Saturday, January 24, 2009

Buddy Holly: Three Days Before the Rock Stars Died

by Jim Heffernan

Every time it comes up–and it keeps coming up more often as time passes–I find myself somewhat of an oddity among younger people when I tell them I was there the night Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played Duluth three nights before they died in a plane crash.

When a movie based on Holly’s life was released a few years ago, there was a lot of talk about the Duluth connection. Now the movie “La Bamba,” which portrays Valens’ life and career, is showing here.

Many people from around here know the entertainers played Duluth shortly before they met their deaths in Iowa, but I am not aware that anyone has written a first-person account of it. So that is what I am up to today. These are just my recollections–and impressions–of the occasion. Memory is not always accurate, but this is how I saw it.

It was Saturday night, January 31, 1959, that the “Winter Dance Party” played the old Duluth Armory on London Road. My friend Lew Latto, now owner of several local and area radio stations, promoted the concert. He met the performers. I was just in the audience.

The program was one of a succession of “Armory dances” held in those days and they drew big crowds of teenagers. The audience did not sit down. The Armory floor was left clear for dancing. Holly and Valens, along with the Big Bopper, were all hit artists at the time. Duluth often gets entertainers on the way up, on the way down or on the way to nowhere. These guys were somewhere right then. They were on the charts, and they were here in person.

Everyone was aware it was a special Armory dance because of that. Holly was the headliner, but Valens had made such a hit with his tune “La Bamba” he wasn’t very far behind. If you were young and in Duluth that night, there was absolutely nowhere else to be. I was a 19-year-old UMD student, and half the campus was at the dance.

Reading old newspaper clips, I see that Dion and the Belmonts were on the program, too, but I don’t remember them. And I only vaguely recall the Big Bopper as a novelty act. He was supposed to be funny and yelled a lot (“Chantilly Lace!”).

The social dynamics at those dances, it need hardly be pointed out, involved meeting members of the opposite sex as much as artistic appreciation–probably more. The dances were largely attended by boys and girls (young men and women) who would go “stag.” For many, like myself, the performance was secondary to the other. Maybe lightning would strike and you’d meet the love of your life, the thinking went. Maybe not, life often shot back. It was the ‘50s.

Anyway, I remember standing maybe 75 feet from the stage during the performances. The girls went absolutely gaga over Holly–screaming, jumping, clapping. When he sang “Peggy Sue,” the place went wild. I couldn’t figure out what the girls saw in him. Dressed in a sport-coat and tie, he wore horn-rim glasses and had a mop of dark hair, but he was as plain as the Texas countryside from which he had sprung. 

I couldn’t understand all the fuss.

Valens was a classic Latin type¬–black hair, even features–but I thought he was kind of chubby for a singing idol. He wore black, but it didn’t hide his baby fat (he was only 17). He had a great song in “La Bamba” and, once again, the crowd went wild. But as with Holly, I couldn’t understand why the girls were so crazy for him.

Holly and Valens must have had something, though. I went to a lot of those Armory dances, and that is the only one I can remember so clearly. Perhaps it is because three days later the news broke that they had been killed. It was the Tuesday after the Saturday Duluth performance.

Everyone around UMD’s Kirby Student Center was talking about it in hushed tones. The reaction of young people to death is often emotionally askew, but I don’t remember anybody crying or hugging.

One boy I was talking to about it that morning captured the moment. I think I can quote him precisely: “Why did it have to be Buddy Holly? Why couldn’t it have been me?”

I didn’t believe for a moment that he meant it. Or, as Holly put it himself, “That’ll Be the Day.”

Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Wednesday, August 5, 1987 and reprinted in Cooler Near the Lake: Fifty Two Favorites from Thirty-four Years of Deadlines by Jim Heffernan in 2008.


Rick said...

Thanks, it's very interesting to read a first person account. Was this Buddy Holly's last performance, or did they perform elsewhere in the 3 days before their plane crashed? And did you ever figure out what got the girls so excited? I'm sure there's a story here about seeing past surface appearances. Thanks again.

Rick said...

OK, I read a little more, now I understand that Buddy Holly's last performance was at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa and the plane crashed very shortly after takeoff from the Clear Lake airport at 1:00 a.m. Damn sad, 3 musicians in their primes all killed.