Norman Petty was born on May 25, 1927 in Clovis, New Mexico. He became a well known keyboard artist, combo leader, record producer and manager. His first combo was called the Torchy Swingsters and they performed around the Clovis area. Petty was known to record his group so that he could listen to the playback and improve their performances.
Petty served in the United States Air Force in World War II after which he returned to the Clovis area. He married Violet Ann Brady in 1948 and supported himself by working as an announcer at the local radio station and performing around the area. For a while the couple moved to Dallas, Texas where Petty worked for the well known recording engineer Jim Beck at Beck’s Dallas studio.
It was not long before Petty organized the Norman Petty Trio, one of his longest running associations, with Norman on organ, Violet Ann on piano and Jack Vaughn on guitar. In 1954, he started his own recording studio in Clovis and created the group’s own recording label called NorVaJak. The trio made a number of recordings and had a contract with ABC-Paramount.
(Image credit: clovisnm.org)
Petty continued to develop his recording business and is known for recording some of the early work of Roy Orbison, Buddy Knox, Waylon Jennings, Sonny West and others. In 1957, he recorded Buddy Holly and the Crickets from nearby Lubbock, Texas. Petty went on to produce and manage the group for a few years until Holly decided to end their relationship in 1958. Shortly thereafter, Holly and two other artists were killed in a winter time airplane crash in Iowa. Petty acquired Holly’s book of music after Holly’s death. He already possessed co-writing credits on some of the songs, whether or not he actually was involved in writing them. This was a common practice in the music business back then. Afterward, later released some of Holly’s recordings by overdubbing background artists and effects. Eventually, he sold the Holly catalog to Paul McCartney.
In addition to Buddy Holly and the above performers, Petty recorded other artists who became nationally known, including Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. The Fireballs was a group that was originally made up of players who all came from Raton, New Mexico. They had a number of charted singles. The group was originally composed of George Tomsco on lead guitar, Chuck Tharp on vocals, Stan Lark on bass, Eric Budd on drums and Dan Trammell on rhythm guitar. Eventually the personnel turned over and added Gilmer to front the group. They began to be known as Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs and it was this configuration that they recorded “Sugar Shack,” which was probably their biggest hit. The group on this recording consisted of Jimmy Gilmer on vocals, George Tomsco on guitar, Doug Roberts on drums and Stan Lark on bass. Petty can be heard playing organ fills on this particular recording that was made in 1963 at the Petty studio in Clovis. The Fireballs had a nice career in the 1950s and 1960s, before British music began to dominate the rock and roll charts for a number of years.
Petty was known for his innovations in sound recording, including overdubbing. He was also one of the first recording engineers to take advantage of reverb and echoes. One account said that his first reverb effects were done in an attic room of his family garage next door and that it was constructed by putting scraps of ceramic tile and other materials that would reflect sound. It gave depth and presence to the recording. These effects became part of the signature sound of Holly’s recordings.
Petty also started an FM station in Clovis known as KTQM in 1963 and an AM station known as KWKA in 1971. Petty died of leukemia in 1984 after his long career in music and is buried in Clovis, New Mexico where he had lived most of his life. Petty’s honors include being named a legend in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and being inducted into the West Texas Music Hall of Fame. At this writing, there is a Norman and Vi Petty Rock and Roll Museum, open most business days in Clovis.
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