The town of Clovis on New Mexico’s eastern plains is an unlikely birthplace of American rock & roll music, yet some of the industry’s biggest names have recorded here. Straddling US 60 a scant eight miles from the Texas border, the agricultural town was the 1950s home of the Norman Petty Studios, a small recording space in a former grocery store on West 7th Street.

Now preserved as a slice of American music history, the studio was run under the direction of Petty, a local record producer and musician. The rockabilly music, dubbed the “Clovis Sound,” was created by music legends including The Fireballs, Buddy Knox, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, The String-a-Longs, and of course, Buddy Holly and The Crickets.

The Norman Petty Studios

Clovis natives Norman Petty and his wife Vi teamed up with friend Jack Vaughn in the early 1950s as the Norman Petty Trio. Norman showed musical talent early, playing the piano at age five, organizing his first band as a teenager, and doing weekly radio shows as a high school student. The trio topped the national record charts with several big hits including “Almost Paradise” and Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.”

Petty bought the grocery store in 1954 and spent more than $100,000 creating a 1,300-square-foot, state-of-the-art studio to record his music.

Aspiring musicians, mostly from west Texas, heard of Petty’s studio, its superb acoustics, and his recording prowess, and began requesting studio time with the master. One of the first was Roy Orbison, who told Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids about Norm Petty’s studio. In 1956 the group came and recorded “Party Doll,” making Knox the first rock musician to write and record his own #1 hit. The next year Buddy Holly, a budding rocker from Lubbock, Texas, 96 miles east of Clovis, visited Petty’s studio and changed the course of rock & roll.

Buddy Holly Records in Clovis

Charles Hardin Holley grew up in Lubbock listening to country music and rhythm and blues like another early rock & roll star, Elvis Presley. Nicknamed “Buddy,” he dropped the “e” in his last name after Decca Records misspelled it on his first album. In February 1957, 20-year-old Holly and his new band The Crickets drove west to Clovis and recorded their first single, “That’ll be the Day,” at Norman Petty’s studio, which reached #1 on the Billboard chart in September 1957, and “Peggy Sue,” which topped the hit list in October.

During the next 18 months, Holly collaborated with Petty to write and perform 10 more hit songs. Petty recognized that Holly was a unique talent and became his manager and producer until late 1958 when Holly, after disagreements with Petty over royalty money, moved to New York City to start a solo career.

Unfortunately, Holly’s music career was short-lived. He died in a plane crash in a windy snowstorm on February 3, 1959, along with the pilot, J. P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens. Norman Petty acquired the rights to most of the Buddy Holly tracks recorded at his studio after Holly’s death and later released them. Petty sold the singer’s sound catalog to Paul McCartney, one of Holly’s biggest fans, in 1973. McCartney and John Lennon had first seen Holly at a British concert in 1958 and later, as a nod to the influence of Buddy Holly and The Crickets, had dubbed their new band The Beatles.

Musicians at the Petty Studio

Besides Buddy Holly, Norman Petty recorded numerous other artists at his studio in Clovis. Roy Orbison and his band, the Teen Kings, recorded his first big hit “Ooby Dooby” at the Petty studio. The Rhythm Orchids with Buddy Knox scored with “Party Doll” and “I’m Stickin’ with You.”

Waylon Jennings, another Lubbock boy who reached country stardom, first recorded at the Petty Studio with Buddy Holly, playing guitar on a couple songs in his first session. Jennings later became the electric bass player in Holly’s band during the Winter Dance Tour in 1959 before the plane crash. He was supposed to be on the doomed flight, but instead gave his seat to J.P. Richardson, the Big Bopper, who was battling the flu. Jennings finished the tour singing Holly’s vocals.

Other Texas singers who spent time at the studio include Terry Noland, Sonny West, Wes Bryan, Peanuts Wilson, Sonny Curtis, and Charlie “Sugartime” Phillips. Petty also recorded instrumental music, including “Wheels,” a #3 hit for The String-a-Longs, and “Sugar Shack,” a #1 hit for the Fireballs in 1963.

The Petty Legacy

After his success with Buddy Holly, Norman Petty expanded his Clovis operation in 1960 by buying the Mesa Theater on Main Street in Clovis for another recording studio. In 1963, he started KTQM, the area’s first FM radio station, broadcasting country music and later, Top 40 hits. Eight years later, he opened KWKA, which aired only country and Western tunes.

Petty continued recording musicians at his studio until he died at the age of 57 due to leukemia. After Norman’s death, Vi kept his mission alive and in 1987 instigated the Norman and Vi Petty Music Festival featuring many of the Clovis studio artists. Vi passed away in March of 1992, but the festival continued annually until 1998. It was later revived as the Clovis Music Festival. After the deaths of both Pettys, Clovis musician Johnny Mulhair recorded LeAnn Rimes’ debut album All That, including the hit single “Blue,” in 1994 at the Mesa Theater studio.

Visiting the Studio and Norman & Vi Petty Rock & Roll Museum

If there is one place in America that’s close to rock & roll heaven, this is it. The Norman Petty Studios remains at 1313 West 7th Street. The one-story stucco building is an artifact frozen in time, its unchanged interior looking just like it did in 1957. The studio consists of a lobby with hit 45 rpm records covering the walls and an antique Coca-Cola machine in the corner, a 420-square-foot performance area with hanging microphones and vintage instruments, Petty’s cramped control room, and an apartment for visiting artists. The studio is open for appointment-only tours led by Kenneth Broad, the studio caretaker and former business manager for Vi Petty. Broad urges visitors to sit in Norman Petty’s chair at the console where Buddy Holly sat and listened to playbacks of “Peggy Sue.”

After visiting the studio, head a mile east to the Norman and Vi Petty Rock & Roll Museum in the basement of the Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce office. The museum, taking a wide view of Norman and Vi Petty and their influence on rock & roll, allows a glimpse into the early days of the Petty studio, showcasing original recording equipment including the mixing board from Buddy Holly’s sessions, personal memorabilia from the Pettys, rare photographs, and musical instruments. The outside entrance is graced by a nine-foot Fender Stratocaster, a 1950s guitar made famous by Holly, and a curved piano keyboard hanging above the double doors.

Written by Stewart Green for Matcha in partnership with New Mexico Tourism Department.