Buddy Holly’s Visual And Musical Acuity

by Kevin Burton

   I have never seen a picture of Buddy Holly without his thick glasses, but I never have pondered whether he was legally blind until now.

   He probably was not, by the way, though he had poor vision. More about that in a bit.

   This comes up today on the anniversary of his 1959 death in a plane crash near Clear Lake Iowa. This is the “Day the music died” made famous by Don McLean in “American Pie,” which was perhaps the best song of the 70s.

   Holly, fellow musicians J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens and pilot Roger Peterson died in the crash. They were travelling between concert dates in a small plane.

   I found the legally blind question raised on the Veroniiiica blog.  It’s the work of Veronica Lewis. That was no typo, that’s the name of the blog. It’s Veronica with four eyes, get it!

   For blind readers and others, Lewis and her blog are well worth following.

   “Veronica With Four Eyes is a free resource created by Veronica Lewis for low vision and assistive technology, dedicated to sharing practical and positive blog posts about how to live with vision loss, tips for transition and going to college with a disability, and how to use assistive technology for anything and everything,” reads the ‘about’ section on her page. 

   Here is some of what Lewis had to say about Holly and his vision:

   “In honor of (his) amazing legacy, today I will be sharing some fun facts about Buddy Holly and his trademark glasses.”

   “Buddy Holly (real name Charles Hardin Holley) was an American musician and singer-songwriter from Lubbock, Texas, who was born on Sept. 7, 1936. He received the nickname “Buddy” from his family. All of his family members except for one brother had an interest in music, and Buddy’s first group called “Buddy and Bob” played a mix of country, blues, and R&B genres. This all changed after they saw Elvis Presley perform in Lubbock, and Buddy switched to playing rock and roll. He received a record deal in 1956 from Decca Records, though they had spelled his last name wrong. From that point on, he was referred to as Buddy Holly.”

   “Holly went on to release one album as the lead singer of “The Crickets” and two solo albums called “Buddy Holly” and “That’ll Be The Day.” All of these albums attained great success, and involved extensive touring- their UK tour featured 50 shows in 25 days. He also was part of the Winter Dance Party tour, which would be his final tour as he died in a plane crash trying to get to the next show,” Lewis wrote.

   Holly’s visual acuity was said to be 20/800. A person is considered legally blind with vision of 20/200 or worse in your best eye, after correction.

   Holly’s vision was correctable. But I have not seen anything on Lewis’s page or elsewhere that says exactly how much vision his glasses got him. That’s why I said he probably was not legally blind, without being definitive.

   “He hated wearing his glasses in his early days of performing, as he believed that they took away from his image as a rock and roll star,” Lewis wrote. “He felt that wearing glasses would impact him in a negative way, as he didn’t think people would take him seriously and there were no other musicians out there who were wearing glasses at the time.”

   “Buddy’s original idea was to wear contact lenses, which could only be worn for an hour at a time. They caused major discomfort, and didn’t even correct his vision much.  He considered wearing glasses after he realized he couldn’t see his audience.”

   “The turning point though was after Buddy dropped his guitar pick at a show. He realized he couldn’t even see the stage floor, and had to crawl around on stage looking for it. Even then, he still couldn’t find the guitar pick, and he decided that it was time to go find a cool pair of glasses that he could wear.”

After the incident, Holly went to his optometrist asking for him to find a discreet pair of glasses he could wear on stage, but the optometrist thought that Buddy should wear something much more bold and fit for a performer, so they went looking for a unique frame that was bold and distinctive, yet paired well with Buddy’s aesthetic and heavy glasses prescription. The perfect frames were found on a trip in Mexico City, and two frames were brought back to see what Buddy would think of them.”

   “After he realized he could see the people around him, he took the glasses and never performed without them again, though it is unknown if these glasses fully corrected his eyesight. People saw him as an incredibly talented musician who wrote and arranged all of his own music instead of as a person who had low or poor vision or who had trouble finding small objects on stage,” Lewis wrote.

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