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A survivor of the day the music died

by Larry Katz

Thursday, November 9, 2000


Three rock 'n' roll ghosts will hover over the North Shore Music Theatre Monday night.

In the most imaginative bit of oldies packaging in recent memory, local promoter Harvey Robbins will evoke the legendary last concert of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper at his annual Royalty of Doo-Wopp show.

Holly, Valens and the Bopper died in a 1959 plane crash in a Iowa cornfield, a stunning event later immortalized as "the day the music died" in Don McLean's song "American Pie."

Monday's concert, billed as "The Show That Never Died," will feature Buddy Holly's original Crickets, the Big Bopper's son (J.P. Richardson Jr.), Valens' nephew Ernie Valens and the Belmonts, who with then-leader Dion also performed at that fateful show.

In fact, the Belmonts' Fred Milano is the only performer on Monday's bill who was actually there the night before the day the music died: The two other original Belmonts have since left the group and the original Crickets - Jerry Allison, Sonny Curtis and Joe B. Mauldin - had split with Holly when he left his native Texas to advance his career in New York City.

Even though Holly had agreed to let the Crickets keep their name, he nevertheless was touring with a group of new Crickets, which included a young bass player named Waylon Jennings.

"We were playing these ballrooms they had all over the Midwest," Milano recalls, "and it was the dead of winter. What happened was that one night this dilapidated bus we were riding around in broke down. It was about 35 degrees below zero. I kid you not. Buddy Holly's drummer (Carl Bunch) got frostbite. So he couldn't do the show anymore. Carlo (Mastrangelo) in our group was a drummer originally, so he filled in on the rest of the shows. Except when we went on, Buddy Holly played drums for us. So Dion says, 'Can you imagine that he'd be playing drums behind us?' So I went over to Buddy and said, 'Did you ever think you'd back up Dion and the Belmonts on drums?' And he said, 'No, what a great thing.' He felt the same way we did."

The grueling conditions of what was called the Winter Dance Party tour fostered a camaraderie among the acts, which included the soon-forgotten Frankie Sardo as opener.

"We had done a tour before with Buddy Holly but never got close to him," Milano says. "We thought he was cocky. But living on a bus together we all got really close. We found out that Buddy was really shy. His cockiness was like a defense.

"Ritchie Valens would call his mother every night and he'd put us on the phone. She could hardly talk English, but we'd tell her Ritchie was doing good. I remember in the movie about him ('La Bamba'), they said he didn't speak Spanish. But he talked Spanish to his mother."

The oversized Big Bopper, then riding high on the charts with "Chantilly Lace," was "hysterical," Milano says, "a real clown. He originally was a disc jockey and he held the record at the time for staying awake the most hours. So we'd kid him. 'What do you mean you're tired?'"

On Feb. 2, 1959, the tour pulled into Clear Lake, Iowa, to play the Surf Ballroom. To avoid a long, cold bus ride to the next day's show in Moorhead, Minn., Holly had chartered a small plane to fly him and his band to nearby Fargo, N.D. But the Big Bopper and Valens prevailed on the Crickets to let them go with Holly instead.

When Holly found out, he joked to bassman Jennings, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes over." Jennings cracked back, "I hope your plane crashes."

Shortly after takeoff, it did.

"We were on the bus," says Milano, who was 19 at the time. "We didn't know what happened until 2 o'clock the next afternoon when we got to Minnesota. It was a shock. A heartbreaker. Then when we called home, everyone thought we were dead, because that's what had been reported on the radio.

"We had to make a decision whether or not to play that night. Frankie Sardo, us, Waylon Jennings and Buddy's guitar player Tommy (Allsup) got together. Everybody agreed that Buddy and the others would want us to play. It was the old thing, the show must go on. To fill out the bill they got a local kid from North Dakota, Bobby Vee, who was an unknown at the time. The next night, they had added Frankie Avalon and Jimmy Clanton to the tour. We just continued and finished the whole tour."

One last question: Whatever happened to Frankie Sardo?

"He was from New York like us," Milano says, "so I thought we'd see him after the tour. But you know something? We never did."

"Royalty of Doo-Wopp: The Show That Never Died," Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly. Tickets: $42. Call (978) 232-7200.


Used with permission © Boston Herald