Saturday, February 2, 2013

Remembering Buddy Holly In His Final Hours

It would come to be known as "The Tour From Hell."

Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly, and Tommy Allsup 1959
Buddy Holly and a hand picked, tour-friendly version of the Crickets (which included Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch and Waylon Jennings) boarded a train in New York City headed for Chicago. There, they rendezvoused with other bands on the Winter Dance Party ticket: Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. (Big Bopper) Richardson - for a 24 city tour across the upper Midwest. 

It was a crazy schedule and it involved constant crisscrossing from state to state in a way that was niether travel nor time efficient.

Neither travel nor time was efficient.
Obviously during January and February the upper Midwest can provide some brutal weather and 1959 was no exception. The windblown snow seemed to fall relentlessly, forming wicked drifts on the icy stretches of concrete between cities. Temps were falling into the negatives during the nights, and the old bus, mobbed by the cold, broke down routinely. This left the musicians to temporarily fend for themselves out in the elements, which they weren't materially prepared for. Just a week into the tour, Crickets drummer Carl Bunch got a case of frost bite on his feet during a break down after shows in  Fort Dodge, Iowa, and Duluth, Minnesota. He was forced to seek care in Ironwood, Michigan while en-route to a matinee gig in Appleton, Wisconsin. That gig was subsequently cancelled, and the rest of the fellas hopped a train to take them up to Green Bay, where they were told a repaired bus would meet them the following morning after their concert at The Riverside Ballroom.

The train was gentle relief. The troupe arrived in Green Bay early, and morale began to pick up a bit. The concert at the Riverside went off without a hitch and afterwards, they were welcomed into a warm night of cozy rest... A far cry from the freezing cold struggles they continuously encountered while travelling on the frigid bus.

The next day, February 2nd, they woke up to a day of travel. The bus had arrived, and while the engine repairs had been successful the bus was now having issues with the heater not working properly. It was cold inside the bus and it didn't take long for morale to start slipping again. The old dilapidated bus had begun to gnaw at the nerves of the travelling musicians, and they were losing steam fast. To make matters worse, The Big Bopper had taken ill and was running a fever. He was already very uncomfortable while travelling, as his big body was a tight fit inside the tiny bus seats, and having a fever only contributed to his discomfort. Still, the bus trudged onward, despite the declination of the passengers' spirit.

Late that afternoon the bus arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa at the Surf Ballroom. Holly especially had grown tired of the constant bus issues, and was irritated. This frustration became anger when he discovered that the only laundromat in town had already closed for the day. He had spent the entire day looking forward to washing his clothes in Clear Lake and having clean t-shirts and underwear to wear as they made their way up to their next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota. He suggested to Allsup and Jennings that maybe they should charter a plane to Fargo, North Dakota (near Moorhead) and bypass the long uncomfortable ride on the ice-cold bus. That would allow Buddy some extra time to get his laundry caught up, plus it would mean not sharing in the misery of riding on the old coach. Buddy asked Carroll Anderson, the manager of the Surf Ballroom if he could arrange for a plane. Carroll called Dwyer's Flying Service in Mason City to make arrangements for a late night flight. Dwyer agreed, and the cost for each passenger would be 36 dollars. Along with the pilot the three remaining Crickets would fit perfectly in the four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza.

Despite warnings of an oncoming blizzard, fans were eager to be a part of this rock and roll craze. Ironically, The Surf Ballroom wasn't even a part of the original tour schedule. Looking to fill holes in the concert  tour, the promoters called Carroll Anderson and offered him a show. Rock and Roll was still in it's infancy in 1959, and it generated enough excitement that Anderson figured it was a safe bet. He agreed to provide the Surf for a concert, and it was set for February 2nd.

Anderson was right. Over 1100 fans adoringly showed up to check out this new and dangerous sound. Holly was among the first musicians to use the Fender Stratocaster guitar and it generated a sound that was literally unheard of to the throngs of fans who made their way to the old ballrooms and armories along the Winter Dance Party tour. The concert was a complete success in every way. After the show, Buddy met with his band mates backstage. He looked forward to taking a plane to Moorhead, and several of the other musicians became envious. The Big Bopper, now in the depths of a full blown fever, asked Waylon Jennings if he could take his spot on the plane. Jennings, feeling a sense of sympathy obliged, and gave his seat up to Richardson.

Meanwhile, Ritchie Valens, who had an incredible fear of flying also lobbied for a seat on the plane (the conditions on the bus were that bad). He asked Tommy Allsup more than once if he would relinquish his seat, and each time Allsup said no. Eventually, Allsup suggested that they flip a coin. The loser would take the bus and the winner would get the final seat on the plane.

"Buddy told me that he had to get his stuff out of the bus and would be right back," said Allsup. "Valens was signing autographs in the dressing room and when he was done and the fans had moved on I met him at the door. He again asked me if I'd give up my seat, and I suggested flipping a coin. He agreed and I flipped a fifty-cent piece I had in my pocket. There was no one else around that witnessed the flip. I still have the coin."

Ritchie Valens won the coin toss and in a simple twist of fate, won a date with the devil.

Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly
The bus took the caravan to Mason City, where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were to be dropped off at the airfield. Jerry Dwyer, who owned the airfield was an experienced pilot who had several years of flying under his cap. However, when the caravan arrived, he was not there. Waiting for them was a young pilot named Roger Peterson who, despite a relative lack of experience, had no qualms about flying the small chartered plane into the inclement weather. He offered to take the three musicians to Fargo, and not knowing better or worse, Holly, Valens, and Richardson climbed aboard.

"Hey Waylon," Buddy called to Jennings. "You aren't coming with me?"

"No... J.P. needs it a hell of a lot more than I do."

"Well,"Buddy teased, "I hope your old bus freezes up again".

Jennings then snapped back a comment that would haunt him the rest of his life. "Well, hell," he said to Buddy, "I hope your old plane crashes!"

At approximately 1:00 AM on February 3rd, 1959, the shaky aircraft rattled down the runway just as Jerry Dwyer arrived at the airfield. He saw it lift itself off of the runway into the night, and watched as it disappeared out of sight. Contrary to popular belief, there was no blizzard at the time but a very light snowfall with winds out of the south at 20 knots, gusting to 30 knots and a cloud ceiling of 3,000 feet above sea level. By 3:30 AM when Hector Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, had not heard from Peterson, Dwyer contacted authorities and reported the aircraft missing. He then boarded his own Cessna to fly the intended route of  the young pilot Roger Peterson. Just 6 miles northwest of Mason City he spotted the wreckage in a cornfield of a family friend, a farmer named Albert Juhl.

The crash killed everybody on board, thus sealing an eternal place in Rock and Roll's legacy club. Buddy Holly's inspiration is still noticed today and has been shared by such contemporaries as Eric Clapton, Elton John, Paul McCartney, amongst several others. John Lennon has said that the first song he ever learned to play on the guitar was Holly's "That'll Be The Day." Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, The Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan are among other stars who list Holly a a major influence.

Buddy Holly was just 22 years old when he died. His entire music career only lasted a year and a half. The Big Bopper was 28. Ritchie Valens was only 17.


This article was first published on February 2nd, 2012. 

1 comment:

Sheree said...

This is an amazing story and you did a great job telling it! Sheree