Buddy Holly & the Winter Dance

Buddy Holly band

Buddy Holly photo courtesy of Coral Music/Decca Records

Buddy Holly & the Winter Dance
| published January 23, 2015 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

If you jump on the internet quickly and make reservations, you could still land tickets to the 2015 Winter Dance Party, scheduled for January 28-31 at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Yes, there will probably be snow and icy temperatures outside, but the Surf Ballroom is still the place to be for those days and night.

And now, you are likely casting about trying to figure out why something in that sentence sounds vaguely familiar. That is, unless you're a huge rock and roll fan or just a devoted history and trivia buff.

That's right, if you recall Don McLean's iconic song American Pie, February 3, 1959, was The Day the Music Died. The Beechcraft Bonanza left Clear Lake, headed for Fargo, North Dakota, flying barely 10 miles before crashing in a cornfield with no survivors. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, along with pilot Roger Peterson, were gone forever.

Waylon Jennings, formerly with The Crickets, gave up his seat to J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper), and band member Tommy Allsup "lost" a coin toss with Valens for the other seat. And although he went on to become a superstar whose career spanned five decades, the incident dogged Jennings for the remainder of his life. Investigators attributed the cause of the crash to poor visibility and pilot error.

Fans and musicians have descended on the small town for annual memorial concerts since 1979, paying tribute to Holly and the early days of rock and roll. I suspect the 30th anniversary concert in 2009 was probably a barn burner, highlighted by Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely, Wanda Jackson, Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, Chris Montez, Bobby Vee, Graham Nash, Peter and Gordon, Tommy Allsup (early bandmate and bass player) and Richardson's son.

Remember, the Lubbock, Texas, native had only been a superstar for about a year and a half, and Valens and Big Bopper Richardson had careers that were just taking off. Holly had recorded a wealth of material, which would make a major and lasting impact on popular music.

An innovator who wrote his own material, Holly was among the first to use advanced studio techniques such as double-tracking and orchestration, along with pioneering and popularizing the now-standard rock-band lineup of two guitars, bass and drums. He was a huge influence on '60s rockers, including the Beatles and Hollies (their name is homage to Holly), the folk stylings of Bob Dylan, the stage presence of Bruce Springsteen, and the synergy and charisma of the Rolling Stones. Remember "Not Fade Away?" It was the Stones' first major British hit.

Holly’s influence also factors into the irresistible music and iconic performances of acts as divergent as Elvis Costello, Donny Iris, and U2’s Bono. Holly made it cool to wear glasses on stage.

Holly was no Elvis Presley, but nonetheless cut an engaging and charismatic figure of his own, penning rock and roll standards "Rave On," "Peggy Sue," "That'll Be the Day," " Oh Boy!" and "Maybe Baby." Had it not been for his untimely death, Holly would have surely produced much more energetic and infectious music, perhaps evolving with—or even defining—the musical changes of the 1960s. Much of his music endures in motion pictures and television, where his classic rock and roll songs provide energy or atmosphere, or both.

The original 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour was destined for disaster from the outset, an ill-advised 24-city bus tour of the Midwest scheduled in the dead of winter. Horrible weather, uncomfortable conditions and frostbite plagued those associated with the trip. It ended in tragedy 55 years ago. The plane’s pilot was not well-trained in either inclement-weather flight, nor was he proficient at instrument-only piloting. Struggling in near-zero visibility and heavy snow, with ice on the wings, the plane came down only a few miles from where it had taken off. It crashed undetected in heavy snow and gusting winds, and the crash site was not discovered until the next day.

Though he died in 1959, just as rock and roll was evolving into a much larger force, his influence stretches well into this century.

This year's party certainly has the makings of an incredible show to be remembered for a lifetime. Entertainment includes Lou Christie, Bill Haley Jr. and the Comets, Tommy Allsup and The Whitesidewalls, Frankie Avalon, The Crystals, Bryan Hyland, Chris Montez and John Mueller's Winter Dance Party.

If you make it to the show, it's almost guaranteed that you'll hear numerous hits of the '50s, including  "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Oh Boy!," "Rave On," "La Bamba," "Chantilly Lace" and many more.

John Mueller and his official Winter Dance Party band have performed for the Jerry Lewis Telethon, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and toured extensively throughout North America at performing arts centers, concert halls, theatres, ballrooms, corporate events and casinos.

They also played with Chubby Checker, The Coasters, The Fireballs, Marshall Crenshaw, Taj Mahal, John Mellencamp and Bill Haley's Original Comets.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The American Working Man’s Rock & Roll; Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ: 40 Years Later; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 4, 2013.

Muscle Shoals: Musical Ground Zero; Earl Perkins, features editor; Thursday Review; July 9, 2014.

Keeping Those Lighters Aloft; Lynyrd Skynyd 40 Years After “Pronounced”; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; September 9, 2013.