The Day the music was born.
On those tours in 1958 we went from glory to glory, headlining with the likes of Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”), Gene Vincent (“Be-Bop-A-Lula”), and Bobby Darin (“Splish Splash”).
Bobby was another Italian boy from the Bronx, a few years my senior and more hip to the ways of the business world. He became a close friend and a mentor, giving me good advice about how to read my contracts and file my taxes. Bobby grew up the same way I did and had many of the same worries. He spoke to my frugal nature, my inner Mom. A lot of early rockers got jerked around and bled dry by their agents, their record companies, and the crowd of scammers that follow the money wherever it goes. If I managed to survive rock stardom with a couple nickels to rub together, no small credit goes to Bobby Darin, who spoke my language (Bronx) and gave me free accounting lessons on the tour bus.
Glory to glory — in the fall we got invited to join another superstar, Buddy Holly, on what was billed as “The Biggest Show of Stars.” Buddy had a streak of hits that could could make Joe DiMaggio jealous: “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday, “Oh Boy,” “Maybe, Baby,” and “It’s So Easy (to Fall in Love).” He’d only been recording for a year, but he had already established a rock n roll sound that everyone was mimicking.
I got to know Buddy when he moved to New York in August. He’d just married a New Yorker, Maria Elena Santiago, and he was happy in his new apartment. (He’d proposed to Maria Elena on their first date.)
We spent three weeks together on “The Biggest Show of Stars,” and we established a strong relationship — friendship and mutual musical admiration. When Buddy invited me to join him on his upcoming all-star “Winter Dance Party” tour, I was honored, and I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Now, keep in mind all those things I told you about the early days of rock n roll. There was lots of money flying around, and we were pulling down a good bit of it. But we were nowhere near the days when rock stars owned private jets and traveled with an entourage of valets and hairdressers. Most of the time, we went from town to town in the kind of yellow bus we had ridden to school only a few years before. We did our own laundry. We packed our own bags. (I still do. Old habits die hard.)
And we weren’t playing big arenas with lighted mirrors in the dressing rooms. We sang our hearts out in venues like Sans Souci Park in Wilkes Barre, Pa., where we had to compete for attention with the roller coaster and Ferris wheel.
So when Angelo, Carlo, Freddie, and I signed up for a touring “Party” set for the Midwestern states in the dead of winter, we knew we weren’t going on a pleasure cruise. But we could rock n roll with the world’s greatest names. Buddy had booked Ritchie Valens — the Latino kid from Los Angeles who’d made it big with “La Bamba” — and the Big Bopper, J. P. Richardson, who was best known for “Chantilly Lace.”
You may already know how this story ends. It’s part of rock n roll mythology by now. People call it “the day the music died,” after Don McLean’s poetic midrash in his 1971 hit “American Pie.”
But what you think you know may not be the truth. I was there. I was one of the headliners on that concert tour, and I’ve read all the interviews, all the things that pass themselves off as histories — and I can authoritatively say to you that most of it is bunk. The events, as they happened, have been completely eclipsed by urban legends, cinematic retellings, gossip, and outright grandstanding. There are people whose lives peaked because they were somewhere near the epicenter of the pop-culture earthquake that happened on February 2, 1959. They’ve exaggerated their role, which is understandable and forgivable; but, in doing so, they’ve distorted history, and they’ve unintentionally done an injustice to the memory of my friends.
For fifty years I kept quiet about this, until very recently, when the historians at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame asked me to help them reconcile conflicting accounts of the tour. I gave them the same facts I’m giving you in this book. I have nothing to lose or gain from my telling of the story. My career was well established when I set out from New York with my group, the Belmonts. That’s why we were on an all-star tour in the first place. I’ve been able, thank God, to continue making music ever since. I never needed to hitch my wagon to a death-star to hold on to fame. I’m willing to bet that most of the people who’ve come to my shows and bought my records know nothing about my connection with the Winter Dance Party or its fateful events.
Nevertheless, for my friends’ sake, I feel obligated to set the record straight.
* * *
We expected discomfort, but we weren’t quite ready for what we got on this three-week “Party.” America’s Heartland is a lovely place full of lovely people; but, let me tell you, its winters make New York December look like Palm Beach in May. We made our way through Iowa, where the temperature dropped to twenty-five below zero at high noon. And that’s before wind chill.
That would have been all right. We had no desire — and no time — to get out and throw a football around. We would have been happy to sleep on the bus, except that it wasn’t the latest model. It was pretty drafty, and its heating system was non-functional.
You think I’m exaggerating? Buddy’s drummer on that tour, Carl Bunch, got a nasty case of frostbite while he was sitting on the bus and had to be admitted to a local hospital. Buddy wasn’t traveling with his band, the Crickets, at the time; they’d had a rift. So we were all sharing backup musicians — and we were all playing backup for one another. Carlo Mastrangelo took over behind the drum kit when Buddy was singing. Ritchie Valens took over the drumming for the Bopper. And Buddy drummed for me. I’m the only rock singer who can boast that Buddy Holly drummed for my backup band.
On the bus we would sing together, to keep warm. I wrote us a song called “I’m Gonna Hug My Radiator When I Hit My Hotel Room,” and all the guys sang it with gusto. (I recorded it, decades later, on my Deja Nu album.)
The schedule got more crowded as the promoters called us with new bookings, new dates, in out-of-the-way places. That meant more time on the road, in the bus. One of those last-minute additions was a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. By the time we got there, we were all pretty miserable. Buddy gathered up the headliners and told us he couldn’t take another night on the bus; he was going to try to charter a plane to take us to the next stop on the tour, Moorhead, Minnesota.
He found us a single-engine craft that could sit three in addition to the pilot. Thus, only the three of us would be able to make the trip. We were the ones making the money, and the only ones who could afford the flight. The problem was that there were four headliners — Buddy, Ritchie, the Big Bopper, and me — and only three seats. Someone would have to ride the bus.
In a closed dressing room, we flipped a coin to see who was going to fly. The Big Bopper and I won the toss.
Then Buddy told us what the flight would cost: $36.
Thirty-six bucks. That figure set off an alarm in my brain.
All my childhood, I had listened to my parents argue about money, argue about the rent, and the figure kept coming up. So I could never forget how much they paid. It was thirty-six bucks.
I couldn’t bring myself to spend a month’s rent on an hour’s flight to Minnesota. I had too much of my mother in me.
I said to Ritchie, “You go.”
He shouldn’t have said yes. Ritchie had a dread terror of airplanes. When he was a little kid, a plane crashed into his school playground, killing some of his schoolmates. His manager got him over the fear by showing how it would limit his career. Ritchie took the lesson all too well.
He accepted my offer and took my seat.
Only the four of us knew who was getting on that plane when we left that dressing room that night. Of the four who were in that room, I’m the only one who survived beyond February 3, 1959.
The plane took off around one in the morning from the Mason City Municipal Airport. As it flew away, the plane’s owner, watching from the tower, noticed the taillight begin to descend and then disappear. Air-traffic controllers tried to make contact by radio, but got nothing. After daylight, they found the wreckage in a cornfield, about five miles from the airport. The pilot and all three of my friends were dead.
* * *
There are times when clichés sound hollow. There are times when they sound cruel. The promoters, of course, were distraught by the news. They had a fondness for the guys, and they had a lot invested in the future of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. But they had no doubt about what they would tell us.
“The show must go on.”
We met our obligations, every one of them, joined by Jimmy Clanton (“Just a Dream”) and Bobby Vee, a sixteen-year-old from North Dakota who’d been profoundly influenced by Buddy Holly. The world would hear more from him in the years ahead — “Take Good Care of My Baby” would hit Number One — but this winter party was his big break.
We got back on our bus, but we weren’t in the mood for singing. We felt a lot of “survivor’s guilt,” and we discussed the events of February 2 over and over again. I told the story of the coin toss, and it went abroad from there, in various forms, picking up new characters and dramatic twists along the way.
It was a long, numb two weeks till the tour closed on February 18.
I went back to New York and tried to go home. Every culture and every ethnic group has its own way of dealing with grief. In my family, we bottled it up. We didn’t say anything. And there weren’t any grief counselors in the Bronx in 1959.
My knucklehead friend must have felt bad for me, but didn’t really know what to say. They’d try to get me interested in gang life again, to make me feel better. They’d invite me to go out and bust some heads.
They didn’t get it. But, frankly, neither did I. How do you make sense of something like this? I leaned on Susan, and I leaned into my addictions.
As much as I kept quiet, the story kept coming back to me, and in the most absurd forms. Some people used it to get the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol would one day promise everybody — but they were extending their time with a lot of Hamburger Helper.
If all the people who said they’d flipped a coin with Buddy Holly were telling the truth, we would’ve needed a military personnel carrier to fit them all. I didn’t think the coin flip was important, because it was not the deciding factor for my taking the bus. But I guess a story like that makes for good TV, and it makes the guys respect you at the bar.
I found the whole business distasteful and even made an oblique reference to it in a song in the Sixties.
But Don McLean got more notice with his song about “the day the music died.”
I prefer to think about it as the day the music was born. In Buddy Holly and the Crickets, rock music had found its lasting form: two guitars, a bass, and drums. The news of Buddy and his “widowed bride” touched a lot of people deep inside, and it made them love their music all the more, because they knew the artists were mortal. The songs may last forever, but we singers were trying to outrun the clock.
Years later I read a line about a natural process and it seemed to provide a good analogy for what happened to us and to rock n roll back in 1959.
Jesus told his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).