The story of the long, cold nights on the road before the ‘Day the Music Died’

[26 January 2009]

By Pamela Huey

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

DULUTH, Minn. - The rickety old bus pulled out of the Duluth Armory late on Saturday, Jan. 31, 1959, and headed across St. Louis Bay into the frigid Wisconsin night.

On board were some exhausted and stinky rock ‘n’ rollers and their harried manager. The Winter Dance Party tour had just finished its ninth gig in as many days and was headed for Appleton and Green Bay, Wis., for two shows that Sunday.

But as the temperature plunged to around 30 below zero and the wind howled, fate intervened. The southbound bus creaked to a stop as it struggled up an incline on Hwy. 51 about 10 miles south of Hurley.

Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Waylon Jennings, Dion and the others were stranded on a remote highway in the northern Wisconsin forest. They huddled under blankets and burned newspapers to try to stay warm. Buddy’s drummer nursed painful frostbitten feet.

It was the night the music almost died.

As Holly fans from around the world converge on Iowa’s Surf Ballroom to remember his death in a plane crash 50 years ago, the little-known story of the bus breakdown and the rest of the grueling tour is worth telling to understand why Holly chartered the airplane at Mason City two nights later .

One of the nation’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll stars, Holly had reluctantly signed onto the tour because he needed the money. But after 11 days of touring, he was tired - tired of the endless miles on frozen buses, tired of performing in dirty clothes, tired of bickering with his manager in Clovis, N.M., and tired of sleeping sitting up.

By all accounts, the rockers gave a rousing performance in Clear Lake on Feb. 2, 1959. But rather than ride that cold bus 365 miles to Moorhead, Holly, J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson and Valens climbed into a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza that crashed into a cornfield in a snowstorm just after take-off.

The story is legend - made more famous by Don McLean’s ‘70s song “American Pie.” Not so well known is what some call the “Tour From Hell.”

The midwinter tour was particularly difficult for Texans Holly and his reconstituted Crickets, and for Valens, a Southern California boy who hadn’t taken a winter coat.

“It was so cold on the bus that we’d have to wear all our clothes, coats and everything. ... I couldn’t believe how cold it was,” wrote Jennings, who played bass for Holly on the tour. The original Crickets were back in Texas.

General Artists Corp. had organized the tour with no thought to geographic sanity.

“They didn’t care,” says Holly historian Bill Griggs. “It was like they threw darts at a map.”

Griggs estimates they had five different buses before driving into Clear Lake - “reconditioned school buses, not good enough for school kids.”

The tour started in Milwaukee on Friday, Jan. 23. It then zig-zagged across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. There were no roadies to set up and pack up, and only icy two-lane highways to get from town to town.

At the Jan. 27 show at the Fiesta Ballroom in Montevideo in western Minnesota, young fans excitedly crowded the stage. All the shows were drawing large, enthusiastic crowds.

Bob Bunn, who played with a local band called the Rockin’ Rebels, wanted Holly to sign his guitar. After the show, he drove to the Highway Cafe, where the singers had gone to eat. Bunn greeted Holly.

“Is it always this damn cold in Minnesota?” Holly asked.

“No,” Bunn replied. “It gets a lot colder.”

On Jan. 31, the tour made its second-longest haul - 368 miles from Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Duluth. Bob Dylan, then a high schooler from Hibbing, Minn., has told the story of making eye contact with Holly. “He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I’ll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1984.

The Duluth show ran until about 11 p.m. The balky bus had been kept in the Armory basement to stay warm. Tour members packed up and headed into the brutally cold night.

Tommy Allsup, the Crickets’ lead guitar, has vivid memories of that next unscheduled stop.

“We had started up this incline, it was snowing real bad, and the bus just started going slower and slower, and the lights got dimmer and dimmer, and all of a sudden the bus stopped,” Allsup recalls. “The driver said, ‘The bus is frozen.’ ... It was so cold, and we were just sitting there right in the middle of the road. Everybody started thinking we were about to freeze to death.”

Dion’s Belmonts started lighting newspapers to generate some warmth. Holly drummer Carl Bunch was in pain and having difficulty moving his legs. Allsup looked at Bunch’s feet; they had turned brown.

Suddenly they saw headlights in the distance. A sheriff’s deputy, alerted by a passing trucker, sized up the dire situation and got four cars to take the musicians to Hurley. He also got Bunch to the hospital, where the drummer would learn two days later about the plane crash.

Gene Calvetti, now 85, towed the bus to his dad’s garage. He recalls arriving at the scene to find the guys “complaining about the cold and scared of bears.” He also remembers the bus engine “was shot.”

The musicians ended up at the Club Carnival in Hurley to get something to eat. Some went to a hotel to get a short night’s rest. The next day, they headed to Green Bay by train and Greyhound bus; the Appleton show was canceled.

Monday, Feb. 2, was supposed to be an off-day. But at the last minute, Clear Lake was booked. So it was back on the bus for the 355-mile trip.

Cold wasn’t the only discomfort.

“We tried to hang our wrinkled suits in the aisle, and after a while, it got kind of ripe in there. We smelled like goats,” Jennings wrote.

But the awful conditions also sparked camaraderie, story-telling and jamming on the bus.

Dion described in his autobiography how he and Holly huddled under blankets. “Through the dark hours while we waited for something to happen, we would tell each other stories. Him, about Lubbock. Me, about the Bronx. I could always get a laugh out of him - soft and low like his drawl.”

John Mueller, who plays Holly in a traveling road show called “Winter Dance Party,” has a unique insight into what the ‘50s performers endured. In 1999, Mueller and the other musicians tried to replicate the ‘59 tour, performing at all the original venues - but traveling in warm, comfortable minivans. “By the time we got to Clear Lake, I had lost my voice, I had lost about 10 to 15 pounds, I was just physically exhausted, as was everybody in the group,” he said.

Holly historian Griggs thinks the Wisconsin bus breakdown was the last straw: “Buddy had his mind made up then. He thought, ‘I don’t want to go another 400 miles on this bus.’”

As every Holly aficionado knows, Allsup and Jennings were supposed to be on the plane. But they gave up their seats to Valens (who won a coin toss with Allsup) and the Bopper (who was sick).

When Buddy learned that Jennings’ seat had gone to the Bopper, he approached his bass player, who was haunted for years by their next exchange.

“Well,” Holly said with a grin. “I hope your damned bus freezes up again.”

“Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” Jennings responded.

Holly headed for the plane, and the bus headed for Moorhead.

Holly buffs also know that Robert Velline, 15, of Fargo filled in at the Moorhead show. Velline became Bobby Vee, who now lives near St. Cloud, Minn. At 65, he is still touring the country and once again is part of this year’s Clear Lake show.

“I shamelessly do a tribute to Holly in just about every show that I do. He was my Elvis, as much as I loved Elvis, Buddy was the guy who spoke to me.”

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