DULUTH -- About this time 60 years ago, the up-and-comers on the Winter Dance Party Tour had finished a concert at the Duluth Armory and were en route to Green Bay, Wis. Most of the musicians were warm-weather bred, and it was cold. The bus was rickety; the heaters didn’t work; the drummer ended up hospitalized.
Buddy Holly fan Dan Heikkinen of Cloquet calls the scene “the final straw.”
“That bus breaking down and Carl Bunch getting frostbite was pivotal in why (Buddy Holly) chartered that plane,” Heikkinen said.
After playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson jumped bus in favor of a single-engine plane piloted by Roger Peterson. The expected 3-plus-hour flight from Mason City to Fargo, N.D., lasted about two minutes before crashing into a cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959. Everyone on board died.
That day has been called “The day the music died,” — as famously sung in “American Pie” by Don McLean.
It’s a fitting descriptor, according to Sevan Garabedian, the co-producer of a documentary series about the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour. “The Winter Dance Party Tapes” include interviews with fans along the historic route, vintage photographs, memorabilia and glimpses of the storied venues.
“Rock ’n’ roll at the time was fragile,” Garabedian said of the era.
Little Richard had traded music for religion. Chuck Berry was in jail. Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage to his underage cousin cost him fans. The crash “marked the end of the innocence and the end of the first wave of rock ’n’ roll,” Garabedian said.
One night in Duluth
The Winter Dance Party was an illogically-planned tour that ping-ponged between venues in the Midwest: from southeastern Wisconsin to south-central Minnesota to western Wisconsin and back to Minnesota before dipping down to the Iowa-Illinois border. There were 11 stops, including the Jan. 31, 1959, performance at the Duluth Armory — days before the plane crash.
About 2,000 people were at the armory for the show, and tickets were no more than $2.
The late Lew Latto, who emceed the event and went on to have a long career in radio, told the Duluth News Tribune in 2009:
“This was the biggest teenage music show we’d ever had at the Armory. Kids were there dancing; kids were there in front of the stage just watching. And as everyone knows, we found out later Bob Dylan was there from Hibbing,” he said. “When I read in the newspaper that these guys were gone in a plane crash, I was shocked like everyone else. Buddy Holly would've continued to be a dominant force in the music business — but just like that, he was gone.”
Jim Heffernan, then a sophomore at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was at the show and recalled talking about the plane crash afterward with friends. One, he said, had an especially strong response: “Why did it have to be Buddy Holly? Why couldn’t it be me?”
A piece of the lore
The Buddy Holly lore is justified, according to John Mueller, a Los Angeles-based musician who has taken his tribute show along the Winter Dance Party Tour route.
“If you can imagine: Only 11 cities got to see him,” he said. “That’s really not that many people. You figure 11 cities, maybe 12,000 people got to see him on that tour.”
It’s rumored that fans stop even at Abra Auto Body in St. Paul, site of the former Prom Ballroom. John Rucinski, an estimator at the shop, said he hasn’t seen that — but he’s pretty busy.
“There are old-timers who come and ask” about the site’s history, he added.
In collecting stories for his documentary, Garabedian found that each stop on the tour had its own unique story. In Mankato, he said, a few of the musicians were invited to a fan’s birthday party after the show. He’s seen the photographs.
“You can see the musicians at the girl’s house, surrounding a birthday cake,” Garabedian said. The bus incident and Bunch’s frostbite give Duluth and Green Bay an extra tie to the narrative.
But the bigger story in Duluth was an eye-lock between Holly and a young Hibbing fan who was reportedly in the audience.
“My honest opinion is that the whole Dylan connection affects a lot of people that really, really think it was a big deal that Dylan was there that night,” Heffernan said.