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More Than Buddy: Billy McGuigan Expands on his Buddy Holly Shtick to Collaborate with his Brothers and Band in a Beatles Tribute Show


Photograph of The Beatles as they arrive in Ne...

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Billy McGuigan is an example of someone who always had talent to burn but for the longest time had little to show for it as a minor community theater performer and as a struggling garage band front man.  But when his big break presented itself, he was prepared to take the opportunity and run with it, and a decade later he’s running to ever greater heights.  His niche has been to parlay the continuing fascination with and popularity of rock icons Buddy Holly and The Beatles into successful shows he produces and stars in.  I have been reading about Billy and his shows for years now and I finally had the chance to meet and interview him for the following story, though I have yet to see him perform.  I will make sure to do that this year, as I want to write about him again. There’s more to his story than I was able to fit into the space allotted me and I look forward to going deeper next time.  But the story posted here, which I did for Omaha Magazine, will still give you a sense for this young man and his passion and for the concerted journey he’s on to pay forward the musical legacy his later father left he and his brothers.

More Than Buddy: Billy McGuigan Expands on his Buddy Holly Shtick to Collaborate with his Brothers and Band in a Beatles Tribute Show

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine (omahapublications.com/magazines/omaha-magazine)

After years of performing as Buddy Hollly, Billy McGuigan proves he’s no one-show wonder with his act paying tribute to the Beatles.

Undertaking a Beatles tribute show is no small order. Besides the task of replicating the sound of the most popular band of all time, there’s the matter of mastering the Beatles’ catalog – all 230 songs worth.

“It took us six months,” says Billy McGuigan, creator of Yesterday and Today, a Beatles tribute show he performs with two of his brothers. Yesterday and Today completed a triumphant third year at the Omaha Community Playhouse in January to prove the show’s staying power.

Yesterday and Today consists mainly of the band fielding requests from the audience and performing them.  McGuigan and the band don’t wear wigs or attempt accents. He doesn’t want anything getting in the way of pure music immersion.

And thanks to their comprehensive preparation, the band is ready for any request that comes their way. Those who know McGuigan know he’d never settle for anything less.

“What I find remarkable about Billy is not only his talent and ability to sing and play just about anything,” says Playhouse music director Jim Boggess, “but his single-minded dedication to be true to whatever music he is playing. He will not rest until it is right.”

That same dedication, preparation and passion is what made Rave On, McGuigan’s renowned Buddy Holly act, the success it was, and Rave On paved the way for McGuigan’s Beatles’ tribute.

It’s no coincidence the Beatles were also favorites of McGuigan’s father, Bill, who passed on a musical legacy to his three sons.

Growing up a military brat, home was wherever his U.S. Air Force-indentured father got stationed, Having a dad who played guitar and dug the Beatles immersed Billy in all things Fab Four, especially Paul McCartney.

“All we did was sit and listen to music,” McGuigan said. “I remember  McCartney’s ‘Tug of War’ came out and my dad going, ‘OK, you gotta listen to this. This is your first new McCartney album.’ He stuck headphones on me. I hear those songs now and l’m just like, ‘Ahhh, yeah.’ I mean, that was music for me. It was always there.”

The elder McGuigan died of leukemia in 1996.

“It was awful,” Billy said. “I was just starting out in life and we had that moment where we’d become friends. He was proud of what I was doing.”

Before the untimely death, the bonding forged through music continued in Omaha, where the family moved in 1990. McGuigan didn’t set out to pay forward his father’s music bequest, but he has. After dabbling in theater and fronting his own band, he found his niche with Rave On.

Replicating that success with Yesterday and Today meant getting his siblings to sign on, which took some doing. It meant leaving regular jobs for the uncertainty of show biz and being away from wives for weeks. Then there was McGuigan’s ambitious idea of learning the entire Beatles’ canon. Every time a new player joins the band it’s a crash course all over again, he says.

What distinguishes the show from similar acts is that McGuigan fields audience requests and asks folks to explain why the songs are special to them. Then his improv skills take over. McGuigan and his brothers also share their connection to the music and often reference their father on stage.

“Completely, because what we found out is it’s really a tribute to him,” says Billy. “This is the music he taught us. We would sit around and play these songs all the time. He created it. This is the inheritance we got.”

McGuigan’s road to becoming a rock star came after some less successful efforts at finding his voice. Colleen Quinn, general manager of Funny Bone, is McGuigan’s manager and business partner. She’s witnessed his progression from early days, which included attempts at improv comedy, bartending and fronting a cover band.

It was through Buddy Holly, Quinn says, that McGuigan finally found his niche.

“Billy connects with all people. That’s what makes him a charismatic presence,” she says. “He thoroughly loves performing Buddy and Beatles songs and it shows. He relishes hearing people’s requests and reasons for loving the music as he does.”

The Buddy role came after serendipity intervened for McGuigan while vacationing in London, where he and his wife caught a West End production of The Buddy Holly Story. He saw his future on stage.

“I thought,  If I ever got the chance to do that I think that’s something I could do because he sings, he plays guitar and he gets to be a rock star. Thinking, never in a million years…”

Only a couple months later, he got a call from Boggess asking him to be their Buddy. He didn’t need to think twice.

But first there was the matter of an audition. McGuigan invited Boggess and artistic director Carl Beck to catch his band at a Benson biker bar. He recalled that night:

“So there we were, 10 people, all in leather, and then Carl and Jim and the band. We started playing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and they (the Playhouse duo) left probably half way through, and I was like, This was my shot and I just lost this gig. I called Jim the next day and he said, ‘No, you got the job, you’re the right guy, we knew it right away.’”

Life hasn’t been the same since.

“Everything at that point changed,” said McGuigan, “and I don’t know why. It was like something clicked in me, and I’m going to take this role seriously — I’m not going to pull the typical Billy. I learned the script two days after I got it, learned all the music, went and got guitar lessons, which I’d never done before. I went to the gym before rehearsals even started. I lost 40 pounds. I was fit.”

He steeped himself in Buddy ephemera, reading books, studying films. Watching one documentary, The Real Buddy Holly Story, became a daily ritual.

“…that’s what I absorbed, that’s where my Buddy came from — that and whatever I could bring to it.”

He next appears in Rave On on Feb. 3-4, at Harrah’s casino. A summer amphitheater gig is in the works and the Beatles show returns to the Playhouse in December.

McGuigan is looking to hand-off Rave On to someone else so he can focus more on Yesterday and Today. He expects to direct The Buddy Holly Story sometime and to one day maybe take a leading role in a show like Jesus Christ Superstar.

Beyond that, it’s more touring. Quinn hints McGuigan may even be bound for Europe and Australia.

For now, McGuigan’s says the Beatles show has given him the time of his life.

“Every aspect of that show turns me on. When it works, there’s nothing like it. The music is great, it’s what I’ve always wanted to sing. Then you look over and there are your brothers, and then there’s your friends who have gone on this journey with you, and you have an audience getting (into it). How can it get better than that?”

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