Originally appeared on Rockabilly Hall of Fame site.
I, like most people my age (58) grew up as a teenager in the 50’s seeing Buddy on the Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen TV shows. I loved his records; never dreaming that not only would I meet him, but I would end up working for him and also we became good friends with him.
Here’s how it all came about. Here is how the music business was in 1959. I was 17 years old and my band was called Myron Lee and the Caddies. I was lucky to have the first R&R band in our area and usually when you’re the first to get into something that’s hot, you do good. We took off almost overnight and had a hot regional record (Rona Baby) playing within a few months.
Buddy first came to our area to play that year at the ballroom near Madison, SD. A few months later he was to appear in my hometown of Sioux Falls and that’s when we first met.
The man who booked my band (Jimmy Thomas) had brought Buddy out here for a few dates so I had an in.
My house was on a busy street and as I looked out the window that afternoon after school I saw this big long black Lincoln Mark IV Continental drive by. I could see through the back window that the back seat had a rack full of suits.
I knew it had to be Buddy with those Texas license plates and sure enough it was, as I later saw that same car at the Coliseum where Buddy appeared that night.
Buddy’s band The Rhythm Orchids was so good, so polished. The musicians were all a little older than my band members and they had a lot of experience playing together.
During that period of time most of the early rockers were coming to the Midwest to work. It was the best place in the USA to work because we were the only area in the country that had a lot of ballrooms that were built in the late 1930’s and 40’s.
Buddy and his band packed in the people wherever they played. Buddy told me that he bought the Lincoln he was driving from singer Julie London when he was in New York.
Canada was also a great wide-open place to work during those years.
By 1960 I had gotten to know Buddy pretty well and my band had appeared with him several times. It was expensive to keep a band because sometimes there would be not be any work for weeks at a time, even for a rock & roll star.
Buddy decided to drop his band and hire me and my band The Caddies to do a 3 1/2-month Trans-Canadian tour – the first time for an American group to do this.
It’s been 40 years but I can remember as clear as can be the day we left Sioux Falls, SD to drive to St. Johns, New Brunswick, Canada to rehearse with Buddy and start the tour January 12th, 1960. I was lucky to have real good musicians in my band (Jerry Haacke, bass, Curt Powell, lead, Fred Scott, sax, Chico Hajek, drums), and myself as singer and rhythm guitarist.
We were all about 18 years old just out of high school and it was tough to leave our girlfriends, our friends and our homes but we were young and we were excited. Buddy was about eight years older than we were and I remember thinking of him as an older man. He was only about 26.
I remember the promoter very well. His name was George Nellis from Regina, Saskatchewan. He kept us working six nights a week. In Canada, you couldn’t have shows on Sunday. I was driving a new 1960 black Olds wagon pulling a trailer. Buddy had a new 1960 beige Caddy Coupe DeVille. The tour went pretty much like this – band does first hour – Buddy does last 45 minutes. We would sell 8×10 glossy pictures during the intermission for 50c each of either Buddy himself or of myself and the band. The money from this helped to pay for road expenses. Most jobs were 300 to 500 miles apart so we spent most nights driving to the next location, getting a few hours sleep when we got there.
I remember several times being turned down by motels when they found out we were entertainers from the U.S. because Gene Vincent or Johnny Cash had been there and raised a lot of hell. Those were the two names mentioned most. They loved to party on the road and were pretty rough on motel rooms. Many times, the night temperatures would be 50 below as we traveled through Canada and many times I would ride with Buddy to help him drive or help keep him awake. I would ask him questions and he would tell me stories about life and people he had met in show business. I remember him talking a lot about Buddy Holly. He told me Holly said when he was a kid he would sit out on the porch in Lubbock, Texas and look at the stars, knowing that something real great was going to happen to him with music.
Early in Buddy’s career when Party Doll was big he’d tell me about the big Alan Freed shows in New York. When Paul Anka first came to the U.S. and was on the same show he didn’t have much money so he stayed in Buddy’s hotel room for free and slept in the bath tub with just a blanket.
Buddy was in the army and stationed with Elvis, so the two had become good friends. When Buddy would be in California recording for Liberty records he would call Elvis and would always be invited to visit him at his home. He told me one time he drove out to Elvis’ house around 10:00 in the morning and Elvis came to the door and he had heavy make up on including eye shadow. His hair was dyed jet black and Buddy said he looked like a million bucks. It hit me strange that Elvis would be so concerned about how he looked even around old friends he knew well that early in the day.
When I think back to those times and all the things we encountered on the road it is a wonder anyone lives through it all. It definitely is a young person’s business – at least the way we had to travel then. When we played Prince Edward Island we drove our cars on an ice cutter and you could look out and see seals sitting on the cakes of thick ice floating down from Greenland.
Later on in the tour, we played in a small school gym packed to the rafters with people including some Eskimos. To get there we had driven the final 200 miles on a gravel road in the middle of February. The town was Flin Flon, Manitoba. We played towns and cities of all sizes and in the larger cities like Montreal other acts would be added to the show. We had 10,000 people in Montreal and that’s where I first met and got to work with Dion, The Ventures, Bobby Vee and Ersel Hickey.
People loved Buddy Knox wherever he played. He had such a wonderful personality and that great southern Texas accent. He was my idol and I even began to comb my hair like his. I had come from a family that didn’t have a lot of money. I was always amazed how Buddy would call his wife, Glenda, in Georgia everyday and talk for an hour or two – long distance. A lot of times Buddy would compile $10,000 to $20,000 in cash he carried in a briefcase in his trunk before he would make a bank deposit. This was in 1960 and I never dreamed I would ever be seeing things like that.
Buddy talked to me several times about the record royalties that Roulette (label) cheated him out of. Buddy sold millions of records including the huge hit Party Doll but received very little of the royalties from them. He hired an attorney one time to try to recover the money due to him and was told by a big shot from the record company to back off and keep his mouth shut. He told me the guy came right out and asked him if he was enjoying life and wanted to continue living. When Buddy came to the Midwest in 1959 to work the ballroom circuit he didn’t have much money but for many years after that he earned a lot of money touring all over North America.
Buddy was a good, kind, dependable person. Even though his wife Glenda stayed home in Georgia most of the time Buddy was on the road, I never saw Buddy cheat on his wife and Lord knows he had plenty of chances.
After that 3 1/2 months in Canada we ended up in British Columbia and then went back home to continue our own playing dates in the Midwest.
Buddy called me again in January of 1962 and we did a two week tour in Washington and Oregon. By that time we both had new white Cadillacs and I’ll bet we looked classy when we pulled in to do a date.
After that tour we started working with Bobby Vee, but Buddy has kept in touch all these years up until his death. He would usually call from somewhere or send a nice Christmas card and I did the same.
Buddy was a talented, educated person. He could have been successful doing a lot of things in life but he never quit the music business or gave himself much of a break from it.
I, personally, believe the business finally did him in one way or the other. As a young person starting out he meant so much to me. I wish I could have talked to him one more time to tell him that, but I didn’t realize he was so sick and he died suddenly.
We all miss you Buddy,
Myron Lee (Rockabilly Hall of Inductee #127)
Special Thanks to Vicky Smith and Johnny Vallis