don't even remember which guy was Paul Cohen and which guy was Owen Bradley or who the engineers were. It was like, they were the biggies and we were just dips. We didn't groove with them or anything." --Crickets drummer Jerry Allison.