Remembering a rock 'n' roll pioneer
SUBMITTED PHOTO Buddy Holly jams with the original Crickets, Joe B. Mauldin (left) and Jerry Allison (right). For the 1959 Winter Dance Party, Holly recruited Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings and Carl Bunch to back him up.
Charles rubbed his hands with such ferocity he could've sparked a fire.
Disembarking the train, he inhaled his first blast of frigid midwest air. Cleaning the spectacles of his black horn-rimmed glasses, Charles waved over his three companions, who were collecting the luggage from the baggage handlers. Brushing the snow from his mop of curly black hair, he thought New York may have been cold, but this place was colder.
Chicago Union Station was a beehive of activity. The quartet weaved their way through the jam-packed crowds clinging to their instrument cases and duffle bags. Reaching the outside bus terminal, Charles squinted to read the charter signs on the coaches. His scan stopped immediately at one shining silver vehicle in the near distance. The brightly-lit sign above the driver's compartment read “Winter Dance Party.”
Shuffling his feet outside the bus door, 19-year-old Dion DiMucci was shyly staring at the ground when he glanced up to notice Charles approaching. This kid from the Bronx broke out in a grin as Charles extended his shivering hand saying, “Hey there, I'm Buddy.”
Dion clutched his new travelling companion's hand thinking, yeah, everyone knows that. No one had even heard of his group, “Dion and the Belmonts” - not yet anyway. But folks around the nation sure knew Buddy Holly, who, at 22, was already one of the most prolific artists of rock and roll's golden age. With Elvis Presley sidelined in the army, Holly was viewed, by many, as rock's torchbearer, a notion Charles dismissed to reporters saying, “Without Elvis, none of us would have made it.”
Charles Hardin Holley had come a long way from playing western and bluegrass at high school assemblies in his native Lubbock, Texas. Raised as a Baptist, the youngest child of Lawrence and Ella Holley, “Buddy,” as nicknamed by family and friends, learned the piano at age five before switching to acoustic guitar. Graduating to performing on local radio, Charles began writing his own music. He also began incorporating rockabilly in his repertoire after watching a concert by then upcoming star, Elvis Presley.
On Feb. 13, 1955, Charles and his high school chum, Bob Montgomery, were the warm-up act for Presley at the Fair Park Coliseum in Lubbock. Later that year, Charles and Bob, along with Larry Welborn, opened for Bill Haley and the Comets catching the eye of a Nashville talent scout.
Signing to Decca Records, the trio recorded four tracks including Charles' debut “Blue Days, Black Night.” When the contract misspelled his last name (dropping the 'e'), Charles Hardin Holley decided to go with “Buddy Holly” as his professional name. He also formed a new group, The Crickets, along with bassist Joe B. Mauldin, drummer Jerry Allison and guitarist Niki Sullivan. Under producer Owen Bradley, they promptly recorded Holly's breakout hit, “That'll Be the Day.” After Decca opted out of their contract in early 1957, the group hired manager Norman Petty and began recording in New Mexico. Out of those sessions came Billboard Top 100 singles like “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy!,” “Words of Love” and “Maybe Baby.” Buddy named the song “Peggy Sue,” originally called “Cindy Lou,” after his niece, the daughter of his sister, Pat.
Buddy and the Crickets went on the road performing at New York's Apollo Theatre (becoming the first whites to play at the famous African-American club) and on Dick Clark's “American Bandstand.” The band then took their act overseas to Hawaii, Australia and the U.K.
The first wave of rock 'n' roll flooded the airwaves with extraordinary talents like Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul Anka, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, the Royal Teens and, of course, Elvis. But there was something different about Buddy Holly. For his day, he was sophisticated. While most songs carried a catchy slogan like “Tutti Frutti” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” his complex lyrics conveyed emotion rare for that time. First and foremost, he was a songwriter, however, Buddy experimented with varied sounds, vocals and drum beats. His voice had uncanny range belting out melodies that could rapidly change from distinctive hiccups to distortions and repetitions.
Buddy Holly contrasted well with Elvis Presley's rebellious greaser. Thin, gangly and almost nerdish with those glasses, he was still very cool with the teenagers while parents, too, approved of his clean-cut image. Above all else, he was a Michelangelo on the guitar. A reviewer said this of Buddy after a Birmingham, England show: “Buddy Holly is a studious-looking young man who totes his electric guitar like a sawn-off shot-gun and carries around a giant-sized amplifier which even made the town hall organ pipes flinch. He plays and signs with brash exuberance, and adds a few Presley-like wiggles which had the teenage audience squealing with delight.”
As a testament to his rising popularity, Buddy Holly and The Crickets appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in December, 1957. The next year, the band returned to Petty's Clovis Studios to produce hits like “(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care,” “It's So Easy,” “Lonesome Tears,” “I'm Gonna Love You Too,” and “Think It Over.”
Despite his appeal to the ladies, Buddy remained a single man until one fateful dinner date in New York City. Stopping by the offices of Peer-Southern music publishers, Holly asked the receptionist, a girl named Maria Elena Santiago, out on a lunch date. Maria had been born in Puerto Rico, however, when she was 18 her father sent her to live with her aunt in the U.S. Startled by Holly's spontaneous offer, Maria insisted her surprising suitor seek permission from her guardian. Receiving the aunt's blessing, Buddy took her out to P.J. Clarke's that evening. After the meal, the smitten singer proposed to Maria on the spot producing an engagement ring from a rose he had given her. She waited until the following morning to say “yes” to the first boy she'd ever dated. The couple was married on Aug. 15, 1958 at the Holley home in Lubbock.
The arrangement was kept relatively secret. Maria travelled with The Crickets as Buddy's “secretary,” however, she eventually took over as his manager. She and Buddy began questioning Petty's tight control over the group and its finances. At the same time, Buddy was looking to change direction playing a lighter style of rock. He wanted to relocate in New York, however, Mauldin and Allison (Sullivan had left a year earlier) disagreed and tried to convince their lead vocalist to move back to Lubbock.
Before splitting from Petty, and then The Crickets, Holly went back into the Clovis studio to record “Reminiscing,” “Love's Made a Fool of You,” “Wishing,” and “When Sin Stops.” During these sessions, Buddy was backed by his friend, Tommy Allsup, a talented guitarist from Owasso, Oklahoma, and a neophyte bassist named Waylon Jennings.
From his newly rented Greenwich Village apartment, Buddy continued writing songs. That October, he recorded the tracks for “It Doesn't Matter Anymore” at Decca's Pythian Temple. Maria also learned she was expecting their first child. Gaining independence from his manager and The Crickets meant finances soon became a pressing concern. Although he was desperate to establish his own record company with studios in London and New York, Buddy found himself mired in legal proceedings against Petty for unpaid royalties. In order to fulfil his dreams and with a new baby on the way, Holly knew he needed to make some money quick. He needed to go back on the road.
Such an opportunity arose when Buddy agreed to headline the Winter Dance Party, a 24-day whirlwind tour of the American midwest. He and Maria spent Christmas in Lubbock where he recruited Allsup, Jennings and drummer Carl Bunch to join him on the upcoming venture. Over the holidays, they rehearsed at KLLL Radio in Lubbock. They had a little fun when Buddy accepted a bet to write a song in less than 30 minutes. After composing “You're the One,” Holly sang and played guitar as DJ Ray “Slim” Corbin and Jennings provided percussion by clapping their hands.
The expectant father kissed Maria goodbye on Jan. 20, 1959 before catching a train for Chicago. She had wanted to accompany her husband, but Buddy told her to stay in New York, look after her health and he'd be home in four weeks.
Loading their instruments and baggage into the underbelly of the bus at the Chicago terminal, a familiar voice spun Buddy around like a top. The distinctive voice belonged to a rotund figure of Jiles Perry Richardson Jr. With a suitcase dangling from each hand, he jokingly asked if this was the last ride to Milwaukee. Relieving the gentleman of his luggage, Buddy nodded with a “It sure is, Mr. Richardson.” He'd just met "The Big Bopper."
In that initial conversation, Buddy found that Richardson came across as the exuberant personality he portrayed on radio. Being as the Bopper hailed from Sabine Pass, Texas, Buddy felt he discovered a kindred spirit. Richardson was older and had been in the business a little longer, but his wife, too, was at home expecting. And they also had Texas.
The son of an oil field driller, “Jaype,” as his friends called him, graduated from Beaumont High School in 1947 as a member of the “Royal Purple” football team. Studying law at Lamar College, he played in the school band. When a legal career did not pan out, he took a part-time job at Beaumont radio station KTRM. Promoted to a full-time position, Jaype married Adrianne Joy Fryou, a gal from Montegut, Louisiana. In 1955, the U.S. Army drafted him for a two-year stint as a radar operator at Fort Bliss. Returning to KTRM upon discharge, Richardson went behind the mike taking the so-called “Dishwashers' Serenade” shift.
Jaype adopted the nickname “The Big Bopper” after watching some college kids shake to a new dance move called “The Bop.” The DJ named for the dance gained recognition in May, 1957 when, remarkably, he remained on the air for a record five days, two hours and eight minutes playing 1,821 vinyl LP's. Known as a “jive” talker who played the rhythm and blues, Richardson could be quiet, even reserved when he wasn't the larger-than-life Bopper. But he did more than spin records. He could play the guitar and write music. Signing a contract with Mercury and Starday Records, he released his first single, “Beggar To a King,” but it didn't go anywhere.
Richardson then cut a novelty song called “The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor.” When producers told him he needed something for the 'B' side, he quickly composed a number (writing it on the drive to the studios in Houston) called “Chantilly Lace,” an amusing tune that told the story of a fella engaging in a flirtatious phone conversation. The single was an instant hit in the summer of 1958 reaching 16th on the U.S. charts. For 22 weeks, in fact, the kids bopped to those words ... “Chantilly lace and a pretty face, and a pony tail hanging down. That wiggle in the walk and giggle in the talk. Makes the world go 'round ...”
Withdrawing into the bus, Richardson left Holly alone in the parking lot. The driver turned the ignition announcing his intention to get going. Buddy was surveying the terminal for a pay phone when a youngster strolled up with a dazed look on his face. Judging from the guitar case, Buddy figured he was going their way. Then the name belonging to the kid with the neatly slicked back hair came to him. Buddy yelled out, “Hey Ritchie, it's now or never cause we're leaving!”
Breaking out in a boyish grin, Richard Steven Valens bounded over to the coach and eagerly followed Holly up the stairs. The “Winter Dance Party of 1959” was on its way.
For all the singers' youthful enthusiasm, the schedule was brutal. Booked into multiple venues several miles apart, the group endured daily bus rides crisscrossing state lines. Tour agents found hotel accommodations when they could but they were few and far between. Unfortunately, many long nights were spent on the bus with the performers, drenched in the sweat-stained clothes from their shows, struggling to sleep. Then there was the cold. The midwest was in the grips of its worst winter in decades. After Christmas, temperatures had plunged and remained subzero for weeks. Making matters worse, the bus was ill-equipped for winter travel. The heaters either blew little warmth or broke down altogether.
From its debut at the Million Dollar Ballroom in Milwaukee, the tour lurched along roads of ice and snowdrifts to concerts at destinations like Kenosha and Eau Claire in Wisconsin, to Montevideo and St. Paul in Minnesota. They played two back-to-back nights in Iowa before returning to Minnesota for a show in Duluth. That evening, 17-year-old Bobby Zimmerman bought front row tickets especially to see Buddy Holly. As the guitar-strumming singer vibrated back and forth to hits like “Rave On,” the teen, later to become famous as the poet-singer Bob Dylan, was fixated. It was as if Buddy had a halo around his head, the lad thought
Heading back onto the bus, Buddy got the news that Carl Bunch, who had suffered severe frostbite to his feet, was being hospitalized in Michigan. The new Crickets were down to just three. Conditions on the bus deteriorated further with the flu spreading among the passengers. Everyone was hoping for a one-day break in a warm hotel but it was not to be. The performers learned tour promoters secured a last-minute concert at a place called Clear Lake in northern Iowa.
An exhausted and frustrated Buddy Holly secretly contemplated leaving the Winter Dance Party but he ultimately felt obligated to finish it out. The Texan made up his mind on one thing. After the show in Clear Lake, he was finding a way off that hellish bus.
Next column: One magical night at the Surf Ballroom
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist