ON JAN. 31, 1959, young Bobby Zimmerman drove 50 miles from his hometown of Hibbing, Minn., to Duluth, Minn. Zimmerman wanted to see Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson (aka the Big Bopper), Ritchie Valens, Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts appear at a show labeled the Winter Dance Party. Zimmerman bought a $2 ticket (and possibly another for his girlfriend, Echo) and attended the show with more than 2,000 other teens. The local paper in Duluth called it “one of the biggest dances in the history of Duluth.”
For the performers, the Winter Dance Party was a nightmare. The promoter of the tour, General Artists Corporation (GAC) impractically calculated the travel mileage between shows — consecutive shows were booked hundreds of miles apart. To make matters worse, the winter of 1959 was one of the coldest on record, with temperatures falling certain nights to -30 degrees. The heaters on the tour buses were constantly failing, and even when they worked, they didn’t provide adequate warmth. The performers put on every stitch of clothing they owned and some bought blankets to use during the bus rides.
The tour bus had broken down just outside Duluth after a grueling 350-mile ride from Fort Dodge, Iowa. A replacement bus was located, and, immediately after the Duluth show, the troupe started a 330-mile trip to Appleton, Wis., for a matinee. (An evening show was to follow in Green Bay.) At Hurley, on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, the bus motor froze up, throwing a piston completely through the frozen engine block. The temperature was a bone-freezing -40 degrees. Snow drifts were 6 feet deep.
Stalled on the highway next to woods full of bears, Tommy Allsup (Buddy Holly’s guitarist) recalled, “We burned newspapers in the aisle to try to keep warm.” A freightliner passed the bus without stopping, seemingly ignoring Holly and his friends, who were outside in the cold frantically waving their arms. After two long hours, help finally arrived, but it was too late for Carl Bunch, Holly’s drummer. Bunch had both feet severely frostbitten despite wearing six pairs of socks. GAC was informed Bunch was delirious — in the hospital in extreme pain. The afternoon show in Appleton was canceled, but GAC remained unconcerned about the health or well-being of the performers. The exhausted troupe was informed the show must go on in Green Bay that same night. Holly was the star of the show. He was also a consummate professional. Bunch was the tour drummer, so Holly filled in on drums for Ritchie Valens, Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts.
An extra show was added to the tour at the last minute. It also was logistically idiotic, requiring the group to travel from Green Bay to Clear Lake, Iowa — 350 miles south — to the Surf Ballroom, a popular local venue with shows hosted by local rock ’n’ roll DJ Bob Hale. Holly was upset at the addition of the show. As the star of the tour, he was under pressure to keep up the morale of the band. He’d recently left his manager Norman Petty, and the split was bitter. Petty, in fact, contrived to cajole Holly’s band, the Crickets — Joe B. Mauldin and Jerry Allison — into leaving Holly, saying, “You don’t need Buddy — we’ll find another lead singer.” Holly was newly married and at a crossroads in his life and career. He was forced onto the tour because Petty had withheld royalties owed to Buddy by claiming an audit was required.
“We needed money,” Holly’s wife, Maria Elena, recalls. “My aunt was paying our rent.” Petty told those within earshot that he “hoped to starve Buddy into coming back.” He also sent a telegram to Holly on Feb. 2, ordering him to “cease and desist using the name the Crickets.”
Holly was hoping to rest — maybe a warm bath and a soft bed for one night? Chartering an airplane had been mentioned several times on the tour by Ritchie Valens and Dion DiMucci. The troupe had ridden in several different buses. They boarded yet another replacement bus immediately after the show in Green Bay to ride to Clear Lake, hoping to arrive by 4 p.m. on Feb. 2. The bus left in -25-degree weather. It skidded and nearly broke down several times during the trip through lower Wisconsin, finally quitting outside of Clear Lake. The tour group finished its trip to the Surf Ballroom in an old rented school bus. “At least the heater worked,” Allsup recalled.
The bus arrived at 7:45 p.m.; musicians were due on stage at 8 p.m. The Ballroom was packed — sold out. The entertainers were allowed to eat dinner. (Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper ate at Witke’s Restaurant.) Bob Hale said the young men were tired but courteous. Holly apologized for their smelly clothes. They hadn’t been able to do laundry for days.
After the Surf Ballroom show, the bus was to immediately leave for Moorhead, Minn., 430 miles to the north. Holly asked Surf Ballroom owner Carroll Anderson if he knew where he could charter a plane. Holly planned to leave ahead of the bus so he could take care of laundry for the performers. A call was made to Dwyer Flying Service at the Mason City Airport, a mile and a half away. Roger Peterson, a young pilot, just 21 years old, was a Holly fan who’d been flying four years. He agreed to fly Holly, despite having worked the previous 17 hours. At the last minute, however, Peterson had second thoughts and called another pilot, Duane Mayfield, to ask if he’d fill in. Mayfield said “No thanks, I’m more of a Lawrence Welk fan myself.”
Peterson had over 700 hours of flying experience, but he’d recently failed his test for instrument rating. Because of this failure, he was restricted to VFR flying (i.e., flying when the ground is visible). He’d also experienced issues in the past with vertigo. Peterson’s license, dated Nov. 4, 1958, didn’t allow him to fly on a pitch dark night. The flight was to leave the Mason City Airport after midnight and travel to Fargo, N.D. Moorhead, Minn., didn’t have an airport, and Fargo was 17 miles away, across the Red River. Holly needed two others to split the cost of the $108 fare, so his band members Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings agreed to pay $36 dollars each to fly ahead with Holly.
The Surf Ballroom was filled to the rafters with an estimated crowd of 1,300 plus. It was the largest crowd to date at the Ballroom, unprecedented since it was a Monday night. The first part of the show ran from 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; after intermission, the show continued to the finale at 11:55 p.m. According to witnesses, Holly lifted the roof and was the star of the show. During the evening, Richardson (the Big Bopper), from Beaumont, Texas, easily talked Jennings out of his airplane seat. Richardson had a miserable cold, and the idea of riding the frigid bus was dreary. Valens had never flown in a small plane — he’d only recently overcame his fear of flying. Valens pestered Allsup for his seat on the four-passenger, V-tail, Beechcraft Bonanza. Allsup agreed to flip a fifty cent piece with Valens for his seat. Valens won the toss. Allsup kept the coin and later owned a bar called Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon in Fort Worth.
Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper, along with Peterson, the pilot, were all on cloud nine as Bonanza N 3794N took off shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1959. For the three stars, it was three on a match with a black cat in their laps.
Jerry Dwyer, the owner of Dwyer Flying Service, watched the small plane ascend into the cold night sky. It then appeared to him that the tail light had descended into the ground. Dwyer hoped it was an optical illusion, but the tower couldn’t make radio contact with pilot Peterson. The next morning, Dwyer took off in a plane to trace the path of the Bonanza. He discovered the remains of the crash in a farm field just five miles from the airport. The investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board (precursor to the National Transportation Safety Board) determined Peterson had taken off in gusty wind conditions and possibly ran into heavy snow flurries, which caused a “whiteout” — or perhaps the pitch darkness, compounded with his fatigue and his vertigo, had caused spatial disorientation.
A newly installed gyroscope on the aircraft also read opposite to an older gyro Peterson was familiar with. He’d thought he was climbing but was descending. The plane made contact with the ground at 175 mph. Holly, Richardson and Valens didn’t have a chance — they had massive injuries, and every bone in their bodies was seemingly broken. Peterson’s body had to be cut out of the metal in the cockpit.
It was Feb. 3, 1959, a day of infamy in rock ’n’ roll history. A greedy tour promotion company, a conniving ex-manager and dirty laundry had snuffed the lives of a young pilot, two brilliant rock stars and the father of the rock ’n’ roll band. Holly was only 22 years old.
Young Bobby Zimmerman would grow up to become Bob Dylan. He later told Rolling Stone, “I’ll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand — and he died — a week after that.” Dylan later called Holly’s music “meaningful music to me even to this day.” When Dylan was awarded the Best Album Grammy in 1998 for Time Out of Mind, he said from the stage, “I just want to say that when I was 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory. I was three feet away from him … and he looked at me. And I have some sort of feeling — I don’t know how or why — but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record.”
Holly was a comet. His career lasted just 18 short months. He shaped rock ’n’ roll within a shorter time period than any performer in history. Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, even Dylan didn’t achieve what Holly and the Crickets accomplished in just a year and a half.
The Crickets created the model for the rock ’n’ roll band, for singer-songwriters who wrote, created and performed their own music. The Crickets were the mold for Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards and countless others. Holly had opened for Elvis, and he loved Little Richard, but he became a true original. Elvis took rhythm and blues and sold sex. Holly sold himself. He looked geeky (mostly due to his glasses and bad promotion photos), but make no mistake: Buddy and the Crickets were a genuine, fierce rock ’n’ roll band. The Beatles chose their name in homage to the Crickets. The third single and first U.K. Top 10 hit for the Rolling Stones was “Not Fade Away.” Rock critic Philip Norman has argued that Presley was a “gorgeous transient,” while Holly and the Crickets were “pioneering revolutionaries.” Norman called Holly “the century’s most influential musician.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame notes, “Rock ’n’ roll as we know it wouldn’t exist today without Buddy Holly.” Holly and the Crickets, as a group, have five records listed in Rolling Stone’s top 500 rock ’n’ roll songs of all time. It all started in Texas.
Back home in Lubbock, Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin were crushed at the news of Holly’s death. Jerry (known as J.I. to his friends) and Joe B. had decided to call Holly while he was out on tour, hoping it might lead to a reunion of the group, with Sonny Curtis joining them (Curtis played with Holly before the Crickets and had known Holly since 1954). Holly had once said, “You ever want to get back with me, just call.”
Coincidentally, they’d called Maria Holly the night of Buddy’s death, but when they called the venue in Clear Lake, on Maria’s advice, they discovered Holly had already left. Joe B. left a message at the next tour stop, but Holly never made it.
The Crickets could have folded shop, but like a phoenix rising out of the ashes they continued as a rock ’n’ roll band. The Crickets were brilliant artists and musicians. Their Texas influence continued for years to come.
Mostly ignored in America on the record charts after Holly’s death, their singles still made the Top 40 in England. The band continued in one form or another til just a few years ago. It must be a record for longevity for an American rock ’n’ roll band.
Immediately following Holly’s death J.I. Allison and the Crickets backed the Everly Brothers on tour. Since that time Allison and Curtis have played with or backed Elvis, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and countless other rock legends. Allison played drums for Roger Miller for years. Allison and Sonny Curtis and the Crickets opened for Waylon Jennings for five years and played behind Waylon at his shows. The Crickets’ song, “More Than I Can Say,” was a No. 26 U.K. hit in 1960, a No. 4 U.K. hit by Bobby Vee in 1961 and a No. 2 U.S. hit in 1981 for Leo Sayer.
Allison continued his brilliant, innovative drumming on many hit records, including the No. 4 hit in 1959, “Til I Kissed You,” by the Everly Brothers. He’d drum on hit records by Johnny Burnette, Bobby Vee, Johnny Rivers, Eddie Cochran and others. With Holly he co-wrote “That’ll be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” — two of the most influential rock songs of all time. Allison also wrote “Not Fade Away,” but he wasn’t given credit for authoring the song (it was credited, on Norman Petty’s insistence, to Petty and Charles Hardin, Holly’s first and middle names).
Curtis wrote the Crickets’ immortal garage/punk rock song, “I Fought the Law,” recorded in 1959. The song would hit the Top 10 courtesy of the El Paso rock band the Bobby Fuller Four in 1966, and later, in 1979, it was covered by the Clash. It’s recognized both by Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Curtis also wrote “Walk Right Back,” a 1960 hit for the Everly Brothers, and “The Straight Life,” a 1968 hit for Bobby Goldsboro. One of television’s most popular theme songs, “Love is All Around,” was written and performed by Curtis for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In 1987 Curtis co-wrote the 1989 Country Music Association single of the year, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” recorded by the late Keith Whitley.
The Crickets — Joe B. Mauldin, Niki Sullivan, J.I. Allison and Sonny Curtis — are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.