Norman Petty Studios – Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, And The Story Of Legendary Texas Music [PHOTOS]
Norman Petty Studios in Clovis, New Mexico are to Texas music....what Sun Studios are to Memphis music . On a visit to the original building just across the Texas border in June of last year, I was struck by the similarities between the two historic recording venues.
Just as Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash would make history out of Sun; Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings would impact the future of music from Norman Petty Studios.
Norman Petty was born in Clovis in 1927 and learned to play piano at an early age. During the early 1950s, he formed a musical trio with his wife Vi, and a friend Jack Vaughan. This 'Norman Petty Trio' scored a big hit with the Petty penned song 'Mood Indigo', which ended up selling over half a million copies.
The income from this recording success allowed Petty to build and expand his recording studio, and subsequently attract three Texas and American music icons. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings all recorded with Petty in the booth. In fact the majority of Buddy's memorable recordings came from that building, and after his death, Norman Petty was tasked with adding instrumentation and production to many unfinished tracks to 'complete' the Buddy Holly catalog. Roy Orbison would craft his legend there as 'Oh Pretty Woman' bounced off those walls. Buddy Knox also laid down tracks there as did Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs who recorded their smash hit 'Sugar Shack' under Norman Petty's direction.
The drive from Lubbock, Texas to Clovis, New Mexico is about like a DFW trip for those of us who live in Abilene. It made a lot of sense therefore that a young Buddy Holly would make the trip to Clovis to record. If the walls of that studio could talk, imagine the stories they could tell.
On our trip to Norman Petty Studios, we had to stop at the Clovis Chamber Of Commerce to get directions. They were extremely friendly, and told us that the studio is available for tours, IF you call in advance by a month or so. They also told us that sometimes you can catch the owner there by happenstance and usually get him to show you the place. I'm still amazed that the current owner and the city are not collaborating to make this historic site a mecca for tourists, and to capitalize on the undoubtedly tremendous interest in the facility. There has got to be a story there. Either the owner is not willing to allow outsiders to staff the place, or the city just can't talk him into a mutually agreeable arrangement.
The Norman Petty Studio resides on 7th street, and the area around it is starkly undeveloped. As we drove down the street, the buildings were sparse and mostly old structures from the 1940s and 1950s. The studio itself sits next to vacant lots on one side, and an old dilapidated service station on the other. That service station is most probably the 'fillin' station' that Buddy, Waylon, and Roy would visit for snacks and sodas...and maybe a tank of gas for their respective return trips home.
The original sign still stands tall directly in front of the building. As you might expect there is a certain feel to the place as you walk up to the tall chain link fence now surrounding the building for security. My photos can tell the story pretty well. It's easy to imagine that blue door being navigated by rock and roll legends for sessions that they would have had no idea would go on to be so immortal. There's a courtyard of sorts on the side of the building, and as I understand it, that was an outdoor lounge area for those in session.
Next to the studios is a newer building, dating to the 1960s and emblazoned with the name NorVaJack. I still can't find a lot of documentation on it, but the moniker is a combination of the names of Norman Petty's musical trio: NORman, VA (short for his wife Violet Anne), and JAK (for Jack Vaughan). The building served as an office for Norman's music publishing. The logo is extremely retro cool in that brushed chrome 60s style.
After the dust settled on those early years of recording, and of course after Buddy Holly's death, everything changed as far as the recording business there. Norman focused more on his radio stations, but he did record numerous 1960's 'garage' and 'psychedelic bands'. There's a fantastic cd of these recordings that is still available called 'Get Ready To Fly: Pop-Psych From The Norman Petty Vaults'. It's one of my favorite various artist compilations of all time. The music is well recorded and produced, as you would expect from the 'ears' of Norman Petty. The funny thing about it is that he apparently absolutely hated the music! The liner notes indicate that Petty couldn't stand '60s music in general and only recorded these bands to keep some dollars flowing in.
The cd interestingly is an import, pressed by Big Beat Records in the UK. You can order it via amazon.com if you want a great audio ride.
We travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico every year. And on our next trip, I intend to call in advance to get a tour of the inside of Norman Petty Studios. There is a great website with pictures of the interior, and it is totally caught in time, much like the Sun Studios in Memphis. There is original 50's art deco furniture in there, as well as some of the original equipment that recorded those legendary sounds. The site also has information on how to book a tour. You can view the website at superoldies.com/pettystudios. If you're driving up that direction, I highly recommend a stop to see the place, even if you just view it from the outside like I did. The history will reach out and grab you. Just pull up to the building and let your imagination take over.
Here are a couple of other photos including the sign on the chain link fence with a brief history: