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From Elvis to Buddy Holly: meet AJ Jenks, the actor-musician bringing old-time rock n’ roll to Manchester

Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story has been wowing theatre audiences for over 30 years, an achievement matched by very few other musicals - Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables being among them.

A few days before the show’s opening night in Manchester, at The Opera House, we caught up with AJ Jenks – the actor-musician playing the titular role and helping to bring a little bit of that old-time rock n’ roll to Manchester.

After a few stumbling blocks trying to acclimate to using Zoom after so long away from the tool everyone became all too familiar with during lockdown, AJ laid out the main influences that led him to the stage and into the more niche performance art of actor-musician. “I was always a Beatles-head when I was a kid,  he tells me “loved A Hard-days Night, the film.

“I liked that the Beatles were acting, and playing, and singing in it. That’s what got me into it… I took it all from them. Then I saw Buddy in 2009 and decided that was one of the parts I wanted to play.

”With a resume under his belt that already includes on-stage portrayals of Elvis Presley in Million Dollar Quartet; and Barry Gibb in Saturday Night Fever, AJ is no stranger to the idea of stepping into the shoes of musical legends.

“I asked him whether he ever felt intimidated when taking on these roles. “Pressure-wise, it does feel a bit weird because you know the audience knows how those people were in interviews. How they sounded… and their mannerisms.

“And being on the stage, looking into the audience, and knowing they have those feelings in their head. You don’t want to do a tribute.

“You want to do your own version, but at the same time, you want them to have that familiarity. With Buddy, there weren’t as many interviews, but they want to hear that certain voice that he used and that tone that he had. So… yeah.

“There is a lot of pressure!”

With Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story now being in its 34th year on stage and having been played in front of over 22 million theatre-goers, I asked AJ what he thought it was about Buddy Holly’ s enduring legacy that has ensured the show’ s continued popularity.

“He was a bit of a phenomenon in terms of his career being just 18 months. He passed away when he was 22, and the songs were so good and different from the time.

“He was the first real singer/songwriter who played his own songs. He only wrote for himself. Whereas Elvis, Jerry-Lee Lewis and those guys would do covers of each other’s songs and release them as records, Buddy never did that.

“Buddy only ever did his own songs. The way he wrote his songs: by mixing country, gospel, jazz, and rock and roll… It was very different. Which is why he influences so many people.”

With the tragic death of Buddy Holly, along with fellow musicians: Ritchie Valens, and TheBig Bopper, in a plane crash in Iowa, in 1959 being such a storied part of musical history, I asked whether that knowledge, being so widespread, might give theatre-goers the idea that they know what to expect from the show.

“When Titanic came out, people still watched it because (they wanted to see) how does it happen?

“There’s that inevitability of knowing that he’s going to pass away in the plane crash, and I suppose that’s an added selling point because they want to see how we do it. And to see exactly what happens.

“Because it happens much later in the show, it’s always at the back of the audience members’ heads knowing that all these happy moments are going on, but at the same time that that is going to happen.

There are still some audience members that we can hear gasp and be in shock.

“A lot of kids have been coming to the show lately. A lot of teenagers. We’re really getting a 50/50 audience these days, and I don’t know whether that’s because of a resurgence in the music, but they’re the main ones that get shocked.

“They’re like, ‘oh my god, it literally was 18 months and he passed away at 22!.”

I asked whether the show manages to strike a balance between Buddy’s outgoing, happy-go-lucky persona and music, with the more melancholic events surrounding his death:

“Yeh, it does. There are so many positive moments.

“He had a very positive life and was a really good person. It’s luring the audience into a false sense of security because he was such a good person.

“Which makes it even more tragic. He was so clever and such a good person.

”The impact that was made by Buddy Holly in the short time that he held the limelight can be felt to this day, with many, including The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and The Rolling Stones, crediting Holly as a major influence, leaving AJ to wonder what could have been-had fate had different plans for the influential artist.

“Who knows what music would have been (had he lived). Paul McCartney owns the rights to the songs, so every time we play one of his songs we have to give him a fiver. He (McCartney) was doing an interview once and was saying that in a weird way if he had stayed alive the Beatles may not have been the Beatles, and everything after that would have been a completely different landscape.

“It’s weird to think that if he had carried on, what music would have been released, and what would the world have turned into.

”As the show features a playlist of all of Holly’s most famous hits, and others from other artists of the era, I asked AJ which he considered his favourites to play; and to listen to.

“It changes show by show, but at the moment it’s probably ‘Raining in my Heart’ or ‘That’ll be the Day’ that I’m really enjoying. To listen to: maybe ‘True Love Ways’ or ‘Maybe Baby’.

“It’s a hard one. It’s like choosing your (favourite) kids really (laughs).

“I have the honour of playing all of them and it’s such a lovely thing”.

AJ’s thoughts on playing The Opera House and on Manchester in general: “Well, I’m a blue. I’m a city fan, and I’ve got my scarf right here ready for tonight (Bayern -MCFC UCL quarter-final 2nd leg).

“Manchester is my favourite city. I did The Opera House about 6 months ago.

“I get a bit addicted to Manchester. I’m a huge Oasis fan as well. StoneRoses… Inspiral Carpets; a big 90’s Manchester boy.

“I’m from down the road in Birmingham, but I like to think that I’m a bit of an adopted Manc. ”A celebration of Buddy Holly’s life, with over 20 of his hits presented over 2 hours of fantastic rock and roll that will have audiences of all ages dancing in the aisles.

Buddy – TheBuddy Holly Story runs at the Opera House Manchester from Thu 20 Apr – Sat 22 Apr 2023.

You can get your tickets here.

Tickets are available from £13.00.

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