The most storied of all rock tours began Jan. 23, 1959, at Milwaukee’s Eagles Club and ended in a frozen Iowa cornfield 11 days later.
They called it the Winter Dance Party, and it featured Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts, the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) and an aspiring teen idol named Frankie Sardo.
50 years later, Buddy Holly remains frozen in time
The Winter Dance Party was often long on winter and short on party. The tour trekked across the upper Midwest in an old school bus with a faulty heater, visiting obscure venues like the Laramar Ballroom in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and the Kato Ballroom in Mankato, Minn.
It got so cold on the bus that the musicians started burning newspapers in the aisle in a desperate attempt to generate warmth. Drummer Carl Bunch actually had to be hospitalized for frostbite.
The tour eventually made its way to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. After the show, hoping to get some rest and escape another night on that chilly bus, Holly, Valens and the Bopper chartered a small plane to fly them to the next stop in Fargo, N.D.
They made it just a few miles from the airport. Their pilot, 21-year-old Roger Peterson, wasn’t certified for night flying. Possibly confused by the darkness and a light snow, Peterson apparently thought he was climbing when he was actually diving. The plane may have been hurtling at 150 mph when it hit the frozen ground nose first. All four men aboard died instantly.
It may have lasted just 11 days, but that tour still echoes in legend a half century later. It’s been celebrated on film in two hit movies, “The Buddy Holly Story” and “La Bamba,” and it was mythologized as “the day the music died,” in Don McLean’s massive 1971 hit “American Pie” (sung Sunday by Garth Brooks at the massive “We Are One” presidential inauguration welcome event in Washington, D.C.).
The tour’s principal players - Holly, Dion and Valens - all have been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Holly and Valens have been honored with postage stamps. The Surf Ballroom holds a memorial concert each year to mark the anniversary. Music fans of a new generation may have been introduced to Holly on the “Juno” soundtrack.
The 50th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party tour is being acknowledged with multiple concerts and events nationally. Here are some of the major happenings:
John Mueller’s Winter Dance Party, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, 901 15th Ave., South Milwaukee. $35 adults, $30 seniors, $15 students at (414) 766-5049.
This long-running dramatization of Holly’s last tour features Jay Richardson, the Big Bopper’s son, and has been endorsed by estates of all three stars. Like the original tour, John Mueller’s Winter Dance Party will also play the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wis., and Madrigrano Marina Shores in Kenosha, Wis.
50 Winters Later: The Commemorative Concert, Feb. 2 at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa
This star-studded event features Los Lobos, Tommy Allsup and the Crickets, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, Los Lonely Boys, Wanda Jackson, Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens, Graham Nash, Bobby Vee, Peter & Gordon, Cousin Brucie and Tim Rice. Special guests are also expected. Tickets are $85; for more information, go to www.50winterslater.com.
Two young filmmakers, Jim McCool of Madison and Sevan Garabedian of Montreal, are producing a documentary film tentatively titled “The Winter Dance Party: Revisited and Remembered.”
They have interviewed the surviving musicians from the tour and are interested in meeting with anyone who might have attended or have pictures from the Milwaukee performance at George Devine’s Million Dollar Ballroom. They are offering to pay for pictures from the show.
Garabedian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (514) 931-6959. The crowd at the Devine’s show was estimated at 6,000, and so far they have found only four fans who attended.
Geffen is marking the anniversary with two new box sets: the three-disc “Buddy Holly Memorial Collection” and the double-disc “Buddy Holly: Down the Line - The Rarities.”
“Memorial Collection” features 60 tracks spanning Holly’s earliest country recordings, his classic hits and selections from “The Apartment Tapes.” “Down the Line” features tracks from both “The Apartment Tapes” and “The Garage Tapes,” unfinished recordings from late in Holly’s career.