Postcard From Lubbock: Buddy Holly

In 1958, rock-'n-roll music was taking America by storm. Concerts for the musicians were being arranged at everything from supermarket openings and high school dances to large outdoor venues. One of these promotional tours was booked to last three weeks with appearances mostly in ballrooms and armories in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. The "Winter Dance Party" tour included some of rock-'n-roll's hottest stars - Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson and Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

Each of the musicians had their own reason for going on the road with the tour. Seventeen-year-old Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson wanted to expand on their recently-found fame gained from their new hit records. Others were already stars and wanted to increase their popularity. Buddy Holly was one of those stars, but he was in the middle of a financial war with his manager so he signed on for the money.

The opening night performance was held in the Million Dollar Ballroom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 23, 1959. In a Milwaukee Sentinel review the next day, a reporter wrote, "It was crazy, daddy - the goings-on Friday night at George Devine's Million Dollar Ballroom. Nearly 6,000 young people turned out to hear such rock 'n' roll stars as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts and Ritchie Valens. If you haven't heard them, you haven't lived, man."

Despite that successful opening night and the enthusiastic crowds at every concert, the tour was bedeviled with transportation problems right from the start. The tour managers had saved a few bucks by arranging for the musicians to travel from town to town in an old converted school bus. During one of the coldest winters anyone could remember, the bus suffered mechanical problems almost every time it was driven. Late one night in the middle of a snow storm, the biggest icons of rock 'n roll were stranded on the side of the road when their bus broke down. With night-time temperatures that often were below zero, the most serious of the problems was the heater. It seldom worked and even when it did, it never got the bus close to comfortable. One particularly cold night when it didn't work at all, Carl Bunch, the Cricket's drummer, ended up in the hospital with frostbitten feet. He didn't know it then, but it was fortuitous. The next day, J.P. Richardson purchased a sleeping bag with his own money hoping it would help keep him warm enough to sleep. As it turned out, he would never get to use his new sleeping bag.

 On February 2, the tour played at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. While visiting backstage with the owner, Buddy Holly asked about the possibility of chartering a plane to take him and the remaining two Crickets, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, to the tour's next gig in order for them to get some laundry done and to get some much needed sleep. The ballroom owner called a pilot friend and made the arrangements.

Buddy Holly statue at the
West Texas Walk of Fame
Things started to change when the other musicians heard about the plane. J.P. Richardson was suffering with a bad head cold so he asked Waylon for his seat. At first, Jennings said no, but Richardson offered to give him his new sleeping bag in exchange and, feeling bad for his sick friend, Jennings agreed to the swap. Ritchie Valens pestered Allsup to give up his seat for a future, "I'll owe you." Several times Allsup refused, but finally agreed to a coin flip. It came up heads and Valens won the seat.

The passengers arrived at the airport shortly after midnight, each paying $36 for the flight. The plane took off on a heading to Fargo, N.D. at 12:50 A.M. Observers said all appeared normal until suddenly the plane's taillight descended and then disappeared. Efforts to contact the pilot failed. A search for the plane began, but it wasn't until midmorning the next day that the wreckage was found in a farmer's field about 5 miles north of the airport. There were no survivors.

A Civil Aeronautics Board investigation later blamed the crash on the pilot's inexperience with instrument flying and an inaccurate weather briefing which underestimated the severity of an approaching storm. Forensics determined that the pilot, Roger Peterson, age 21, musicians Buddy Holly, age 22, J.P. Richardson, age 28, and Ritchie Valens, age 17, had all died upon impact. It was rock 'n roll's first major celebrity tragedy.

J.P. Richardson is buried in Beaumont, Texas, Ritchie Valens is buried in Los Angeles and Buddy Holly is buried next to his parents in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Over 50 years after his death, thousands of tourists and fans from around the world still visit Buddy's grave, leaving sunglasses, guitar picks, and coins to honor him. In tribute to its most famous son, Lubbock has established a well-regarded museum, The Buddy Holly Center. The city also established the West Texas Walk of Fame to honor various West Texans. It consists of a series of plaques which surround a memorial statue of Buddy. He was unanimously chosen by civic leaders as the first inductee. A year later, Waylon Jennings was selected as the 2nd musician to be honored. 

The grave marker for one of rock 'n roll's most famous musicians, a member of the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, influencer of such luminaries as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Elton John, is inconspicuous. It feature's a simple carving of his electric guitar and is inscribed with the original spelling of the family's name, "In loving memory of our own Buddy Holley, September 7, 1936 - February 3, 1959."