The Beatles, “Words of Love” from Beatles for Sale (1964): Deep Beatles

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From their first album, the Beatles declared that they while they respected their predecessors, they also desired to break rules and expand the very definition of rock ’n roll. Thus, it comes as no surprise that John Lennon and Paul McCartney often expressed their admiration for Buddy Holly. The Texas-born singer-songwriter transcended rockabilly conventions, experimenting with percussive techniques and harmonies. In turn, Holly created the template of modern rock, setting standards that are still followed today. To pay tribute to their idol, the Beatles recorded one of his most tender songs: “Words of Love.”

“Words of Love” dates back to March 1957; Holly recorded the track at producer Norman Petty’s Clovis Studio in Clovis, New Mexico. One important element of the song is its use of overdubbing, a rarity at the time in rock ’n roll. According to John Gribbin’s biography Not Fade Away: The Life and Music of Buddy Holly, the singer had two different guitar parts he wanted to play on one record. To accomplish the effect, Holly had to record one segment first, then the other part essentially on top of it. In other words, the technique involved “playing the first recording from one tape machine to another while the extra voices or instruments were being recorded simultaneously onto the second tape.”

Once he worked out the arrangement, Buddy Holly entered Clovis on April 8, 1957 to accomplish the feat. Drums and bass, along with Holly’s rhythm guitar and lead vocal, were laid down first. Next, Holly added his lead guitar part and more vocals, essentially duetting with himself. This became known as double tracking. While routine today, the method was incredibly complicated in the late 1950s. The musician had to sing and play instruments accurately so the two separate recordings would match perfectly. The sound engineer then had to precisely adjust the sound levels between the two recordings so they would also sound identical.

Interestingly, “Words of Love” also represents Holly’s first success as a songwriter. The music publisher Peer-Southern, who owned the song, offered it for other artists to record. It was eventually covered by the Diamonds, best known for their doo wop hit “Little Darlin.’” Their rendition was issued on May 20, 1957, and reached No. 13 on the pop charts. Holly’s superior version wasn’t released until June 20, with “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues” as the single’s B-side. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by the Diamonds’ rendition. While Holly’s “Words of Love” was never released as a single in the UK, fans like the Beatles managed to locate copies.

The Beatles, particularly Lennon and McCartney, were avid students of Buddy Holly. In Anthology, Lennon recalled that “Buddy Holly was the first one that we were really aware of in England who could play and sing at the same time — not just strum, but actually play the licks.” Harrison later stated that artists such as Holly, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard remained among his all-time favorite and most significant influences.

Lifelong Holly fan McCartney explained that the singer/songwriter provided the Beatles’ first introduction to the country music scene, and that the band emulated one of Holly’s most unique characteristics: composing his own material: “John and I started to write because of Buddy Holly. It was like, ‘Wow! He writes and is a musician!’” The first song Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney recorded on disc was Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” Then known as the Quarrymen, the trio (along with John “Duff” Lowe and Colin Hanton) laid down the track on July 12, 1958 on a 78 RPM record. Later, when they decided to change their moniker, they settled for “Beatles,” partly a play on Holly’s group name “the Crickets.”

Fast forward to 1964, shortly after the Beatles had completed filming A Hard Day’s Night and recording its soundtrack. Ever eager for more Beatles product, EMI/Parlophone demanded another album in time for the lucrative holiday shopping season. In between their hectic touring schedules and radio appearances, the band frantically scrambled for new material. What would become 1964’s Beatles for Sale stood out from previous albums, particularly due to its content. While eight of the tracks were original compositions, the remaining lineup consisted of songs the Beatles often performed live, even reaching back to Hamburg days.

The songs provided an in-depth look at their chief influences, and their Holly cover is no exception. “Words of Love” was recorded at the end of a very long session on October 18, 1964. In fact, the Beatles (under the usual guidance of George Martin and engineer Norman Smith) completed seven songs in nine hours. They knocked out “Words of Love” in only two takes, along with a vocal overdub. McCartney sang vocals and played bass; Lennon contributed vocals and rhythm guitar; Harrison added vocals and lead guitar; and Starr played drums and rather unusual percussion: a suitcase. He beat the suitcase for a playful sound, as well as a tribute to Jerry Allison’s similar percussion on Holly’s classic “Everyday.”

The Beatles adhere closely to the original, even drawing out the “L” in “feel” and “real.” Indeed, Buddy Holly’s vocal approach was original for the time, over-enunciating words like as “hear-ah” and “near-ah” in order to draw the listener in. The jangly guitars remain dominant in both, but harmonies by Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison add even greater depth to the quietly romantic lyrics. Harrison’s lead guitar pays homage to Holly original’s picking style, while the tight harmonies demonstrate just how much the rock pioneer influenced the group’s earliest work. (Note the key harmonies in “Love Me Do.”)

It is fairly easy to picture their female fans swooning over the tender track; their 1963 live rendition for the BBC show Pop Go the Beatles indicates how they would have sounded performing “Words of Love” to Cavern audiences. This version was made officially available on the 2013 compilation On Air: Live at the BBC Volume 2.

Buddy Holly’s influence continued to surface in Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting, from the close harmonies of “All I’ve Got to Do” to the country twang of “What Goes On” (co-written with Starr). McCartney never lost his enthusiasm for Holly or the tune; he later performed an affectionate acoustic version of “Words of Love” for the 1985 documentary The Real Buddy Holly Story. He even went a step further than the average fan: Paul McCartney bought the publishing rights to the Holly catalog in 1976.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at
Kit O'Toole
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