Holly was born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas to Lawrence Odell and Ella Pauline (Drake) Holley. The youngest in his family, he was always called "Buddy" from a young age.
He and his friend, Bob Montgomery, became interested in bluegrass in their adolescence. They sang at local clubs and at their high school's talent shows. Once they performed on local radio station KDAV, they solidified their reputation as hit local performers.
In 1955, Holly, along with Montgomery and band mate Larry Welborn, performed as the opening act to Elvis Presley. This marked a distinct transition away from country and toward rock and roll. A Nashville talent scout took notice and within just a few months, Holly was signed to Decca Records. It was then that his name was effectively changed from Holley to "Holly" as a result of a misspelling in his contract.
Holly then formed The Crickets, consisting of Niki Sullivan (guitar), Joe B. Mauldin (bass), and Jerry Allison (drums).
Buddy Holly had three recording sessions with Nashville producer Owen Bradley, but none of his recordings garnered substantial attention. One of the songs was "That'll Be the Day," the title of which was a reference to a line uttered by John Wayne in the film The Searchers (1956). When Decca decided not to renew his contract in 1957, he went on to sign recording deals with two Decca subsidiaries, Coral Records and Brunswick Records. He also contradicted his original contract with Decca by recording new versions of the tracks he had recorded with them, but ultimately, Decca did not follow through with its claim.
"That'll Be the Day" was one of the songs Holly re-recorded, this time with his band The Crickets, and this new version went on to become a major hit. In December of 1957, Buddy Holly and The Crickets performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Holly also played for black audiences, beginning with performances at The Apollo in 1957. His was the only white act to perform at black neighborhood venues at the time.
Holly proposed to his wife Maria Elena Santiago on their very first date. On what would have been their 50th wedding anniversary, she said, "I'd never had a boyfriend in my life. I'd never been on a date before. But when I saw Buddy, it was like magic. We had something special: love at first sight. It was like we were made for each other. He came into my life when I needed him, and I came into his."
By 1958, Holly was interested in going back to New York while his Crickets wanted to go back to Lubbock, so the group split.
Holly's untimely death came in February, 1959 when he was taking part in a three week tour across the Midwest called the Winter Dance Party. He had chartered a plane to take him, Ritchie Valens, J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and the pilot, Roger Peterson to the next stop on their tour. Their plane crashed in a snowstorm just after takeoff.
Holly influenced many musicians, including Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen.