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

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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.

It was 19 below zero the morning when the Winter Dance Party musicians boarded another bus in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for the 340-mile journey to Clear Lake, but near Prairie du Chien, the heaters, as if on schedule, failed once again and had to be repaired. They arrived at the Ballroom just in time to perform their 8 p.m. show for the more than 1,200 teens who had paid $1.25 to attend the concert. Alan Mitchell, a former Chicago radio disc jockey who was there that night with his girlfriend, recalls, "I was 15 and was wearing my Thompson High School letter jacket. And I have to chuckle when I remember my ducktail and lots of Brylcreem — 'A little dab will do ya.' We looked very cool then . . . and the girls did too with their poodle skirts, capris, froufrous and rabbit-fur collars."

And the musicians were dressed to kill. Throughout the tour, the Big Bopper sported a Stetson and a three-quarter leopard-skin coat that he called Melvin. Valens dressed in a blue satin shirt, black bolero and vaquero pants. And Buddy and the Crickets were clothed in black jackets, gray slacks and ascots. At the ballroom that night, they performed their hits, and for the finale they all came onstage for a jam that included "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "La Bamba" and "Great Balls of Fire."

It has been told many times before....

On the bus ride to Clear Lake, Buddy Holly decided he'd had enough of the road. The boys hadn't had their laundry cleaned for days. And he envisioned a comfortable bed and a good night's sleep if only he could fly after the Surf Ballroom show to Fargo, North Dakota, just across the Red River from Moorhead, their next destination, some 400 miles northwest of Clear Lake.

Upon his arrival there, Buddy asked the Surf Ballroom manager to charter a flight from the nearby Mason City airport to Fargo. Dwyer's Flying Service contacted one of their pilots, Roger Peterson, to fly a red, single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza four-seater. The flight was to cost $108, and Buddy first offered one of the seats to Dion for $36, a third of the price.

"When Buddy said, 'That will be $36,' he hit the magic number in my head," Dion told me. "The rent for my parents' apartment was $36, and they argued all my fucking life over that $36 because my father was a beautiful guy, but he was an emotional 13-year-old, and he never worked."

Two of the Crickets, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, were the next to be asked. But the Big Bopper had come down with the flu, and Jennings graciously gave him his place. Valens asked Allsup for the other seat: "Are you gonna let me fly, guy?" "No," Allsup replied. "Let's flip a coin for it," Valens said. As Allsup recounted to Philip Norman, "I don't know why, because I'd been telling him no all evening, but I pulled a half dollar out of my pocket. I've never understood what made me — it just happened. I flipped the 50-cent piece and said, 'Call it.' Ritchie said, 'Heads,' and it came down heads."

Just after 12:30 a.m., Tuesday, February 3rd, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper climbed into the back seat of the plane with all of the musicians' dirty laundry, and Buddy sat next to the pilot. The barometer was falling, the ceiling and visibility were lowering, light snow was falling, the winds were blustering, the runway dimly lit. Shortly before 1 a.m., the plane slowly moved down the airport's runway and took off, made a 180-degree turn and headed north. There was no definite horizon...

But February made me shiver,
With every paper I'd deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep.
I couldn't take one more step.
—Don McLean, "American Pie"

"I first found out about the plane crash," Don McLean has said, "because I was a 13-year-old newspaper delivery boy in New Rochelle, New York, and I was carrying the bundle of the local Standard-Star papers that were bound in twine, and when I cut it open with a knife, there it was on the front page." Paul McCartney, who idolized Buddy Holly as a teenager and bought the publishing rights to Buddy's songs in 1976, also found out about the plane crash from a newspaper: "I remember reading the news on the front page of the Daily Mirror. Me and my friends were in the playground of the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys — it was the school George and I went to — in a little back corner that was called the Smokers' Corner. It was where all the would-be rebels and music freaks would congregate. It was before school opened, someone had the paper, and we were all huddled around reading it and were shocked and saddened by the news.

"Buddy was a major influence on the Beatles. And in John's case, he had to wear heavy horn-rimmed glasses, just like Buddy, which he would always whip off when any girls came near. But post-Buddy he didn't have to, and that was an added bonus for him. Buddy to us was your neighbor. He looked like some of the kids you saw around in school.

"Listening to and singing Buddy's songs puts you in a good place. It hits that era, and you're a teenager again. It takes you right back with a slam. For me it evokes beautiful memories because that's when I was just getting into music. John and I would sing 'Words of Love' together just sitting at home: He'd sing it and I'd fall in behind him on the harmony. And this became the backbone of a lot of Beatles works — John singing lead and me singing harmony. And we spent hours trying to work out how to play the opening guitar riff of 'That'll Be the Day,' and were truly blessed by the heavens the day we figured it out. That was one of the first songs we ever learned to play, and it was in fact the very first song John, George and I ever recorded."

On February 2nd, 2009, the Surf Ballroom and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party with a concert at the Surf Ballroom, MC'd by DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow and featuring, among others, Graham Nash, Bobby Vee, Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, Joe Ely, Wanda Jackson and the Crickets. Also expected to attend will be Buddy Holly's widow, Maria Elena Holly. Maria Elena, who now lives in Dallas, met Buddy in June 1958 in New York when she was 25; they got married two months later. "I know it sounds a bit mystical, but I felt that I somehow knew Buddy from before," she says.

"One day this guy comes in through the door of Peer-Southern Music, where I was working as a receptionist, and I acted very reserved — 'Can I help you?' — and he was with the Crickets and said, 'Oh, we're not in a hurry,' and then turned to them and said, 'You know what? I'm going to marry that girl.'

"He asked me out for that evening, and because I'd never even been on a date before, I had to get my Aunt Provi's permission. He took me to P.J. Clarke's saloon, and sometime during our dinner, Buddy left the table and returned with a red rose and proposed to me right then and there. I thought he was joking and said, 'Do you want to get married now or after dinner?' He said he was serious and that he was going to come to my aunt's apartment, where I was then living, at nine the next morning to ask for my hand.

"He showed up promptly at nine, got my aunt out of bed and said, 'Did Maria tell you that we're getting married?' My aunt looked at him and said, 'Are you pulling my leg?' 'No, ma'am.' 'Don't you think you should take some time and think this over?' she asked him. And Buddy said, 'No, I don't have the time.' "

After getting married in Lubbock, Buddy and Maria Elena moved back to New York and rented a $1,000-a-month one-bedroom apartment in the Brevoort, on Fifth Avenue and 9th Street, where he recorded on his Ampex home tape recorder the legendary songs now known as the "Apartment Tapes" (among them, "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" and "Peggy Sue Got Married"), just released on the multi-CD sets Down the Line: Rarities and Memorial Collection.

Both night owls, Buddy and Maria Elena would often get out of bed at midnight, roll up their pajamas under their raincoats, and stroll through Greenwich Village and drop into folk and jazz clubs. And almost every morning, Buddy would take Maria Elena and his Gibson guitar to nearby Washington Square Park, where, unrecognized in his dark glasses, he would sit by the fountain and play with the young musicians and give them pointers. He'd advise them, "Look at anything you see here in the park and then write something about that — that's how you compose."

In October 2008, Maria Elena visited the Brevoort for the first time in 50 years. "I didn't think I could take it," she says. "I was weepy, but a friend took me in and announced to the doorman, 'This is Mrs. Buddy Holly.' And I know this sounds strange ... but I felt Buddy's presence there, and I visualized him smiling and thought I heard him say, 'Finally you came for me.' Because they say that when you die, you come back to the place you left. I hadn't realized that Buddy had been waiting there for 50 years. And I've brought him home with me now."

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This story is from the February 5, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1071: February 5, 2009