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Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Peggy Sue got where?

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly died 50 years ago, but his music lives on, including his hit Peggy Sue. But who was it about and what's it like to be immortalised in a popular song? Caroline Frost meets the real Peggy Sue.

Fifty years ago today the music died, according to Don McLean at least - the day when Buddy Holly was killed in an aeroplane crash at the peak of his talents and passed into rock 'n' roll legend.

In the half-century since, as well as inspiring McLean's thumping standard American Pie, Holly has been recognised as one of popular music's great pioneers, his influence felt by everyone from Bob Dylan to the Beatles and Run-DMC. For one woman in particular, though, he's remained especially close.

Jerry Allison and Peggy Sue Gerron
It's widely claimed Holly originally wrote song as Cindy Lou, and...
Jerry Allison (pictured above with Peggy Sue Gerron on their wedding day) asked Holly to change it to Peggy Sue, says John Gribbin
Allison had split up with Peggy Sue Gerron and thought the move would help him win her back, it's claimed
However, Ms Gerron denies the claim

Peggy Sue Gerron, a sweet-faced woman of 68, is an unlikely piece of walking rock 'n' roll memorabilia. But in 1957, she was the girlfriend of Holly's best pal, Jerry Allison, and so became the inspiration for the singer's jiving classic.

Today, Ms Gerron smiles and plays down her role of musical muse, when asked.

"I think he decided he was going to write a girl's song, and sometime during the middle of the night he got Norman Petty, the producer, and he told him, 'I've written this song and I've named it after Jerry's girlfriend, Peggy Sue'."

Holly was already a radio star when she first encountered him. In a scene that could have come straight from a movie, Holly was rushing to a high school gig in Sacramento, California, when he sent a young Ms Gerron flying on the steps.

"He ran over to me, guitar in one hand, amp in the other, and said, 'I don't have time to pick you up, but you sure are pretty', before he ran off. So another girl came and helped me pick up my books and she said, 'Do you know who that was? That was Buddy Holly.'

Three weeks later, Ms Gerron was on a date with her future husband Jerry Allison - a drummer in Holly's group The Crickets - who introduced her to his friend Buddy, "and he started laughing, Jerry asked him what was so funny, and he said 'I've already overwhelmed your Peggy Sue.'"

Still a teenager, Peggy Sue first heard the song written for her in a packed school auditorium in the company of hundreds of screaming teenagers, and Holly hadn't let her down.

Deceptively simple

"I was just delighted, I thought it was a fascinating song. It's really hard to stand still when you're listening to Peggy Sue."

Peggy Sue
Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue
Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, Peggy Sue
Oh, my Peggy, my Peggy Sue
Oh, well, I love you gal and I need you, Peggy Sue

Peggy Sue, by Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison and Norman Petty

The song stands as one of Holly's classics - "right up at the top" according to John Gribbin, author of the recent book Not Fade Away: The Life and Music of Buddy Holly.

"It's like most Buddy Holly songs," he says of the two-minute, 30-second classic. "They are deceptively simple. He wrote songs that are easy to play, easy to listen to and to dance to. He knew that would spread the word about his music."

But Holly's huge success came to an abrupt end on 3 February 1959, when he died, aged 22, in a plane crash while on tour. The news of the accident that killed Holly and fellow musicians Richie Valens and the Big Bopper only 18 months later was as shocking to the Allisons - Peggy Sue had married Jerry in 1958 - as to everyone else. Jerry Allison had quit the band before Holly's last tour and the couple were staying with Holly's parents.

"Somebody called the house and told us the Crickets were dead, so Jerry made some calls," remembers Ms Gerron. "It turned out Mr and Mrs Holly didn't know, they actually heard about it on the radio."

Holly's premature death did nothing to stem his popularity, with songs such as Peggy Sue, Not Fade Away, Maybe Baby and That'll Be the Day becoming enduring classics. Ms Gerron has long been used to hearing her name sung in the car, the supermarket, the lift. She's also adept at dealing with the question left dangling in the air whenever she meets someone new.

Prom dress

"I'm introduced, and there's a pause, and they say, 'Oh, are you...?' and I say 'Yes, I'm Peggy Sue.'"

Peggy Sue Gerron
When you are raising children you want them to be secure and normal and you don't want the entertainment industry in their lives
Peggy Sue Gerron, pictured today

Despite the kick it evidently still gives her, she is not blind to the preconceptions that can come with such a celebrated moniker.

"People have their own image of who you are and what you are. I think certain people expect things of me, that no one else would be called upon to do. They look at me and go, well she can afford to do that, and that's not always accurate."

They also sometimes are wrong-footed by the sight of a grandmother in her late 60s - somehow expecting the subject of this half-century-old teenage love song to be preserved in a polka-dot prom dress.

"I think they have me frozen in time, I think when most people think of me, it's as a young woman frozen in an era that has long passed. But it hasn't limited me. You have to be you, and I couldn't stand up and say, well, no, that's not me."

The song has certainly afforded Ms Gerron rare opportunities in life.

"Yeah, it's allowed me to meet people and do things I wouldn't otherwise. Dick Clark [the US TV chat show host] calls for me to come over and do the show... that doesn't happen to Jane Doe."

Yet there was a big part of her life when she didn't play up to the reputation as Buddy Holly's Peggy Sue - as wife to her second husband (her first marriage, to Allison, broke up), mother to their two children and business partner in the couple's small plumbing business in California. For a long time the children knew little of their mother's past.

The song features Holly's combined rhythm/lead guitar style
Holly had someone stand by to flick a switch on his Fender Stratocaster mid-way through when the guitar tone changes
"Normally a guitarist would do that himself," says John Gribbin. "But this is played so fast Holly hadn't the time to reach down."

"I didn't want them to think that we were different, that we had an edge. When you are raising children you want them to be secure and normal and you don't want the entertainment industry in their lives."

And serious Holly fans will know Ms Gerron's name appears in not one, but two, song titles by their idol - the other being, Peggy Sue Got Married. Striking a more melancholy note than its predecessor, it was recorded by Holly on a home tape recorder in 1958 and only heard after Holly's death.

Today Ms Gerron makes the most of her footnote role in pop history. Last year she published an autobiography, Whatever Happened to Peggy Sue?, and she will be marking the 50th anniversary of Holly's death as a guest of honour at the opening of the Buddy musical in Melbourne Australia.

So, inspiring one of the most famous songs by one of the century's most popular musicians - weighing it all up, is that a burden or a privilege?

Peggy Sue smiles again. "A privilege, always. I never get tired of it."

Below is a selection of your comments.

A whole biography on whatever to happened to Peggy Sue? Gosh. I'm certainly enthralled. I thought she was fictional until five minutes ago.
Katherine M, London, UK

Peggy Sue really did inspire a whole generation of guitarists - me included. As far as I know - and I would welcome any corrections to this - she may be the only person to inspire two songs to be named after her, from the rock era.
Joe McDonagh, Sligo, Ireland

I wonder how many people know that Peggy Sue has an interesting hobby - ham radio. Her callsign is K5PSG. Perhaps some readers have spoken to her over the air without realizing it. In 2004, a special amateur station W5B was activated from Lubbock Texas to honour the 45th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death, and Peggy Sue was one of the operators.
John Warren, Round Rock Texas USA

What a pleasure to hear about someone who is the inspiration for a song who actually enjoys that and gets a kick out of it. So often people see these things as a huge weight on them, so it is very refreshing.
Nicki, Chichester

Maybe Mr Sherman shows his age - every musical generation has provided proof that talent outweighs looks, from Elvis Costello through Jarvis Cocker and Morrissey to Craig Finn... clearly the bespectacled frontman still has a future.
Alastair, Brighton, England

One of the greatest gifts given to me as an 11-yr-old at Christmas in 1977 by my mother was the Buddy Holly 6 LP box set. Still have it. If that were the case Mr Sherman there would be no Elvis Costello.
Mark Lilley, Stotfold, Hertfordshire

I am 34 and listen to Buddy Holly on my iPod. My father was a huge fan and consequently this has passed on to me. Buddy had amazing talent which was stolen from the world. It makes me so sad to read these stories about him but it also makes me smile that, even after such a short career, he is still there in people's hearts and heads. I shall be humming Peggy Sue all day now, thank you.
Sally, Cambridge, UK

The only redeeming feature about Buddy Holly's songs is that they were mercifully short. Annoying little "tunes" nonetheless.
Peter Sandbach, Basel, Switzerland

Buddy Holly was years ahead of his time as a songwriter. To the best of my recollection, (I'm 70) he was the first person in rock to use a modal shift ("Pretty, pretty, pretty, Peggy Sue"). Everybody else was playing four-chord rock, at best. Listen to the middle eight in Every Day. Rock musicians had never even heard those chords before. Kids my age playing guitar by ear went crazy trying to figure out those changes. But Don Mclean was wrong, the music didn't die, it was actually murdered in the 70s by disco. There's been little more than ambient noise ever since, in my humble opinion, as a studio multi-instrument musician with some 45 years of professional experience under my belt.
Talos Moondancer, Victoria, BC, Canada

Very sad day, I remember it well. I was in 8th grade (middle school) math class. The school announced his death over the school PA system, the school cut classes short that day. I still have original 45s of Peggy Sue and Maybe Baby and That'll Be the Day. Live on.
Ken, Denver, Colorado

What a talent. Cut down before his prime. Saddening me even more is the realisation that today, given his "unconventional" appearance and physique, Mr Holly could not emerge as a star in today's entertainment industry - even in contact lenses. Not video friendly, as it were.
William Sherman, Boxford, MA, US

All very interesting, but I'm more interested to know the inspiration behind Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Cryptkickers' Monster Mash.
Merv James, Adelaide, South Australia

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