“My hero then was Sonny Curtis … I admired him so much, I wanted to change my name to Sonny. I even tried to stand like him.”–Waylon Jennings, Waylon: An Autobiography
“Nobody played Stratocaster like Buddy [Holly] or Sonny Curtis. They had just enough West Texas dirt underneath their fingernails. There was something about the way they played that made it special.” –Nanci Griffith
From his West Texas beginnings as the lead guitarist in Buddy Holly’s pre-Crickets band to a prolific songwriting career, Sonny Curtis is a rare talent who transcended musical genres long before the term “crossover” was coined. He has penned over 500 songs, recorded by legendary artists across the music spectrum, including Holly, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Hank Williams, Jr., Bing Crosby, The Everly Brothers, Nanci Griffith, Roy Orbison, The Stray Cats, and The Clash.
Along the way, Sonny had a little help from his friends and fellow musicians Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, and future Crickets J. I. Allison, Joe B. Mauldin, and Glen D. Hardin. While he was still in high school, word of Sonny’s talent got out to a local promoter in Lubbock who frequently used him to fill out a bill that included the young Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and other contemporary stars of the day. The gigs didn’t pay, but Sonny didn’t mind.
When Elvis exploded onto the music scene in 1955, and Sonny followed suit and started rocking. In 1956, he accompanied Buddy Holly and bassist Don Guess to Nashville, where he played lead guitar on several songs they recorded for Decca records as “The Three Tunes.” During his stint with the Tunes, Sonny made history as the first rock ‘n roller to record with a Fender Stratocaster, which he played on such records as “Blue Days, Black Nights,” and his own composition, “Rock Around With Ollie Vee.” Soon after, he left the band to take a steadier job playing guitar for Slim Whitman, and then went on to tour the South as a member of the Philip Morris Country Music Show. Until this point, Sonny’s songwriting efforts had been limited to making up tunes to pass the time while driving his father’s tractor. That all changed in 1956, when he wrote “Someday,” a chart success for country star Webb Pierce. Sonny had a hit song to his credit, and he was still a teenager.
One hot Texas afternoon in the summer of 1958, as Sonny sat on his couch watching the sun bake the dusty ground, he wrote his most recognized and recorded tune in under an hour. The rock anthem “I Fought the Law,” originally recorded on the 1959 album, “In Style With the Crickets,” made stars out of The Bobby Fuller Four when they re-recorded it in 1965. One of the first declarations of rock and roll rebellion, “I Fought the Law” has since been covered by everyone from the Dead Kennedys to the Clash to garage punk bands the world over. He also wrote the 1956 Webb Pierce hit “Someday.”
At the age of 21, Sonny rejoined the Crickets just prior to Holly’s tragic death in a plane crash. He then took a job playing lead guitar for the Everly Brothers right before receiving his draft notice from the Army. Although he was stationed in France for eighteen months, he still managed to write one of his classic songs during this period. “Walk Right Back,” recorded by the Everly Brothers, topped the charts in the U.S. and England.
After his discharge from the Army, Sonny moved to Los Angeles, where, in 1965, he decided to devote his full attention to songwriting and developing his own career as an artist. For the first time, he immersed himself in studying music instead of just playing it, taking classical guitar lessons and enrolling in a local music college.
Throughout the 1970’s, Sonny applied his songwriting skills to television and radio commercials. Along with friend and songwriting companion Don Piestrup, Sonny wrote numerous nationally-known jingles for clients including McDonald’s, Buick, Western Airlines, Mattel Toys, Honda, Olympia Beer, and Bell Telephone. During this time, he also wrote and sang the theme song for the Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love Is All Around.” Because of its positive message for working women in the early days of feminism, the song is not only one of television’s best-loved themes – it’s a cultural touchstone.
Sonny moved to Nashville in 1976, where he toured steadily with Waylon Jennings’ road show as a member of the Crickets for five years. As a recording artist for Elektra in the early eighties, he scored numerous songs in the Top 100 country charts, including “Good Ole Girls,” written by Dan Wilson, which made it into the top ten. With co-writer Ron Hellard, Sonny achieved one of his biggest country successes with “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” a number one record for the late Keith Whitley. The Country Music Association voted the song 1989 Single of the Year.
Sonny is a member of BMI’s “Million Airs Club” in recognition for “I Fought the Law,” “More Than I Can Say” (co-written with J.I. Allison), “Walk Right Back,” “The Straight Life,” and “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” each of which has logged over a million airplays – over 50,000 radio hours apiece.
In addition to his achievements in the pop and country arenas, Sonny’s songs have been recorded by renowned instrumentalists Chet Atkins, Al Hirt, Floyd Cramer, and Lawrence Welk. His wide-ranging contributions to songwriting earned him a place in the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) Hall of Fame in 1991.