How a John Wayne Movie Inspired Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’

Buddy Holly gave the world many famous classic rock songs, including The Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day.” A movie starring fellow 1950s icon John Wayne inspired Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” Notably, a major producer once said something very negative about the song.

John Wayne wearing a cowboy hat
John Wayne | CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

1 line from a John Wayne movie inspired members of The Crickets to write a song

The Searchers is one of Wayne’s most acclaimed films. The movie stars Wayne as a cowboy out for revenge. In one of her earlier roles, Natalie Wood plays Wayne’s niece. During a 2019 interview with Texas Music, The Crickets’ Jerry Allison discussed the impact the film had on him and Holly.

“We’d been to see the John Wayne movie The Searchers,” Allison recalled. “Wayne kept repeating the line, ‘That’ll be the day.’ Buddy said, ‘Let’s write a song,’ and I said, ‘That’ll be the day!'” Holly and Allison subsequently co-wrote the song of the same name with Norman Petty. “We worked on it for about half an hour,” Allison added.

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A major producer said Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’ was 1 of the worst songs he ever heard

Allison explained “That’ll Be the Day” faced an uphill battle. “When Buddy got a record deal, we went to Nashville to record with [producer] Owen Bradley,” he remembered. “Owen was a nice fellow, but he didn’t understand rock ‘n’ roll — he was all country. So when he heard ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ he said, ‘That’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.'” 

Holly eventually found a more receptive ear. “We went to Clovis [New Mexico] to record with Norman Petty, and ‘That’ll Be the Day’ was a demo — we recorded it in 30 minutes,” Allison added. “Bob Thiele was the A&R man with Brunswick Records. He took the demo home and heard his kids playing it over and over.” Subsequently, Thiele released the song.

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The way the world reacted to Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’

The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits reports “That’ll Be the Day” peaked atop the Billboard Top 100. Before the Billboard Hot 100, the Billboard Top 100 tracked chart success. “That’ll Be the Day” appeared on the compilation album 20 Golden Greats20 Golden Greats peaked at No. 55 on the Billboard 200 and stayed on the chart for 12 weeks.

“That’ll Be the Day” became a hit in the United Kingdom as well. According to The Official Charts Company, the song was No. 1 for three weeks in the U.K. It lasted on the chart for 15 weeks in total. Meanwhile, 20 Golden Greats reached No. 1 in the U.K. for three weeks of its 20-week run on the chart. “That’ll Be the Day” became a huge hit and it wouldn’t be the same without Wayne.

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