WINTER DANCE PARTY 1959
THE LAST TOUR
The last tour of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper was called The Winter Dance Party. Put together by the owner of General Artist Corporation, Irvin Feld, the Winter Dance Party was not a new concept in 1958/59. The 1950's had seen several such tours, including some organized by popular DJ Alan Freed. On these tours, various rock and roll acts would travel together, usually by bus, performing their current hit songs. The tours were rough, but rock and roll was new and exciting and most of the performers young. There were no fancy tour buses to travel in back in those days and racial tension remained strong in the south, making it very difficult to find a place to eat on the road if you happened to be black. Even though Ritchie Valens had never been on a major traveling tour before the Winter Dance Party, Buddy Holly, and Dion & the Belmonts, and the Big Bopper were old pros by the time the Winter Dance Party rolled around. Indeed, Holly was quite a veteran having not only toured England and Australia but also the Midwest, which, ironically would turn out to be the scene of his last performance. Irvin Feld was one of the biggest tour promoters in the business back in those days and Buddy was well acquainted with him. Following the success of his hit, "That'll Be The Day" in 1957, Holly and the Crickets did an 11 week tour for Feld who also booked them in theaters in Washington, Baltimore and New York. On Jan 8, 1958 the Crickets once again hit the road for Feld on a 17 day tour of the northeast. Even though they toured for Alan Freed and played many other dates, including the two overseas tours, the Crickets were once again on the road for Feld by midsummer in 1958. General Artist Corporation arranged for an 11 day tour through the upper Midwest with just two acts-the Crickets and a western swing band headed by Tommy Allsup. Buddy Holly would later ask Allsup to visit the Midwest with him again on the Winter Dance Party as a back-up guitarist in 1959. But before that, Buddy would go on the road one more time for Feld when he and the Crickets would do yet another "Biggest Show of Stars" tour in September of 1958.
Rockin' Around with Ollie Vee...
Touring the Midwest in the summer was vastly different than in the winter. Iowa summers are usually mild and Holly's band enjoyed some time off between shows during the summer of 1958, swimming and water skiing in Iowa. So how and why did Buddy Holly wind up on tour for Feld again in the dead of winter? To many, the answer is simple.. Buddy was broke. In August of 1958, Holly had married a girl that he had fallen in love with upon their first meeting-Maria Elena Santiago. About the same time, he had steadily grown tired of his manager and record producer, Norman Petty in Clovis New Mexico. Feeling that Norman was holding onto some money due them, Buddy began to think of breaking away. He and Maria had moved to New York and although the Crickets did not follow (opting to stay in Texas), Buddy still had hopes of the group staying together. By the time fall rolled around,Holly had began to talk to the Crickets about leaving Petty and coming to New York. He felt that there they would be able to branch out and expand their horizons there. But Petty evidently held a strong influence on his bandmates as Buddy soon would find out. Norman talked them into staying in Texas.
Even though Buddy was happy with his marriage and move, big problems started to arise when he found that he could not get his record royalties from Petty. Petty had the royalties paid directly to himself and deposited into an account (earmarked for the Crickets) accessible only by him. During the last two months before the WDP tour, Buddy Holly would seek out a lawyer and make many repeated requests to Petty for the money he had worked so hard for. Unfortunately, he would get no where fast. Newly married and running out of funds, Holly searched for a solution. Many of his acquaintances have said that he was planning at that time, to concentrate on recording, and was even beginning to plan his own recording studio. There he could produce not only his own songs but those of his friends and fellow music associates as well. With his cash flow stopped, Buddy evidently began to think of the only thing he had known in the past..going back on the road..
According to Larry Lehmer's book, The Day The Music Died, sometime in December of 1958, Buddy approached Irvin Feld, invited him to dinner, and explained his current situation. Hearing of Buddy's troubles, Feld, who had been working with General Artist Corporation in a CO-venture with GAC-Super Productions, offered to put together a tour for him. The concept was the same as before-they would contact DJ's in targeted cities and book shows that would be comprised of new and up and coming talent. Bargain priced shows would capitalize on the teen hops that were held all over the nation at the time. The formula was simple-Buddy would play and the kids would come to dance. Because Feld already had a major winter tour planned, he asked GAC to put together a smaller tour for Holly. For some reason, GAC suggested the idea of touring the upper Midwest. Sparsely populated, the area was full of ballrooms where kids gathered to dance. And promoters were practically begging for such a show to come to the area. Even with his money running out, one has to wonder if Buddy Holly hesitated at the idea of touring the Midwest in the dead of winter. Perhaps he did think about saying no but with his money quickly running out and a new baby on the way, Buddy probably felt as if he had no choice. With the Crickets back in Texas and only weeks to prepare, Holly sorely needed a band. Sometime around Christmas 1958 while visiting his home town of Lubbock, Buddy would talk to old friend Tommy Allsup about joining him as guitarist on the upcoming tour. Allsup would soon call upon 19 year old Carl Bunch as drummer as Holly recruited friend and DJ Waylon Jennings as bass player. There was only one more to do--practice..
Out in California manager Bob Keane was anxious to get his new singing sensation, Ritchie Valens some major exposure. He had previously booked Ritchie with GAC for a show in Hawaii on November 24, 1958, around the time the 17 year old's song "Donna" appeared on the charts. But it was not until late December or early January 1959 that Ritchie was booked on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour. With "Donna" and "LaBamba" becoming a double-sided hit, Ritchie Valens was expected to earn $100,000 in 1959. Already set for an Australian tour with J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), GAC had set up a 4 week series of theater engagements in Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York. With his first album to be released in mid-February and a movie appearance (Go Johnny Go) under his belt, Ritchie was, unfortunately, a prime candidate for the Winter Dance Party.
Not long before Ritchie was to leave on the tour, he did something he had been wanting to do for a very long time-he bought his family a home. Even though he had not yet begun to see alot of royalties for his records in January 1959, manager Bob Keane gave him $1,000 for a down payment on a tract house that stands on Remington Street in his hometown of Pacoima to this day. To Ritchie it was a dream come true and a sure sign of success. He was finally able to give his mother something special and that made him happy.
On January 19, 1959, just a couple days before he was to leave on tour, Ritchie threw a party at his new home. He invited friends and family and one very special girl named Donna (Ludwig). Unfortunately, Donna's dad, who was not too keen on their friendship would not let Donna go. She told Larry Lehmer in his book, The Day The Music Died "...that was the last time I talked to him (Ritchie). We talked on the phone for a real long time. His mother kept asking him to get off the phone because she wanted to be with him. He said, 'My mother is so silly-she thinks I'm going to get hurt.'" Donna says she also tried to sneak out that night but was caught, probably by her father who had a dim view of her friendship with Valens.
The very next night found Ritchie spending time with another long time friend, Gail Smith. Smith and her mother went to Guardian Angels Church with Ritchie and his mom to pray for safety on the upcoming tour. Gail remembers asking Ritchie about the storms that were raging in the Midwest at the time and also if he were afraid to fly. She recalls that Ritchie laughed off any and all thoughts of danger and tried to lighten the mood by talking about getting a car when he returned to California. Even thought he was still a little apprehensive about boarding a plane, he was excited about the tour and his rapid rise as a bonafide rock and roller. Soon he would be traveling with some of the top 40 performers of that time and the future looked very bright indeed. Still, it must have been hard for the quiet teenager to leave his family back home. With his father dead and small sisters and a baby brother at home, Ritchie was practically the man of the family. His mom wasn't happy to see Ritchie go but was determined not to hold him back. The next day, his aunt Ernestine and uncle Lelo Reyes, along with older brother Bob would drive him to the airport. Ernestine made sure as she often did that he had taken out his insurance...just in case. Ritchie didn't like it but did it anyway. Next stop--Chicago.
You Know What I Like..
Older than the other members of the tour at 28, Jiles Perry Richardson was a hot commodity in 1958. Originally a very successful DJ at station KTRM in Beaumont Texas, Richardson invented the character of the Big Bopper as a radio personality in the early 1950s. Rhythm and blues was becoming popular in Texas then and "boppin' was one of the terms used often in the music. Since J.P. was a big guy and needed a character name, he called himself "The Big Bopper". According to good friend and fellow DJ Gordon Baxter, the "Bopper was a very separate and distinct personality from that of J.P. Richardson who was known to be quiet and shy and "a very straight arrow who never doped or drank." The Bopper on the other hand was a "jive" talker who played the rhythm and blues records which were known as a kind of naughty music in the '50s. The character was a cut up and a joker and very few listeners associated the Bopper with Richardson. "And "that was the way he wanted it." said good friend Jerry Boynton.
After a stint in the army from 1955-57, Richardson came out with a new goal-to begin a recording career. Even though he continued to focus on returning to the top of the Beaumont radio scene, writing songs was not far from J.P's mind. In 1957, friend and country music promoter Bill Hall would submit several of Richardson's songs to a publishing company in Houston. The company was owned by "Pappy" Daily who soon had J.P. recording some of his self-penned songs. Starting out as a "country" artist at first, Richardson would soon decide to branch out and try to reach the fast growing trend at that time--rock and roll. He soon began writing songs that would play to an appreciative audience of teenagers. One of the things that made J.P. unique was that he quickly jumped on the trend of the "novelty" song. Songs such as "Dinner with Drac" and "The Witch Doctor" would catch the nation's attention, and in that vein, Richardson along with Ken Ritter would write a song in 1958 called "The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor". Mixing the popular "Witch Doctor" song with another novelty,"The Purple People Eater", J.P. was on the way to his first hit. Recording the song under his radio name, "The Big Bopper", Richardson also needed a B side to the record. He would find it in the form of a tune he had composed on the spur of the moment. Originally called, "That's What I Like" and written on the way to a Houston recording session, Chantilly Lace was about to send "the Bopper" down the road to stardom. By the time Jape, as friends called him had made a TV appearance on The Dick Clear Saturday Night Beech-Nut show, the song had broke into Billboard's Hot 100. Wearing a zoot suit with a dangling chain and a broad brimmed hat, The Bopper had finally arrived. He would do a promotional tour of the east coast in the late summer of 1958 and several other road shows as well. Billboard would call Chantilly Lace the third most played record in the country. It was released in thirty-seven other countries and usually made the best seller list in it's first week of release. By the time the Bopper made his 2nd appearance on the Dick Clark show on November 22, two more recordings were successfully hitting the airwaves. Teenagers were anxious to hear "Big Bopper's Wedding" and "Little Red Riding Hood" and the record soon became Cashbox's Disk of the Week.
With J.P.'s success then it is surprising to note that at the time of the Winter Dance Party tour, Richardson was already thinking of retiring from performing. On one of his last trips to Beaumont, Richardson told one of his long time friends that he wasn't going to stay in business very long-just two or three years-then he would have enough money to buy a radio station of his own and settle down. Already tiring of touring world, J.P saw the Winter Party as a means to an end. He would do this tour with one through Australia immediately following. Touring meant money and the money meant he could make his dream of owning a radio station come true. He had another dream also--to be at home with his wife, daughter and their soon to be born son. But in January of 1959, "Teetsie" Richardson reluctantly drove her husband to the New Orleans airport and watched him board a Chicago bound flight. There he would rehearse with fellow tour members, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Sardo before heading out to Milwaukee for their first date. In his briefcase he would carry the horn arrangements for "Chantilly Lace". The Winter Dance Party was on it's way..
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