The musicians of the “Winter Dance Party 1959” played Kenosha, Wis., on Jan. 24 of that year, one of the few stops on an ill-fated sojourn which ended for Buddy Holly in an Iowa farmer’s field on the cold morning of Feb. 3. The tour had been scheduled to continue on to Springfield for a Feb. 15 performance in the Armory, but apparently that concert was canceled on account of the tragedy.
The Kenosha show was emceed by Chicago radio personality Jim Lounsbury, featured
several opening acts, Frankie “Cha-Cha” Sardo, Dion and the Belmonts, and a triumvirate of “happening” pop stars: Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Buddy Holly. Earlier that afternoon, Valens and Richardson had
appeared on Lounsbury’s program “Bandstand Matinee,” and lip-synched their respective hit records, “Donna,” and “Chantilly Lace.”
The show lasted over 2 1/2 hours, although no recordings were made nor setlists jotted down. A wedding photographer, Tony Szikil, completed his duties at a lower floor reception, and ventured upstairs to the hall where he shot 24 black-and-white photos near the stage area.
Ten days later, following a fill-in date at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, the news of a Feb. 3 light plane crash in Iowa was carried around the globe. Holly, Valens, Richardson, and a 20-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson, had perished in the tragedy known as “The Day The Music Died,” from Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Fifty years later, the Jan. 24 Kenosha date was commemorated in the same ballroom by a touring group of musicians impersonating the 1959 artists, and featured Richardson’s son as his father.
Why does the music of Holly endure, along with the plane crash mythology?
“Regarding Holly, the fact he accomplished so much in such a short period of time
really makes us understand how much the music world lost. The same goes for
Ritchie, 17 at the time, and J.P. Richardson, an accomplished musician in his
own right,” said Sevan Garabedian, the Canadian producer of an upcoming documentary on the
1959 tour. “Also, as talented as he (Holly) was...he was a nice guy, a brilliant musician at
22, and was part of rock ’n’ roll’s first great tragedy. But, it’s his music that has made him endure after all these years.”
Garabedian, and Wisconsin native Jim McCool, have been in production with the film carrying the tentative title, Gotta Travel On: Remembering the Winter Dance Party. The duo, with a film crew, started filming at the end of January and will continue through February in all the cities that the tour played. “We’ll be interviewing fans who were at the original shows, interviewing the musicians who have never shared their memories before, and focusing on all the extant legendary ballrooms where they played,” Garabedian said.
They have already secured the rights to the only known photographs from the
Clear Lake show, which has taken on its own share of mythology due to the
crash. “The fascination has endured because we’ll never really know what caused the crash, even if it’s 95 percent certain that pilot error was mixed in with bad weather and flight
conditions,” said Garabedian. “(It) leaves the door open to speculation and theories...some valid, some just
plain silly, like the pilot was shot.”
Future country music outlaw Waylon Jennings, and Tommy Allsup, acted as Holly’s backup band for the 1959 tour. Holly had chartered a plane, leaving from the nearby Mason City Airport to circumvent another cold bus ride from Clear Lake to Moorhead, Minn., the next tour stop. It was meant for himself, Jennings and Allsup. However there were two changes in the passenger list.
According to Jennings’ autobiography, Richardson had the flu and he gave his seat up with an admonition from Holly, “I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings replied, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” and the resultant tragedy led to feelings of guilt, as a self-inflicted cause of his death. Jennings also speculated on a crash theory that Holly may have pestered the pilot to let him fly the plane. “Buddy was like that,” he said.
The other change was Ritchie Valens supplanting Allsup for a plane seat, on a
coin flip. “Tommy (Allsup) and I have different recollections about it...he recalls having
flipped the coin, and I recall him asking me if I had a coin, because neither
he nor Ritchie had any coins in their pockets,” said Bob Hale, the Clear Lake show’s emcee. “I said to Ritchie, ‘Okay, Ritchie, you want to fly, you call it,’ and he called heads. ‘Heads it is, Ritchie, you’re flying,’ and that was that.”
Hale related the incident the next day, and started on a storied broadcast
career. “I am sure that the emotion of the event colored Tommy’s recollection, and of course, some have said that of me. However, it was the
report I gave the following day to WMAY (in Springfield) about the coin toss,
and how I felt about it, that got me the offer to come to Springfield. I stayed
there six months, moved to another station, and then received the call to join
The plane crash itself was considered pilot error, as Peterson was not certified to fly by instrumentation and the poor visibility at night was coupled with icy conditions. The plane and victims were discovered the following morning, covered by a light dusting of snow that obscured the wreckage. The Juhl family’s beanfield passed into a de facto memorial site that day, as Richardson’s body was thrown 40-feet beyond the plane, with Holly and Valens crumpled after ejection less than 20 feet away.
“Tommy and I have had brief chats about the coin toss, but neither one of us get
uptight about it,” said Hale. “We both agree, who tossed the coin is really irrelevant...the result is the vital fact.”
The tour had been scheduled for stops at Spring Valley’s Les Buzz Ballroom Feb. 7, The Peoria Armory Feb. 14, and the final show, Feb.
15, at the Springfield Armory. A small item in the Springfield newspaper noted
that the plane crash killed three members of a rock and roll band “which was slated to appear Sunday, Feb. 15” at the Armory in Springfield.