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FRIDAY-JAN 23, 1959-MILWAUKEE WIS.

MILLION DOLLAR BALLROOM


After a brief rehearsal in New York and then Chicago, the Winter Dance Party 1959 began on Jan 23 with its first stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The show was to begin at 8:00 pm and the guys were excited. Everyone was full of energy and ready to go. After checking into their hotel, the troupe boarded the bus and headed to George Divine's Million Dollar Ballroom wondering what kind of turn out they would have in the middle of a Wisconsin winter. Things had gotten off to a bad start earlier with the troupe getting lost & they did not arrive at the ballroom until after 9:00 pm! And the weather wasn't cooperating either. Always cold, Milwaukee was buried under 13 inches of snow-it's heaviest snowfall in twelve years! Temperatures were sub-zero and Tommy Allsup would later report that it was so cold that it was difficult to even breathe as they arrived and stepped outside into the cold Wisconsin air. But even the weather didn't stop the teenagers in town from coming out to dance and see the stars. The ballroom was packed with eager kids waiting impatiently for the WDP members to get there and begin the show. Larry Ladd's Entertaining Band, a 1940's swing type group filled in for the troupe for a while but it was clear that the kids wanted rock and roll. Carl Bunch, Holly's drummer says: "The people were ready to riot...before we walked out on stage, I was shaking like a leaf." Whatever his fears as the show started, Carl and the rest of Buddy's band spent the evening backing up all the singers on the tour. There was a surprise also as they started the show..Buddy Holly began his set with a country song-the Billy Grammer hit called "Gotta Travel On". Perhaps Buddy was feeling his country roots at that time, thinking of the days when he and Bob Montgomery had been a country band. He must have also thinking of his wife, Maria Elena back home in New York. Maria told an interviewer in 1993 that Buddy called her that night and told her "I'm going on stage now and I'm leaving the phone off the hook. I want you to hear something." Then he went onstage and sang True Love Ways, which was THEIR song. Maria says it became a ritual. Buddy was to do that every night wherever he was playing for the remainder of the tour. Tommy Allsup in later years said they got a "great reception" in Milwaukee and thet they found it necessary to turn their amplifiers up all the way (to top volume) in order to compete with the constant cheering. Waylon Jennings was struggling with the bass..trying to keep up with Buddy and Tommy, which was no small task! He was not a bass player and had just memorized (in a very short period of time) where to put his fingers on the frets for all the songs. Four times in the evening Buddy turned to Waylon and said something to him but the sound was so loud that Waylon couldn't hear him. Finally Buddy walked over and shouted in his ear.."Turn that g**damn bass down!". Evidently, Waylon was louder than everyone else! The Crickets looks spiffy in their new outfits..gray slacks with black jackets and silver ascots. They had another outfit too and alternated the first set with brown slacks, brown tweed jackets and gold ascots. After the show, Tommy,Waylon and the Bopper went out to relax and sample some of Milwaukees famous beers but Holly didn't join them. Buddy wasn't known to be much of a drinker and an ulcer kept him away from the after show festivities. He was also newly married and missed Maria Elena. Still, at the show that night he had given the kids what they wanted ..pure untamed rock and roll. It was the beginning of a long cold grueling tour that would take them all over the midwest. Had Holly known what lay ahead, perhaps he would have made other arrangements. Perhaps he would have protested and demanded warm transportation and a better schedule. Perhaps he would have even called it quits. But at that moment in time, Buddy knew nothing of the future. That night in Milwaukee they had rocked the house and what was before them was an unwritten story. They were making their mark in history and Reporter Joe Botsford of the Milwaukee Sentinel had this to say about the show the next day:

It was crazy, daddy-the goings-on Friday night at George Devine's Million Dollar Ballroom. Nearly 6,000 young people turned out to hear such rock 'n' roll stars as Buddy Holy and the Crickets, Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts and Ritchie Valens. If you haven't heard them, you haven't lived man.

The show was billed as a 'winter dance party,' but there was little room to dance once the show got underway. The youngsters jammed the front of the huge stage about 50 deep in a row and 20 to 25 rows deep. Others threatened to fall out of the crowded balconies.

It's obvious the Big Beat still has a hold on the kids and it takes steady nerves to withstand the sound. Electric guitars boomed through two loudspeakers with the force of two symphony orchestras in full sway, and the twitching rock'n' rollers invoked screams that surely melted the snow on the roof the ballroom.

Backed by the Crickets-two young guitarists and a drummer-Buddy Holly rocked his beanpole figure onstage, clutched his little guitar against his loud, red coat and jerked his way through Peggy Sue. His voice was scarcely audible over the raucous guitars, but he itchy-twitched in grand style, and that's what the kids wanted.

Dion and the Belmonts, three handsome lads who barely escaped the clutches of the girls readching over the stage to grave their legs, offered ther recording hit, "I Wonder Why, " a big beat ballad.

The liveliest performance was Big Bopper, a chubby crewcut cat, who sported a leopard skin coat and white bucks. He stomped and shuffled his weight around with ease and-surprisingly enough-he had the voice to match his bulk. Everybody demanded and got his hit version of "Chantilly Lace."

A comparative newcomer was the 17-year old, Spanish lad, Ritchie Valens. Only the squares don't know that Ritchie's hit "Donna" is now among the Top 10 tunes in the country.. When he sang it here, his audience swayed back and forth as if hypnotized by the slow love song.

The crowd ranged from Great Lakes sailors and couples in their 20s down to sharp-as-a-tack and well-coifured boys and girls looking scarcely more than 10-12 year old. All had one thing in common-they turned up their noses at a swing band which filled in the time prior to the rock 'n' roll acts.

George Devine beamed broadly, reporting it was his most succesful rock 'n' roll show to date.

Yes, George. It was a fine blast!


Next date-Kenosha, WI    

*The facts above were from several sources. Much of it was gleaned from Larry Lehmer's terrific 1997 book, THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED. This book is a MUST READ for fans and can be purchased through Amazon.

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