Hidayah Salamat discovers just how much Billy Geraghty has invested into the roles of Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis for Buddy vs The Killer, a potential sellout by the British Theatre Playhouse.

How long have you been playing the role of Buddy Holly?
Well, the first time I put on the big glasses and strapped on my Fender Strat was 1989! I was very young and had gone to an open audition for the part of the drummer in the stage show Buddy, which went on to become a worldwide hit. The director of the show took a long look at me and said, “Never mind about the drummer. Go and get a big pair of glasses and a guitar and come back for tomorrow’s audition.” I did and six months later, I was starring in London’s West End. I spent three years in the West End and toured Canada, Australia and Europe. Not bad for a drummer! After that I put the guitar down and spent the next few years working on other projects in film, TV and stage productions but I missed the buzz of playing Buddy’s music so when this opportunity popped up, I thought I’d e foolish to let it pass me by.

What was the first thing you did to prepare yourself for this role?
I went out and bought every album and all the video footage I could find relating to Buddy. I spent two weeks locked away in my flat going over and over every chord, every hiccup and I found that I had a lot to learn. I had to get it right. If you’re playing somebody who’s lived, it’s a very different approach to playing a fictional character. Buddy was a perfectionist in a time when the equipment he was recording with was very basic by today’s standards. Everything had to be done in one take and if there were any mistakes, you had to do it all over again. He pushed the recording boundaries as far as he could and was relentless in his pursuit of the right sound for his music. I believe Buddy was the first artiste to experiment with ‘overdubbing’ on his vocals.

What aspects did you find most challenging in terms of portraying Holly’s character and charisma?
Getting the accent right was tricky. He had a soft Texan twang that just seemed to sound like he was smiling the whole time. The people I’ve met who spent time with him never had a bad word to say about him so trying to maintain his good-natured approach to life was essential. Although I’m older now, I still approach the portrayal of Buddy Holly with the same respect I had for him the first time around. He was a great performer, a prolific composer for someone so young, and a very gifted musician.

What are some of Holly’s songs that have touched your life?
I wouldn’t say there was any particular song but there have been many occasions where I’d be out and about walking past a shop or driving late at night and his music starts playing. When I hear his songs, it still puts a smile on my face. It feels like I’m meeting up with an old friend.

What would you say is Holly’s trademark?
It’s got to be the Fender Strat guitar he always played, and of course, the big glasses. The story goes that Buddy was being told by managers he wouldn’t make it as a pop idol if he kept wearing glasses on stage. It didn’t look cool or sexy. Buddy’s response was to go out and buy the biggest glasses he could find and make a statement. “I wear glasses, so what?” It didn’t do him any harm. Apparently, John Lennon began wearing his own spectacles on stage after seeing Buddy on a TV show.

With Lewis, you had to portray something entirely different from Holly’s choirboy image? What were the challenges you faced?
When I took the offer to portray him, I was very naïve. I didn’t know enough about his life or his music and I was starting to think I’d made a huge mistake. For starters, I didn’t even play the piano. I could thump out a few chords but when I started to listen to the complexity and sheer genius of his playing, coupled with a lifestyle that was the blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll living, it began to dawn on me that I was way out of my depth! It took months of practice to get all the pieces in the right place and I realized I was never going to be able to copy him note for note but I got close!

What do you admire about Lewis?
His complete self-belief and extraordinarily natural musical talent.

If you could meet only one of them, which one would it be?
If I had the chance to meet Holly, I’d have insisted on playing a couple of songs with him. There are still a couple of his tricks I’ve never quite nailed on the guitar. I had the opportunity of meeting Jerry Lee a few years ago but I felt like I was being circled by a very big, hungry shark! He is a force of nature and you can’t help but be a bit tongue-tied and in awe of him. He’s the last surviving member of the original innovators of rock ‘n’ roll and I think many people in the rock industry realize that whatever they do, they’ll never top him for personality or longevity.

You’ll be playing a dual role in Buddy vs The Killer. What are the challenges like?
Physically, it’s going to wreck me so I’ll grab as much rest and relaxation as I can get between shows. Mentally, I dread to think! I’m playing an age range of 19-55. It’s going to test me beyond anything I’ve ever tried to achieve onstage. I may fall flat on my face but I hate the idea of letting the opportunity pass me by for fear of failure. Both these men were supremely self-determined pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll music so I’ll hang onto their coat tails and give it everything I’ve got! Hidayah Salamat

Be sure to catch Buddy vs The Killer on May 5-8, 5pm, 7.30pm, 8.30pm at Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Rd., 6337-1886. $100-120 from Sistic.