Buddy Holly wearing contact lenses? That’ll be the day.
It might have happened except for poor technology, Dr. J. Davis Armistead and Phil Silvers, not necessarily in that order.
“Back in the early days of contact lenses, the technology had not been developed,” said Armistead, a longtime Lubbock optometrist who counted Holly among his patients. “I had gone to a contact lens seminar in Los Angeles, and Buddy wanted me to try and fit him.”
Holly, who would in just a short time become one of the most influential performers ever to appear on the rock ‘n’ roll scene, became a patient of Armistead’s while in junior high. As Holly’s musical talent blossomed, Armistead said Holly was not convinced eyewear should be a part of his on-stage personality.
“He did not like glasses,” Armistead, 92, said. “He was preparing for an audition in Tennessee, and he insisted I try and fit him with contacts. I got him where he could wear them an hour or two, and we tried to think of a plan where he could get through the audition while only wearing them for a short period of time.”
Armistead said he told Holly, who suffered from near-sightedness and a touch of a stigmatism, not to be first in line at the audition, but to wait until just a few others were in front of him.
“Then I told him to excuse himself, go to the restroom, fill the contacts with saline solution and put them on,” Armistead said.
Armistead, a Lubbock resident since 1949, said contact lenses were much larger during the 1950s. They had to be filled with saline and would fit over the entire cornea and sclera.
“When he got back, I asked him how it went, and he said it was a disaster,” said Armistead, whose office was located in the McAfee Building on Avenue Q not too far from Lubbock High. “He told me he followed our plan just as we had discussed it. When there were just a couple of people in front of him, he excused himself and went to the restroom to put the contacts in. But when he returned, the judges went to lunch.
“He said when the judges got back an hour or so later, he couldn’t see the front row. One thing that was always important to him was to see the reactions of the people when he was performing for. We didn’t try that again.”
Armistead said contacts at that time required a lot more care. The saline solution would become cloudy after approximately an hour, and the lens would have to be removed and refilled after the eye was flushed.
Holly was still no fan of glasses, but Armistead thought he might find a way to change that. He said the idea crystallized one night while watching comedian Phil Silvers on television.
“I was watching a late movie with him when the thought occurred to me that what was making his personality were those heavy, black-framed glassed he wore,” he said. “I told Buddy I had an idea of putting heavy, black-rim frames on him. The idea didn’t really interest him.”
Armistead said the next challenge became finding the right frames, and he was unable to locate frames he thought would be suitably distinctive for Holly in the United States.
“I had a contact in Mexico City, and those frames were a style they were using then,” he said. “I told Buddy I was
going to go to Mexico City and find some frames.”
In the end, he picked up two frames — one was black and the other was demi-amber.
“I brought those frames back with me and showed them to Buddy,” Armistead said. “I put his prescription in them, and he picked the black pair. He had gotten started (on his way to stardom) about this time, and he came back by the clinic and gave the glasses a thumbs-up. He said they were great. He was pleased and didn’t want the demi-amber. He wanted black.”
The glasses became a Holly trademark, and the groundbreaking star, who died Feb. 3, 1959, also was said to be the first young rock star to perform while wearing glasses, according to the 2006 article, “The Definitive Story of Buddy Holly’s Glasses,” which indicated Holly blazed a trail for future eyeglass-wearing performers such as Elton John and John Lennon.
“It was Buddy’s perception that the glasses helped make him,” Armistead said. “He was really pleased.”
Holly remained a patient of Armistead’s up until the time of the rock star’s tragic death in an Iowa plane crash.
“He always had a gang with him when he came by the clinic,” Armistead said, “and he was always getting his glasses out of alignment. I always knew when he was out front because I could be with a patient and hear them beating the time (to a song) on the corner table in the waiting area.”
Armistead recalled charging Holly “between $10 and $20” for a pair of glasses, and their value skyrocketed over the years. In 1990, a pair was sold in an auction for $50,000, according to an Avalanche-Journal story. Eight years later, Civic Lubbock Inc., spent $80,000 on the glasses the rock star was wearing at the time of his death and donated them to the city’s Holly exhibit. They are now on display at the Buddy Holly Center.
According to the article, that pair was discovered in 1994 after spending 22 years in an Iowa sheriff’s office. They were then turned over to Holly’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, who sold them to Civic Lubbock.
Armistead said Holly was a great patient who did not allow fame to change him.
“He simply had an eye problem that we were trying to take care of,” he said. “This was a growing period for him, and we were keeping up with changes in his physical growth, as well. He was nice to me the entire time I saw him, and his family was nice to me. Buddy was just an ordinary kid growing up.”
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