Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Day The Music Died

It was a Tuesday! February 3, 1959, a pretty normal day for a teenaged bronkin’ buck; up in the morning, off to school with my books and that bright shiny trumpet that I was just learning to play packed up for a typical day in the life of a high school freshman. The day was the usual whirl of classes emphasized by PE under the watchful eye of Coach Pete Vas and band practice with Mr. Frank Borkowski! The ride home that afternoon and the time spent completing my homework was pretty uneventful. I didn’t have time to listen to the radio that day so I had no idea that tragic news was coming. Around six, as usual, my family was in the dining room quietly eating dinner while listening to the local news coming from the TV in the adjoining living room. This was before the half hour network newscasts, before Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America. The news consisted of a fifteen minute local newscast followed by 15 more minutes of national news. It was during that national newscast from CBS, that Douglas Edwards quietly described events that shattered Rock and Roll. Early that morning, three rising stars, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson along with their young pilot had died in a plane crash in a snowy, faraway place named Clear Lake Iowa. We sat stunned as we heard the meager details that outlined the end of three of the stars we listened to every day on the radio. We knew immediately that this was a tragic and historical day. It would be another 12 years before Don McLean would sing his iconic song, “American Pie” that gave the tragedy the name we all know it by today; “The Day The Music Died”.

Buddy Holly

As soon as possible, we tuned into the local radio, the big new hip radio station, the Big Ape, WAPE was still a 25,000 watt daytime only station back then, had already signed off for the day so we were getting the latest from the equally cool WPDQ. Sure enough, three of our favorites were gone. No more new music from Buddy, Ritchie or the Big Bopper would be coming. Well, almost no more, there were a last few still in the can but not released. Those songs went to the top of the charts almost as soon as they were out. We also learned from the radio that also on the tour were that Dion DiMucci, formerly of Dion and the Bellmonts. Later we learned that Buddy Holly’s band included future country star Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar), and Carl Bunch (drums).

Ritchie Valhens

Conditions on the "Winter Dance Party" tour were terrible. The schedule was hectic, with performances scheduled almost every night with overnight bus trips to the next venue following each performance. The schedule was made up to accommodate the open dates on the venues without regards to the geography. So often the tour was traveling back eastward on a road on which they traveled west just a few days before. To make matters worse the heating system on the bus had failed, so the stalwart band of troubadours was bundled up against the cold as they wound their way between snow covered cornfields as they crisscrossed Iowa in the dead of winter. Earlier, Carl Bunch was hospitalized with frostbitten feet. Since Holly’s band was the backup band for the entire show, Holly, Valens and Dion DiMucci took places playing drums for each other.

JP The Big Bopper Richardson

On the night of February 2, 1959 they played their last concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa. The venue had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called Surf Ballroom manager Carroll Anderson and offered him the show. By the time Holly arrived at the venue that Monday evening, he was frustrated with the tour bus. Holly decided to charter a plane to take him to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota, to avoid traveling in the bus. Ritchie Valens, who had once had a fear of flying, asked Buddy Holly’s guitar player, Tommy Allsup if he could have Tommy’s seat on the plane. They decided to toss a coin to decide. Bob Hale, a DJ with KRIB-AM one of the sponsors of the show, was working the concert that night flipped the coin in the wings of the ballroom's stage shortly before the musicians departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss for the seat on the flight. Legend has it that Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly had a joking but fateful exchange of words. Buddy said in jest, "I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes," a humorous but ill-fated response that haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.

The last known picture taken of Bully Holly on stage at The Surf Ballroom Note Tommy Allsup , Waylon Jennings and the KRIB Banner in the background.

As I look back across time to that night, I realize this one event marked a turning point, a time when rock and roll was beginning to lose its innocence. The British Invasion was still 5 years away but a darkness was beginning to creep into the happy-go-lucky sound, Songs like Endless Sleep”, “Tragedy”, “Dead Man’s Curve” and even “Ebony Eyes” would show up in the mix. Rock and Roll was growing up despite itself. But then, we were all growing up back then too. We all grew up a lot, that day. Oh MY!

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