This morning I’m ablaze with fascination for an event I’ve long known about, but never studied. Upon our return home yesterday from the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Bristol, Wisconsin, we stopped at the Bristol 45 Diner. Overlooking our booth was a poster reprint of the advertisement for the Winter Dance Party -- the traveling showcase of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Ritchie Vallens, Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts. The date of the show: Monday, February 2nd, 1959. The fateful last performance of three of those performers as the plane they were to travel in crashed minutes after take-off on the morning of February 3rd.
That poster was the spark that provided this morning’s fiery interest.
I’ve long known about “The Day the Music Died.” Any person my age long knows about the Don McLean’s song “American Pie” and of its origins. A person born by 1970 has heard the song at least a thousand times. The Day the Music Died was February 3, 1959.
All I ever knew was that a plane carrying Holly, Vallens, and The Big Bopper crashed in an Iowa cornfield and terminated the lives of these three rock and roll stars. That may be all you know, too. There are tomes written about this black day in rock ‘n’ roll history so I won’t get into deep details here, but I’ll just tell you about the few things that I found unusual or surprising.
- I never realized that the Winter Dance Party tour started out at Milwaukee’s Eagles Ballroom on January 23rd (then called George Devine’s Ballroom). The next day the tour played at Kenosha’s Eagles Ballroom.
- I also never realized that the tour stopped at the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay on February 1st -- only two days before the Day the Music Died.
- What an insane tour route! Any tour promoter/scheduler that would do this to a group today would be fired. It’s like a crisscrossing web of travel of the midwest. I mean, Milwaukee to Kenosha makes sense, but after that it’s nuts. There had to have been a better, easier way to route this tour.
- Closely related to the crazy tour route was the insane schedule. They played every day and were scheduled to play every day throughout the tour!
January 24 - Eagles Ballroom, Kenosha, Wisconsin
January 25 - Kato Ballroom, Mankato, Minnesota
January 26 - Fournier's Ballroom, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
January 27 - Fiesta Ballroom, Montevideo, Minnesota
January 28 - Promenade Ballroom, St. Paul, Minnesota
January 29 - Capitol Theater, Davenport, Iowa
January 30 - Laramar Ballroom, Fort Dodge, Iowa
January 31 - Duluth Armory, Duluth, Minnesota
February 1 - Riverside Ballroom, Green Bay, Wisconsin
February 2 - Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa
*** CRASH ***
February 3 - Moorhead, MN - The Armory
February 4 - Sioux City, IA
February 5 - Des Moines, IA - Val Air Ballroom
February 6 - Cedar Rapids, IA - Danceland Ballroom
February 7 - Spring Valley, IL - Les Buzz Ballroom
February 8 - Chicago, IL - Aragon Ballroom
February 9 - Waterloo, IA - Hippodrome Auditorium
February 10 - Dubuque, IA - Melody Hill
February 11 - Louisville, KY - Memorial Auditorium
February 12 - Canton, Ohio - Memorial Auditorium
February 13 - Youngstown, Ohio - Stanbaugh Auditorium
February 14 - Peoria, IL - The Armory
February 15 - Springfield, IL - Illinois State Armory
- The tour continued even after the crash! This one leaves me speechless. I mean, I know the show biz mantra is “The Show Must Go On,” but what the heck is left after three of the four major performers are no longer on the bill? I guess The Crickets sans Buddy continued to play.
- I had no idea Waylon Jennings was Buddy Holly’s bassist on this tour. How I ever missed this fact is amazing. Jennings even missed Holly's funeral because he was still on the Winter Dance Party tour.
- Jennings was supposed to be on that plane, but he gave up his seat to J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) because The Bopper was suffering from a cold and could benefit from the hastened travel.
- The tour buses were unheated. These guys are driving around the Upper Midwest in late
Waylon Jennings, 1958
- Tommy Allsup was also supposed to be on the plane, but he flipped a coin with Richie Vallens to see who would get the seat. Vallens “won.”
- It’s been said that, teasingly, making light of the situation, Waylon Jennings said to Buddy Holly, “Yeah, I hope your plane crashes too!” Apparently, this last statement haunted Jennings throughout his entire life.
- The small Beechcraft took off at 12:55 A.M. in 35 mph, snow-swirled winds at 13 degrees Fahrenheit piloted by a pilot unlicensed to fly by gauges only. Yeah. Bad idea. No wonder the entire flight length was four minutes.
- Forty-eight years after burial, The Big Bopper’s corpse was exhumed and examined. Rumor was that a gunshot may have been the culprit of the tragedy. It was thought that the perhaps The Bopper’s body would show signs of foul play. Upon examination, the foul play theory was rejected -- Richardson’s cranium was crushed but sans holes. He died immediately despite his body being a greater distance from the others.
- Upon exhumation and study, The Bopper’s surprisingly well-preserved body remained impeccably dressed and perfectly coifed. Ew.
- The Bopper’s son wanted to sell the casket his father was buried in for 48 years. Again, ew.
- Holly’s trademark glasses were not found until the snow melted in April. At that time they were given to the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff where they were placed in a manilla envelope and marked “rec'd April 7, 1959.” They resided in that envelope and office for 21 years until opened and given to Buddy Holly’s widow. They can now be seen in the exhibit at the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas.
- The stainless steel memorial at the crash site was crafted by a Portersfield, Wisconsin man. Portersfield is a small town in Marinette county not too far from where I grew up.
- There is a similar memorial at the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay. (Note to self: see the memorial the next time you’re in Title Town.)
There’s probably a lot more that could be discovered about this tragic day, but I found all of the above to be surprising revelations. Not only were these stars live’s sadly shortened, but we, too, were shorted of a lot of great music. Especially from Buddy Holly. I get the sense he was just getting started and could have been an artist mentioned in the same breath as Elvis. He’s darn near achieved that anyway, but can you just imagine what he was capable of?