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Rave On with the Buddy Holly Story!
11 May 2023

My Shrewsbury's Simon Cousins catches up with actor and musician AJ Jenks, who plays Buddy in the 'Buddy Holly Story' coming to Theatre Severn from Tuesday, May 23 to Saturday, May 27, 2023. Credit: Rebecca Need-Menear

AJ Jenks, in flat cap and checked overshirt, takes a long draw on his Starbucks Venti and greets me warmly on Zoom. 

“Where are you?” I ask. 

“Slough!” he says, clearly surprised to find himself there. “Ricky Gervais wrote a song about it.” 

‘And you know just where you're heading

It's equidistant 'tween London and Reading.’

“It’s kind of what you’d expect!” he says.

AJ, who describes himself as 'a Brummie born and bred', is touring with Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story on a new 40-week UK tour this year. Since opening at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, in August 1989, it has played 580 weeks on tour in the UK, and 728 weeks in London’s West End – a total of 10,490 UK performances. 

“I watched ‘Buddy’ when I was a kid, at that same Plymouth theatre,” AJ tells me. “Since that time, I’ve always wanted to play the rôle. When the casting came out for it in 2018, it took me a year to get the part. I badgered the producers and directors and sent them videos of me playing the songs and doing the scenes before they’d even asked me to come in. I’d had about 10 auditions by the end of it. And eventually they gave me the rôle. It was always the big one for me."

Buddy Holly Story case image

The Buddy Holly Story cast: (L to R) Joe Butcher, Christopher Chandler, Miguel Angel and Josh Haberfield. Credit Hamish Gill

“It’s the story of a country kid from Texas slowly turning into a rock and roll star and an incredible song writer,” says AJ. “It’s a really deep delve into that time.

"Our company only does Buddy. We have 100% focus on it. We play all the songs live, but rather than it be a normal musical where the songs tell a story, here we tell the story of how the songs were made. “

Tragically, Buddy Holly’s fame only lasted 18 months before he was killed, along with Richie Valens and The Big Bopper, when their aircraft crashed into a cornfield just north of Clear Lake, Iowa in February, 1959, shortly after takeoff. In his classic song, American Pie, Don McLean called it ‘The Day the Music Died’. Buddy was just 22 years old.

AJ sings a staggering 27 songs in the show and shares the rôle of Buddy Holly with one of his best friends, Chris Weeks. 

“You have to double the rôle to keep your voice fresh,” AJ explains. "It’s great to share a rôle with someone you trust. We leave each other to do our versions of Buddy and never step on each other’s toes.”

AJ realised he wanted to become an ‘Actor Musician’ when he saw the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, released in July 1964. A self-confessed Beatles addict, he'd thought, “Right - I’m going to learn how to play music,” when he first heard them. “And then I saw them acting in films and thought, ‘Oh - and I’d like to learn to act too.’

“I found a course called ‘Actor Musicianship’ at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in Peckham, which moulded acting, dancing, singing and playing instruments together,” he says.

"Half of the shows now are ‘Actor Musician’, like Once, Sunny Afternoon, American Idiot. “We’re cheaper for producers, but I quite like that, because it means I get employed! I’ve done quite a few plays - some Shakespeare and and so on - but I don’t get the same thrill out of them. I like to be a bit of a show-off. I could do some Shakespeare, but I’d have to playing the guitar over my head at the same time!”

AJ can play a bewildering selection of instruments: guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, bass, double bass, drums.

“I’ve got my own band at the moment (‘AJ Jenks And His Lost Soul Society Band’) formed of us four Crickets. We like the Travelling Wilburys vibe, just releasing music when we feel like it.”

AJ always plays live on stage. “In Saturday Night Fever, I was Barry Gibb, playing guitar and singing too. Then last year I did Million Dollar Quartet (dramatising the recording session at Sun Studio, Memphis in December 1956 with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.)

“I played Elvis, though half the time the audience just want a Tribute act. I’m not trying to be a Tribute in ‘Buddy’. I’m not copying every mannerism. This is my version of him, telling his story.” 

“The last time we played in Shrewsbury was in March 2020. We’d sold out all every show and were having an incredible week. Then on the Saturday, our producer came in and said, ‘Broadway’s just closed’ (due to the pandemic) ‘which means the West End will be closing and then touring companies will be closing about an hour later.’” 

“Through Covid and afterwards, I was bugging the directors and producers non-stop to get the tour back on the road. The other guys thought it would never happen and I said, “Trust me - it will”. And eventually it did come back.” 

“Loads of young people turn up,” says AJ. “We’ve had perhaps 50/50 between adults and teenagers. In Darlington, I looked out into the audience and there was this 14 year old kid with Buddy glasses on and his hair slicked back and I thought, “Oh my God - this is crazy!” It just proves that it’s still hitting people.”

“Coming back with this show is going to be really weird because it’s where we lost our jobs three years ago. Hopefully the 27 May will be a happier Saturday than it was last time.”

With AJ sharing the leading rôle, I’m sure “That’ll be the day”!

  • Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, is showing at Theatre Severn from Tuesday 23 May to Saturday 27 May. Tickets £34.50-£42.50