"I hear you're not going on that plane with me tonight”
SEAN CHASE A copy of the "Winter Dance Party of 1959" tour poster obtained by Laurentian Valley resident John Derby. The concert marked the final appearances of Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens
Ritchie hugged the wool blanket shivering so violently he could hear his own teeth chatter.
The dejected young man scratched the frost from the window pain in order to read the roadside sign ahead. The fellow sharing the seat next to him leaned over asking what it said. Ritchie wearily replied: “Clear Lake.”
He couldn't wait until they reached their next destination. The bus was like a refrigerator inside. The heater hadn't worked for days so everyone did what they could to stay comfortable. J.P. Richardson had purchased a sleeping bag which was large enough to share with fellow Texan Waylon Jennings. The bassist reciprocated The Big Bopper's hospitality by rounding up a bottle of whiskey which quickly warmed the musicians' innards upon consumption. The booze fuelled their creative juices churning out many a country song during those long hours on the midwest highways and roadways.
A few seats back, Buddy Holly and Dion DiMucci spent their time jamming. Others played cards or plotted practical jokes (the most popular one was on Buddy - turning the strings on his guitar upside down before a show). Ritchie didn't do any of that. He drew his warmth from dreaming of home. Those visions of sunny California brought him some solice but, in the end, it only made him miss it so much more. The snow-covered hills and fields of the midwest were an alien landscape to Richard Steven Valens.
The youngest son of Concepcion “Connie” and Joseph Steven Valenzuela was raised in Pacoima near Los Angeles. As a boy he enjoyed listening to Mexican folk music, but it was the Singing Cowboy on the Saturday matinees that inspired him to pick up a guitar at the age of 11. When he enrolled in San Fernando High School, the guitar went with him. At lunch, he sat on the bleachers entertaining friends until he joined “The Silhouettes,” the only rock band in the neighbourhood.
The passionate Mexican-American performed at school assemblies and smaller gigs around the valley earning the nickname “Little Richard of San Fernando.” One day in May, 1958, Bob Keane, head of Del-Fi Records, walked into a San Fernando movie theatre where Ritchie was playing and saw some potential in the kid. The producer signed Ritchie to a contract convincing him to shorten his last name to “Valens” so it would be more catchy on the radio.
His first single, “Come On, Let's Go,” was big in L.A., but it took a little longer to catch on nationally. This wasn't to be the case with his sophomore effort, “Donna,” a ballad he wrote for his high school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig. It rapidly climbed to number two on the Billboard 100. The 'B' side single, “La Bamba,” a tune that mixed Mexican folk with rock and roll, gained airplay but was not nearly as successful. On the strength of those three 45 rpm's, Ritchie became a bankable commodity. He was booked twice for “American Bandstand.” Dick Clark confessed that Valens was the most talented young artist he'd ever invited on the show. He also appeared on Alan Freed's Christmas Jubilee before heading home.
After spending the holidays in Pacoima, Ritchie flew to New York to sing at the Apollo. He then returned to California to film a cameo in the movie “Go Johnny Go” (with Chuck Berry no less). Then Keane contracted him for The Winter Dance Party of 1959. He felt the tour would generate free publicity for Valens' first album release scheduled for February. Ritchie had invited Donna to a farewell party hosted by his mother but her father steadfastly refused to let her go. When they did speak on the phone that last night in Pacoima, Ritchie promised his girl he would see her when he came back.
It had been an appalling adventure, thus far. They spent most nights on the bus or in seedy hotels. On the 10th night of the tour, things went from bad to worse when the vehicle broke down on U.S. Highway 51 stranding the passengers for over two hours. With the temperatures plummeting, they began burning newspapers in the aisles. Fortunately, a county sheriff arrived and shuttled them to a nearby restaurant. From there, the group took the train to Green Bay, Wisconsin for their appearance at the Riverside Ballroom. After their harrowing experience, the entourage expected a day off from their breakneck schedule. Their collective hearts sank when road agent Sam Geller informed them he'd hired a replacement bus. The tour had also added another show some 357 miles away in Clear Lake, Iowa. Ritchie called his agent to say he was unhappy and homesick. Upon hearing about the dismal conditions they were working under, Keane advised him to return to L.A. Not wanting to let down his fans, Valens said he would stay on the road. With “Donna” topping the charts, the young Chicano singer was easily the most popular act on the bill. The teenagers went nuts for him. Girls swooned over him, while the boys wanted to be him. It wasn't surprising. After all, at 17, he was one of them.
The sun was sinking below the rolling snow-capped Iowan hills when the bus pulled into the parking lot of the Surf Ballroom at supper on Monday, Feb. 2. Backed onto the shore, the ballroom was the social heart and soul of Clear Lake, known as “Iowa's Fun Capital,” hosting the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey and Jan and Dean. The ceiling of the dance hall was painted blue while palm trees and bamboo furnishings projected the ambiance of a warm South Pacific island.
The musicians limped from the bus to their dressing rooms. They were a sorry looking lot. Most were suffering from a cold or the sniffles. The Big Bopper was in the worst shape plagued by an incessant flu that he couldn't shake. For his part, Buddy was through riding on that bus. He needed sleep and clean laundry. As the elder statesman, the 28-year-old Richardson kept up morale amongst the travellers, but Buddy was their de facto leader. He dealt with Geller and tracked the box office receipts.
After dinner, Holly told Carroll Anderson, manager of the Surf, that he wanted to charter a plane their next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota. Anderson reached Roger Peterson, a pilot for Dwyer's Flying Service in nearby Mason City. Attending a nearby meeting of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the 21-year-old pilot had already worked 17 hours but agreed to take the job. Anderson called Buddy into his office to report that arrangements were being made.
Meanwhile, anxious teenagers lined up outside in sub zero temperatures waiting to pay their $1.25 to see the hottest singers in the nation. Once the doors opened, the kids and their chaperones stampeded the ballroom snapping up every booth and table. When KRIB DJ Bob Hale bounded onto the stage at 8 p.m., the emcee for the evening's festivities was startled by the euphoric screams of 1,200 teens and parents.
Frankie Sardo opened the show with “Fake Out,” a tune the 25-year-old Italian-born crooner wrote with his brother that was popular in the midwest. Next, The Big Bopper strutted out carrying his signature telephone receiver. Fevered and sweating profusely through his checkered jacket, the larger-than-life Bopper let out a hearty laugh before bellowing “Helllooo Baaabyy!” into the microphone.
The audience was still singing along to “Little Red Riding Hood” when The Big Bopper withdrew behind the curtain. Seconds later, the sight of Ritchie Valens in his blue satin shirt and black studded vest vaulted the crowd into near hysteria. Girls in ponytails and multicoloured cashmere sweaters swayed back and forth hanging on every dreamy word the Latin heartthrob uttered. The place exploded when Valens ripped into “La Bamba” closing the first half of the show.
Backstage, the entourage began hearing rumours that Holly had chartered a plane. The price for the flight was $108, however, Buddy offered the two remaining seats for $36 each. He first went to Dion DiMucci, who declined the invitation. Holly then convinced his fellow Crickets Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup to pitch in. They would leave for the airport shortly after the concert.
During the intermission, Barbara Potts, the reigning 1959 Miss Cerro Gordo County, helped Bob Hale raffled off prizes. The kids filed into long columns in front of the autograph tables hoping to get a signed 45 record. Holly was giving out promotional copies of his latest single, “It Doesn't Matter Anymore.”
Meanwhile, Richardson approached Jennings asking if he could have his seat on the flight. Feeling bad for his sick friend, Waylon replied, “If it's all right with Buddy, it's okay with me.”
Elsewhere, Ritchie was lobbying Allsup to give up his seat, but Allsup refused. A downcast Valens went to the payphone in the ballroom's lobby to call home. He spoke with his half-brother Bob. They talked about the family getting together in New York after the tour. During a phone conversation with his wife, Maria Elena, Buddy complained about the tour bus and how everyone was getting ill. Holly told her he was going ahead to make arrangements for the next evening's show. He didn't mention the plane.
The second half kicked off at 10:30 p.m. with Dion and the Belmonts. With Carl Bunch in the hospital, Buddy volunteered to drum for them. However, he decided to have a little fun with the lively ballroom crowd. Hale positioned the cymbals right in front of Buddy's face to hide it from the audience. After a set that included “Don't Pity Me,” and “Teenager in Love,” Hale told Dion to introduce his quartet. To wild applause, he called out the names of bass-baritone Carlo Mastrangelo, second tenor Fred Milano and first tenor Angelo D'Aleo. Then Hale pointed to Holly, now ducking behind the drums, insisting that, “We get this guy's name.”
Dion replied playfully, “Oh, that's our new drummer, his name is, umm, .... Buddy Holly!”
The thunderous roar of the crowd must have shook the snow from the dance hall's roof. Slinging a guitar around his neck, Holly began singing the number he always opened with - “Gotta Travel On.” Clad in their trademark black jackets and grey ascots, Jennings and Allsup joined their bandmate for “Rave On,” “Heartbeat,” and “Peggy Sue.” Energized and elated by the cheering spectators, Holly's beanpole figure shimmied with every verse. For all his troubles, at that moment he didn't want to be anywhere else but on that stage.
It was close to midnight when the rest of the group - Sardo, Valens, Dion and the Belmonts - joined Holly for the grand finale. Ritchie did an encore of “La Bamba” to the rousing approval of the ballroom's clientele. Then Richardson, armed with his telephone, and Hale strolled out as Buddy sang the last number of the night, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”
To the chagrin of their exhausted chaperones, the kids chanted for one more song. It was Buddy who had to send them home, shouting out with a wide smile, “Sorry, we've got a plane to catch ...see you in the summer ... goodbye Clear Lake!”
Back in the dressing room, Buddy was packing an overnight bag for the plane when he sent Jennings to fetch some hotdogs from the snack bar. After the bassist stepped out, Richardson informed Holly he would be accompanying him instead. When Jennings returned, Buddy was leaning back against the wall in a cane-bottom chair laughing.
“Well now, I hear you're not going on that plane with me tonight, huh?” he said.
Jennings nodded reluctantly. Buddy then responded, “Well I hope your ole' bus freezes up.”
Waylon shot back with a chuckle, “Well, I hope your ole' plane crashes.”
In the alleyway behind the ballroom, Anderson and his wife, Lucille, loaded the performers' baggage into his station wagon. Holly exited the rear entrance first, followed by Allsup and a gasping Richardson. Anderson was about to turn the ignition when Buddy sent Allsup back inside to see if they had everything. The guitarist nodded and jumped out.
In the stairwell leading to the ballroom, Valens was signing last-minute autographs when he spotted Tommy. He pleaded once more for that third seat on the aircraft. Allsup said no but then suggested they flip for it. Reaching into his pocket, Allsup pulled out a 50-cent piece and tossed it. Catching the coin, he exclaimed “Call it!” Ritchie went with “Heads” and won. The giddy teenager raced into the dressing room, fetched his bag and followed Allsup out to the car.
As Ritchie climbed into the back seat, Allsup leaned over to ask Buddy to pick up a letter for him in Moorhead. Tommy then shut the door and waved goodbye as the station wagon pulled out of the lot. He then trudged over to the idling bus as light snow began falling.
Next column: The Day the Music Died
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist