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Display meant to revive interest in Big Bopper

Bill Hanna
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

HILLSBORO, Texas -- It was the first rock `n' roll tragedy.

It's been immortalized in song as "the day the music died."

And now memories of the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, better known as the Big Bopper, are literally being resurrected.

The rusted gold coffin that once contained the Big Bopper's body is going on display at the fledgling Texas Musicians Museum in Hillsboro.

Don't worry, the body isn't inside.

It was reburied in March in a new casket in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Beaumont, Texas.

The old, empty casket is scheduled to arrive in Hillsboro on Saturday in a 1949 hearse, accompanied by a floral arrangement similar to the one at his funeral.

"It is kind of an odd thing to display," said Thomas Kreason, director of the Texas Musicians Museum, who used to work for the Hard Rock Cafe in Dallas and Sun Studios in Memphis. "We knew there might be some people who might view it as a morbid kind of thing, but we felt it was a very positive thing."

It will likely stay on display for about a month, perhaps longer if it generates enough interest.

The Big Bopper's son, Jay P. Richardson, hopes the display will generate attention to his father's career.

"There may be hatemongers who don't think it's right, but I don't worry about them," Richardson said. "If you don't want to see it, don't see it. It was my father's casket; he was in it for 48 years. That's a piece of metal you're looking at. If you got a problem with it, I got other things to worry about."

He also hopes the attention to the casket and a movie that is scheduled to start shooting soon will eventually lead to his father's induction into the Rock `n' Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Holly and Valens.

"I don't want my dad in the Hall of Fame because he died with Buddy Holly," Richardson said. "I want him there because of his ability as a songwriter and a performer."

Headliner Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper, along with backing musicians, were on the Winter Dance Party Tour when the tour bus developed heater problems. After a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly chartered a four-seat plane to fly him and two other musicians to the next stop, Fargo, N.D.

Holly had wanted Waylon Jennings, a member of Holly's band, the Crickets, to fly with him, but the Big Bopper was ill, so Jennings gave up his seat to him. According to some accounts, Valens won a coin toss for the other seat.

The plane took off a little after 1 a.m. Feb. 3. A few miles from the Mason City, Iowa, airport, it plunged into a snow-covered cornfield. The pilot, a 21-year-old with little experience, and the three passengers were killed.

Older baby boomers still recall the shock of hearing about the deaths, which were immortalized as "the day the music died" by Don McLean in his 1971 hit, "American Pie."

Jay P. Richardson met Jennings when he was 18, a meeting that fueled his interest in his father's music. He visited the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, site of his father's last performance. He now performs as Big Bopper Jr. and is scheduled to appear at the ballroom for the 49th and 50th anniversaries of his father's last show.

In Beaumont, the Big Bopper's body was exhumed so that it could be moved to another part of the cemetery. A statue is planned there in his honor.

The exhumation also allowed Richardson to quash a rumor about his father's death.

The Big Bopper's body was found farthest from the plane, and after a farmer found Holly's pistol near the site of the wreck the next spring, the rumor started that the Big Bopper had been shot.

Richardson hired Bill Bass, a University of Tennessee forensic anthropologist, to study the body. Bass declared that the Bopper died on impact and had not been shot.

To everyone's surprise, the Big Bopper's body was perfectly preserved.

"I never knew my father," Richardson said. "I was actually able to see my father for the first time. Dad was amazingly totally preserved down to the crease in his pants. It wasn't anything ghoulish; it was no different for me than to do a viewing of someone who passed away a couple of days ago."

The Big Bopper was best known for the song "Chantilly Lace," but he also wrote George Jones' first No. 1 hit, "White Lightning," and the No. 1 hit "Running Bear", recorded by Johnny Preston.

Some of his songs, such as "The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor," were more novelty tunes.

He started out as a disc jockey in Beaumont and dreamed of owning a radio station in Denver even though he had never visited Colorado, his son said. His supporters also contend that he created the first music videos, two decades before MTV.

Richardson wants to see his father's life told on screen, as filmmakers have done for Holly and Valens.

Houston writer and producer Johnette Duff has written a screenplay about Richardson coming to terms with his father's legacy. She hopes the film, "The Day The Music Died," will be completed in time for the 50th anniversary of the crash, in February 2009.

"To me, the exhumation was the end of the story," Duff said. "It was a satisfying ending for Jay. This was an opportunity to say hello and goodbye at the same time."

___

THE TEXAS MUSICIANS MUSEUM

The museum is at 212 N. Waco St. in Hillsboro, Texas. The Big Bopper's casket will go on display at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Museum hours: Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; Sunday through Tuesday, closed except by appointment.

Information: 254-580-9780, www.texasmusiciansmuseum.com and bigboppermovie.com.

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