12 Days after ‘The Music Died,’ Buddy Holly was scheduled to play Springfield
By Tom Emery
Feb. 3, 1959 is famously known as “The Day The Music Died,” as rock-and-roll legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” were killed in a plane crash early that morning in northern Iowa. Twelve days later, the group was scheduled to play in Springfield.
The gig in the capital was supposed to be the final date in the “Winter Dance Party,” a grueling road trip that wore out the musicians amid freezing cold and inferior transportation. The horrible conditions induced Holly to rent the plane that crashed in Iowa, leaving no survivors.
“The Day The Music Died” has since become an iconic, and tragic, moment in rock-and-roll history. It also reflects an innocence among both music fans and the performers they adored in 1950s America.
The Winter Dance Party was intended to bring big names to mid-size Midwestern towns. In theory, that sounded like a great idea. In reality, it was a mess from the outset.
Certainly, there was loads of talent. Headlining the group was Holly, who was only 22 and already one of the brightest stars in rock-and-roll, a genre that had only been around for a few years. The Lubbock native burst on the scene with “That’ll Be the Day,” which went to number-one on the Billboard charts in September 1957.
Next came “Peggy Sue,” which is likely his best known single, which peaked at #3 later that year, followed by “Oh, Boy!,” which went to #10. Others included his fourth single on the charts, “Maybe Baby,” which may be Holly’s most underrated hit.
Despite his meteoric rise, Holly was at a tumultuous time in his career. He had just separated from his manager, Norman Petty, amid allegations that Petty had mismanaged, and stolen, much of Holly’s money. Holly had recently married, and his new wife, Maria Elena, was pregnant. Fellow performer Paul Anka claimed that Holly embarked on the Winter Dance Party because he was short on money.
Holly had also just broken up with his famous backing band, The Crickets. For the new tour, he assembled a new group that included bassist Waylon Jennings, who later had 16 number-one hits on the country charts.
Joining Holly was a 17-year-old Latin sensation from California, Valens, who was riding the crest of “Donna,” which rose to #2 on the charts. Two weeks before the crash, his most recognizable hit, “La Bamba,” broke onto Billboard.
There was also the famous “Big Bopper,” whose real name was J.P. Richardson, a 28-year-old Texan known for “Chantilly Lace,” also a top-ten hit. Like Holly, Richardson also wrote hits for other performers.
He had not only discovered Johnny Preston, but also wrote that artist’s biggest hit, “Running Bear,” which enjoyed a three-week run atop the charts in January 1960, nearly a year after the crash. All three of Preston’s top hits were published by a company that Richardson had co-founded.
The opening act was Frankie Sardo, a largely unknown singer from New York who later wrote and produced some minor film hits. Few remember Sardo’s role in the tour today.
Rounding out the tour was Dion and his backing group, The Belmonts, all of whom were also on the cusp of stardom. That spring, Dion broke into the Billboard Top 10 with “A Teenager in Love,” while smash hits like “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” were just a couple of years away. Fate would keep Dion off the plane on that frigid winter night.
On “The Day the Music Died,” Holly and his friends were halfway through the Winter Dance Party. By then, they were calling it “the tour from hell.”
Today, stars travel in luxury, usually private jets and tricked-out tour buses. But this was 1959, and performers were accustomed to little of that. Rather, the Winter Dance Party was relegated to buses that one historian called “reconditioned school buses, not good enough for school kids.”
The buses frequently broke down and came with poor heat – not a good thing for the dead of winter in the Midwest. Not only did they have to drive through piles of snow, but temperatures dipped to minus-36 at one point.
As a result, some of the performers suffered flu-like symptoms, while Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, ended up in a hospital with frostbite. As many as five buses were used on the tour, most with serious problems.
The tour consisted of 24 dates in as many days, meaning there were no days off. That forced the musicians to travel for hours before every scheduled concert, often in hazardous conditions. They also had to pack and unload all their own equipment, as there was no road crew.
To compound the issue, the production company had little regard for distance between stops, worrying more about available venues. Though many cities were fairly close to each other, organizers scheduled dates far apart, causing the tour to zig-zag. A few of the stops were up to 500 miles from one another.
The Winter Dance Party opened in Milwaukee on Jan. 23, 1959 and wound its way across the Midwest. There were three stops planned in Illinois, beginning with February 7 in Spring Valley, now a town of 5,600 some 57 miles north of Peoria. As it turned out, Holly’s funeral was held on the same day as the Spring Valley date. A gig in Chicago was scheduled the next day, February 8.
The second-to-last date was at the fabled Peoria State Armory on February 14. The final stop was on Sunday, Feb. 15 in Springfield at the Illinois State Armory, one of the city’s top concert venues, just across the street from the state capitol building.
At 75 miles, those were two of the stops closest to one another. To get to Peoria, the tour had to come from Youngstown, Ohio, 550 miles away.
The group was in St. Paul on January 28, then had to go all the way down to Davenport the next night. The heat on the bus went out thirty miles from Davenport, forcing a lengthy maintenance stop. From there, it was over to Fort Dodge and all the way back up to Duluth, where temperatures were forecast for minus-35 on the night of the concert.
Next were two shows in different Wisconsin cities on February 1, Appleton in the afternoon and nearby Green Bay in the evening. But the bus again broke down on the way, forcing the Appleton concert to be cancelled. When the tour left Green Bay the next morning, the temperatures had plunged to minus-19.
Needless to say, the singers were worn out. The next stop, on February 2, was at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, a small city in north-central Iowa, and 350 miles away from Green Bay. After Clear Lake was another mammoth drive to Moorhead, Minn., 365 miles to the north.
By then, Holly had enough. He decided to skip the bus and charter a small plane to carry him and his band to the Moorhead stop. The manager of the Surf called a service in nearby Mason City, which secured a 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson, and a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza, a V-tailed plane that carried three passengers. The fee was $36 per passenger.
There is considerable discrepancy as to how the three victims ended up on board. Many believe that Holly rented the plane for himself and his band members. However, Richardson, “The Big Bopper,” was suffering from the flu, and asked Jennings for his seat. Meanwhile, Valens and another band member, guitarist Tommy Alsup, flipped a coin for the other seat, and Valens won.
Holly is said to have needled Jennings, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up,” to which Jennings supposedly replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
Dion remembered some of the events differently, claiming that he had flipped the coin with Valens and actually won. But he turned down the seat based on the price, thinking that the $36 was the same amount his parents paid for the apartment he grew up in. Indeed, it was a different era than today.
The plane departed in light snow, high winds, and low visibility at around 12:55 a.m. on February 3, hours after the Clear Lake concert. The pilot, Peterson, had apparently received incomplete weather information.
An expected radio contact at 1 a.m. did not occur. Around that time, rural residents north of town noticed a low-flying airplane that nearly hit several houses. At 9:35 a.m., the wreckage of the plane was found six miles northwest of the airport, with the bodies strewn nearby.
All four victims had died on impact. Subsequent investigations pointed the finger at the faulty weather report and Peterson’s decision to fly in conditions for which he was not qualified.
None of the three stars left a will, and the value of their estates is of debate. Richardson’s estate was valued at just $11,111.50, including his most valuable possession, a 1953 Dodge. He also left a savings account of $8. Allsup said that Holly was “broke” at the time of the tour.
Sales of the music of all three performers skyrocketed after their deaths, though who actually received the profits was disputed for decades.
Incredibly, the tour went on as scheduled. Mere hours after the crash, the planned Moorhead concert was held, with a 15-year-old high school kid from nearby Fargo who was later known as Bobby Vee (“Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Run to Him”) filling in. Vee was used just for that night, as organizers lined up Fabian, a teen idol whose first single hit the charts the day before, the last day of Holly’s life.
Fabian turned 16 that February 6. He was joined on the tour by Jimmy Clanton (“Venus in Blue Jeans”). Frankie Avalon (“Venus”) was also added, though he was not with the tour by the time it reached central Illinois days later. Some compared the Moorhead concert to “be like a big wake” with a “certain sadness” about the venue. A sellout crowd was on hand, which one insider attributed to “a curiosity factor” due to the tragedy.
Eleven days later, the Winter Dance Party made it to Peoria for what some consider the first big rock concert in the city. Two shows were held, and drew a combined audience of 6,100. Ticket prices were $1.50.
The emotions of the crowd are debated today. Several attendees, when interviewed for the Peoria Journal-Star in 2019, noted that their youthful enthusiasm dimmed any mournful sentiment at the concert.
Sixty years earlier, the Journal-Star reported the day after the concert that “nothing short of a full-blown tornado will ever come as close to ripping the roof off the Peoria State Armory as did the wild antics of more than 6,000 screaming, stomping teenagers.”
By contrast, the grandson of the owner of the Les Buzz Ballroom, the concert venue in Spring Valley, said that “those who attended [the February 7 date there] recall that there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
In Springfield, the Armory was a popular multipurpose venue for decades, attracting musical stars as well as basketball and other indoor sports. The February 15 date was part of the local “Shower of Stars” series, sponsored by local station WMAY, that ran through 1962.
The emcee of the Clear Lake show, Bob Hale, later briefly worked for WMAY. That opportunity apparently arose after an interview he gave the station on the day of the crash, as he told of the coin flip with Allsup and Valens. Hale said that he himself supplied the coin, then flipped it. Hale eventually became a major media personality in Chicago.
The plane crash had merited only a few paragraphs in the Illinois State Journal on February 4. That was not unusual; some papers carried little news of the disaster. Others pushed it to the background for another airline disaster, the loss of an American Airlines commercial jet in New York on the same day as the Holly plane crash. The New York tragedy cost 65 lives.
Like other tour stops, the decision to hold the concert came down to money, as there had been strong advance sales. As in Peoria, two shows were scheduled in Springfield, and a total of over 8,000 turned out. A 2019 account notes that “the excitement couldn’t mask a sense of melancholy.”
Prior to the show, Fabian was asked by Wayne Allen, the longtime entertainment editor of the Springfield newspapers, if the road trips kept him from schoolwork. Fabian responded that he used the time to “keep up with his studies.”
Added to the lineup for the Springfield show was Bill Parsons, who had a number-2 hit with “the All-American Boy” in 1958. That song was actually done by Bobby Bare, a future country star, and mistakenly released under the name of Parsons.
Ironically, the temperatures in Springfield on the day of the concert were unseasonably warm, reaching the low 40s – much better than at almost any point in the tour.
Thirteen years later, the sprawling Don McLean hit “American Pie,” which rambles for 8 minutes, 42 seconds and was inspired by the plane crash, sat atop the Billboard charts for four weeks. Then as now, The Day the Music Died lives on.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or email@example.com.