The night the music died

It occurred 60 years ago. But it didn’t have to happen. Good management could have prevented it.

The Winter Dance Party of 1959 was the rock & roll “Tour From Hell.” It was a grueling excursion—11 dates in 11 days—through the Upper Midwest in sub-zero weather on an unheated school bus. (Actually it was five buses, because one after another broke down on the highway in the Arctic temperatures.) In desperation, three of the stars of the tour tried to escape the conditions for a day by grabbing a flight on a small plane to the next stop 400 miles away.

You know how this story ends.

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Dion and the Belmonts, and several side musicians were on the road together in late January of '59. (It was Holly’s tour initially and the others were added to it.)

Holly, 22 years old, had numerous hits on the charts in the previous 18 months—by himself and with The Crickets—including "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue." Valens, 17 years old, had just had a double-sided hit (“Donna/La Bamba”). The Big Bopper, 28 years old, had “Chantilly Lace” on the charts for 22 weeks the previous year. And the 19-year-old Dion DiMucci was an up-and-comer who—with the Belmonts—would break through a few months later with “A Teenager in Love.”

But here they were, playing one-nighters in harsh weather in music halls often 300 to 400 miles from each other, with zero days off. The agent kept adding gigs to fill up the month. Empty dates on a calendar were seen as money down the drain, given the star power of the tour headliners. And Holly, the main attraction, couldn't complain because he needed the cash, given his ongoing litigation with former management, which froze musical royalties coming his way.

As reported in The Star Tribune of Minneapolis:

General Artists Corp. had organized the tour with no thought to geographic sanity. "They didn't care," says Holly historian Bill Griggs. "It was like they threw darts at a map.”

The tour started in Milwaukee on Friday, Jan. 23, 1959. It then zig-zagged during the next 11 days from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Minnesota. There were no roadies to help set up and pack up, and only icy two-lane highways to get from town to town.

On February 1st, en route to Green Bay, Wisconsin from Duluth, Minnesota—where a 17-year-old Bob Dylan had been mesmerized by Holly's performance the night before—the tour bus blew a piston, stranding the performers in the middle of the night in 35-below-zero temperatures. Eventually help came, but Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, had to be hospitalized for frostbite. But the tour kept going.

On the morning of February 2nd the musicians left Green Bay Wisconsin in another rickety bus to drive 340 miles to Clear Lake, Iowa, but this vehicle broke down too—again in sub-zero temperatures—forcing another delay. They barely made it on time to the Surf Ballroom for their 8 pm show.

By then Holly had had enough. He decided that after the show he would skip the 365-mile bus ride from Clear Lake to Moorhead, Minnesota and fly that night to nearby Fargo, No. Dakota, where he could sleep in a warm bed and finally get his clothes washed. Richie Valens and The Big Bopper joined him in the single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza that took off in the early morning hours of Tuesday morning, February 3rd, 1959.

Unfortunately, by the time of takeoff it was beginning to snow, the wind was picking up, and weather conditions were deteriorating—which was not conveyed to the pilot. Worse, he was not trained to fly by instruments in case of poor visibility. The plane crashed within minutes of takeoff, killing all four instantly in an Iowan cornfield.

This tragedy was memorialized in Don McClean's 1971 hit, "The Day the Music Died."

Much to learn from this. If Holly’s management wasn't so anxious to squeeze every dime from him this could have been avoided. Tour organizers should have taken notice of the ground conditions they were putting their artists through. Coordinating dates intelligently, scheduling days off, assuring safe and effective transportation—these are the basics of tour management.

Granted: Holly signed onto this, as did his fellow musical travelers. But newly married and in a legal battle with his former personal manager and promoter, Holly had few options.

Good management protects its talent. This young and extraordinarily creative singer/songwriter/musician had decades of success ahead of him—and for many who worked for him. But no one was looking at the bigger picture.

I recommend two excellent accounts of the Tour From Hell: Jonathan Cott's Rolling Stone article and Pamela Huey's brilliant Star Tribune report.

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  1. Bob Dylan said he saw a "halo" around Holly's head when he saw him in concert. A premonition of something? Holly and his wife each had nightmares about plane crashes just before the tour.

  2. They were all so young. Good management would protect them from their bad decisions that come from youth.

    1. Yup. The 1950s were a tough time for musical artists to get fair treatment from management. And from a strictly business viewpoint most managers and agents didn’t appreciate that these musicians could be valuable for them for decades if they took care of them.

      Holly wasn’t even in his prime yet. Yet he was prodigiously talented as an innovator—in his singing style, his guitar playing, his composing, his arranging. He was *22* years old!! He was just beginning! IMHO he could have become the one of the biggest pop artists for decades. Because with his death—combined with Elvis joining the Army and Little Richard’s joining the ministry—rock & roll went into a serious hibernation. That enabled the Beatles, Stones, and others to step into the gap and make the impact they did. I’m glad for that, of course, but if Holly had lived rock might have had a different history, and he would have been writing it.

    1. You're technically right. By "management" I'm referring to two "managers" he had recently stopped working with and the booking agent who irresponsibly managed his final tour. I think I'll get into that in a separate post.

  3. And my man Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on the plane for The Big Bopper. I always thought Waylon was from Georgia because his country songs often referred to that area. But on a trip several years ago to Clovis,NM, I landed in Lubbock and drove by Buddy Holly Boulevard. On the way back from NM to the Lubbock airport I saw a sign about 20 miles out of Lubbock for Waylons home town in Texas. I pulled off the parkway and onto the downtown main drag. Looked like the colors and styles were stuck in the 50’s. Now I understood how Waylon was Buddy’s bass man.

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