50 Years Since “The Day The Music Died”

28 Jan

holly22p3

RIP Buddy Holly — we still miss you badly!

The most storied of all rock tours began Jan. 23, 1959, at Milwaukee’s Eagles Club and ended in a frozen Iowa cornfield 11 days later.

They called it the Winter Dance Party, and it featured Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts, the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) and an aspiring teen idol named Frankie Sardo.

The Winter Dance Party was often long on winter and short on party. The tour trekked across the upper Midwest in an old school bus with a faulty heater, visiting obscure venues like the Laramar Ballroom in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and the Kato Ballroom in Mankato, Minn.

It got so cold on the bus that the musicians starting burning newspapers in the aisle in a desperate attempt to generate warmth. Drummer Carl Bunch actually had to be hospitalized for frostbite.

The tour eventually made its way to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. After the show, hoping to get some rest and escape another night on that chilly bus, Holly, Valens and the Bopper chartered a small plane to fly them to the next stop in Fargo, N.D.

They made it just a few miles from the airport. Their pilot, 21-year-old Roger Peterson, wasn’t certified for night flying. Possibly confused by the darkness and a light snow, Peterson apparently thought he was climbing when he was actually diving. The plane may have been hurtling at 150 mph when it hit the frozen ground nose first. All four men aboard died instantly.

It may have lasted just 11 days, but that tour still echoes in legend a half century later. It’s been celebrated on film in two hit movies, “The Buddy Holly Story” and “La Bamba,” and it was mythologized as “the day the music died,” in Don McLean’s massive 1971 hit “American Pie.” (sung Sunday by Garth Brooks at the massive “We Are One” presidential inauguration welcome event in Washington, D.C.)

The tour’s principal players – Holly, Dion and Valens – have all been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Holly and Valens have been honored with postage stamps. The Surf Ballroom has held a memorial concert each year on the anniversary. Music fans of a new generation may have been introduced to Holly on the “Juno” soundtrack.

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