Most children are introduced to the experience of death when an elderly relative or pet dies. For singer-songwriter and guitarist Marshall Crenshaw, however, the first death he remembers was a national tragedy. Naturally inclined toward music since toddlerhood, he had become a Buddy Holly fan. So on February 3, 1959, when the 22-year-old Holly died in a plane crash, along with Ritchie Valens and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson, six-year-old Crenshaw was devastated.
“I remember clearly how I felt, and it was a real shock, my very first experience with death,” he says. “It was the first time anybody I cared about died, so it was a helluva rude awakening. For a six-year-old, the notion that someone was gone and would never exist again blew my mind.”
Fans around the world have just marked the 50th anniversary of “The Day the Music Died.” It has special significance for Crenshaw, who played Buddy Holly in the movie “La Bamba,” and whose songwriting was clearly influenced by Holly’s concise and melodious little gems. Crenshaw fans can listen for those influences when the singer-songwriter gives a concert at the Record Collector in Bordentown on Saturday, February 7. This intimate performance space has hosted a series of concerts recently featuring some other famous names — Pete Best, the first drummer with the Beatles; Graham Parker; and Peter Tork of the Monkees, to name a few.
Catch Crenshaw while you can in Bordentown, because the very next night he’ll be in Los Angeles at the Grammy Award ceremonies. He’s been nominated as a co-writer for Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media for the title track to “Walk Hard — the Dewey Cox Story,” the 2007 film starring John C. Reilly (who also helped craft the song).
At his February 7 appearance Crenshaw will introduce new songs from an album he plans to release in the early summer, his first in more than five years. His last was “What’s in the Bag?” (2003). “I’ve been making an album and by the time I play Bordentown, I will have finished it,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Duchess County, New York. “I have drummer Jim Keltner, one of my musical heroes (on the recording), and the engineer and co-producer is Jerry Boys. I have a batch of great new songs and I’m super fired up about it. We have a great record in the pipeline. It’s way past time for me.”
Born in Detroit in November, 1953, and raised in its suburbs, Crenshaw remembers watching a TV dance show, something like the Motor City version of Bandstand, shortly after Holly’s plane crash. “My parents were worried that I would be upset and tried to keep me from finding out, but I found out anyway and I was very sad. I remember that whole show was about Buddy Holly,” he says. “The kids on the show were crying.”
The Crenshaw residence was a musical household, where Crenshaw’s dad taught himself a few chords on the guitar and entertained his son with classic country music, but he also loved rock. Crenshaw worshipped his older cousins, teenage musicians already trying to launch a band. “It was a really close family and music was everywhere,” he says. “Rock and roll was the soundtrack to my childhood. My dad could only play three chords but he was very uninhibited and would play things like ‘Kaw-Liga’ by Hank Williams, and I just thought that was the greatest.”
Crenshaw’s father worked for the city assessor and city manager. The singer-songwriter describes his dad as “a low level white collar guy. But he and his brother were the first in their family to go to college,” he says. “They were from a family that really struggled, so he accomplished a lot.” Crenshaw’s mother taught high school English and he recalls a clash of cultures in the household. “Dad was this rough Southern transplant and my mom’s family was more sophisticated,” he says. “Mom would be giving me James Thurber and other Algonquin Roundtable types to read, and then I got rock and roll from my dad.”
Fortunately, Crenshaw didn’t attend the high school where his mother taught English. “I was a terrible student and a crazy person, so it would have been very awkward for us both,” he says. “We were spared the mutual embarrassment.”
He had already begun to play guitar, as early as age 10, hanging out with his older cousin and absorbing pre-Beatles instrumentalists like Duane Eddy and songwriters like Holly. Crenshaw prides himself on crafting tight, intelligent songs and says it’s not only Holly and that generation of songwriters who influenced him. Punk, New Wave, and power pop of the early 1980s got him excited about writing original material.
“When I was writing the songs for my first album, I was influenced by this moment in time in the early ’80s, which was also drawing inspiration from stuff I grew up with,” Crenshaw says. “I thought, great, I can use these earlier influences to make something contemporary. It was a ‘wow’ moment and I felt really motivated. I was in love with ’50s and ’60s rock and roll, but I didn’t stop growing as a listener. I always had eclectic taste, but I filtered certain things out. I had these parameters I wanted to stay inside.”
Playing John Lennon in the off-Broadway production of Beatlemania, Crenshaw was staying with a friend in New York, listening to some of the best alternative and R&B radio from the time. “There was a lot of good stuff on the radio right then and I was taking it all in,” Crenshaw says. “I was also in love with Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols, the B52’s, and the Clash. I just loved ‘London Calling.’ I knew I wanted to use all these influences as well as the music I had enjoyed all my life, and do (songwriting) in a personal way. So I found a direction.”
Crenshaw’s eponymous first album was released in April, 1982, and featured the songs “Cynical Girl” and “Someday, Someway.” The latter, which roots rocker Robert Gordon (who also played at the Record Collector in October, 2008) had taken it to Number 76 on the charts a year earlier, made it into the Top 40 for Crenshaw.
“I had given Robert a cassette of my songs and ‘Someday, Someway’ was on the other side, the side I didn’t want him to listen to,” Crenshaw says. “But he flipped it over and begged me to let him do the song. I was reluctant at first but then I said ‘OK, sure.’ It turned out great for both of us, in fact it exploded on New York rock radio.”
In addition to Gordon, Crenshaw’s songs have been covered by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bette Midler, and more recently he co-wrote a song recorded by the Gin Blossoms. But Gordon got the ball rolling. “Robert recorded a bunch of my songs,” Crenshaw says. “He was the first person to do a song of mine and it blew my mind.”
Another song, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” went all the way to Number 3 on the U.K. charts, performed by Owen Paul, but Crenshaw would rather forget about that experience. “It was a huge hit in Europe but I totally hate the record,” he says. “I’m so glad it wasn’t released here. (When people cover my songs) it’s kind of hit or miss, but most of the time I get a hit. Kelly Willis also did a song of mine, ‘Whatever Way the Wind Blows,’ and that was on the country charts.”
About his forthcoming new release Crenshaw says he is “bursting at the seams to have these songs out. It’s been a drawn-out exercise, but I’m on the verge of doing it, and I can’t wait,” he says. “This is a really strong bunch of tunes.”
Marshall Crenshaw, the Record Collector Store, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, February 7, 7:30 p.m. The Cucumbers open. Register. $25 in advance; $27 at the door. For more information on Crenshaw visit www.marshallcrenshaw.com. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.