The Last Days of Buddy Holly

On the 50th anniversary of his death in a plane crash, friends remember the rock & roll pioneer's final concerts — and musicians salute his lasting influence

February 5, 2009 12:00 AM ET
The Last Days of Buddy Holly

It would go down in history as rock & roll's Tour From Hell: the Winter Dance Party of 1959 that took place exactly 50 winters ago in February. As their heat-deprived yellow converted Baptist-school tour bus went slipping and sliding in subarctic temperatures along the ice-laced highways of the Upper Midwest, a dozen shivering young musicians inside whiled away the hours huddling under blankets, catnapping, cardplaying, storytelling and making music together on acoustic guitars.

Among the riders were the 22-year-old Buddy Holly, one of the radiant lights of 1950s rock & roll, from Lubbock, Texas; the 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, a forefather of the Chicano rock movement, from California's San Fernando Valley; the 19-year-old Dion DiMucci (better known as Dion) and the Belmonts — soon to rise to the top of the charts with "A Teenager in Love" — from the Bronx; and the 28-year-old group elder, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, a radio DJ from Beaumont, Texas, who, in 1957, had broken the record for continuous on-the-air broadcasting (five days, two hours and eight minutes, during which time he played 1,821 discs, taking showers during five-minute newscasts) and whose signature song, "Chantilly Lace" ("Hel-lo, bay-bee.... You know what I like!"), was a recent Top 10 hit.

The musicians had kicked off their scheduled three-week tour on January 23rd at the Million Dollar Ballroom in Milwaukee. Playing grueling one-night stands and crisscrossing Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa in a series of ramshackle, continually breaking-down buses, they were now, in the early hours of Sunday, February 1st, heading down Highway 51 on a 300-mile journey to Appleton, Wisconsin, from Duluth, Minnesota, where they had that previous evening performed for an audience that included the then-17-year-old Hibbing, Minnesota, senior-year high school student Bobby Zimmerman. It was a concert that never escaped his mind. (Bob Dylan would later remark that it seemed "as if there was a halo around Buddy's head.")

Down on Highway 51, near the town of Hurley, Wisconsin, in the early hours of the morning, a piston on the tour bus had gone through the engine block. In the pitch darkness and with no heat, the musicians, stranded for several hours until rescued by passing motorists, burned newspapers in the aisle of the bus to keep warm.

Dion, whose exhilarating versions of songs by Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens are featured on his new album, Heroes, recalls his memories of that night: "We were in the middle of a blizzard, trees were snapping in the wind, it was 30 below, and the snow was coming down so hard we couldn't see out the windows.

"Buddy and I huddled together under a blanket, and just to pass the time, I'd tell him stories of the Bronx — about Ralphie Mooch, Frankie Yunk Yunk and Joe BB-Eyes — and he'd tell me stories about Baptists in Lubbock, Texas. One of the Belmonts had a bottle of scotch, so we'd all take a shot. We were laughin', and to me it seemed like a field trip! I didn't know 30 below zero.

"You know, Buddy, Ritchie and I used to sit in the back and jam together. It was a little bit of heaven.

"When I'm inside a song, I know exactly who I am. And when we were playing in the back of the bus, I knew it. When we hit those chords and were stompin' on the floor of the bus and we were rockin' and taking solos and taking verses... man, that was home, that was family, that was the connection, that was a bit of salvation, that was touching the very center of my heart."

The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa — a town of about 8,000 once known as "Iowa's Fun Capital" — was opened in 1934. A one-story, hangarlike structure, it looks as if it had materialized out of one of Stephen Shore's photographs of the American vernacular roadside attractions he wittily calls "Uncommon Places." Inside, clouds are projected on the ballroom's blue-painted domed ceiling and faux palm trees flank the stage, intended to simulate the atmosphere of a South Sea Island beach club.

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