Former disc jockey, local singer remember Feb. 3, "The Day the Music Died"
By HEATHER NOLAN
February, 2, 2009
Bob Hale remembers the now-famous Winter Dance Party show at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, as the night The Big Bopper - J.P. Richardson - put on a lively performance, Buddy Holly proved he could play the drums, and Ritchie Valens made the ladies swoon.
Hale, 75, was emcee at the show that took place 50 years ago, hours before a plane crash took the lives of the three performers and their pilot on Feb. 3, 1959.
Hale said in an e-mail to The Enterprise that he was working as a disc jockey at KRIB in Mason City, Iowa, on the morning of Feb. 3, 1959, and read a bulletin over the air that a light plane had crashed near Mason City, Iowa.
"I didn't make the connection until Carroll Anderson, manager of the Surf, called me to tell me he was asked to come to the crash site and identify the bodies of the performers and Roger Peterson, the pilot," Hale said. "I called my wife (and) we cried on the phone. I was a young DJ, in shock and still had to conduct sensible interviews."
Hours earlier, Hale said Holly, a "perfectionist," played drums for Dion and the Belmonts, because the band's drummer, Charlie Bunch, was in the hospital in Green Bay, Wis., with frozen feet.
Valens was "the shy one," but Hale said he "exploded with energy" once he got onstage.
"(He) had all the girls in a tizzy," Hale said. "That night Ritchie owned the Surf Ballroom.
"Bopper was running a fever, sweating more than usual," he said. "But he kept up his energy and was having a grand time."
Hale said he hosted a weekly record hop - an informal dance where he played popular music - at the Surf Ballroom on Wednesdays. That week, the Surf Ballroom changed the dance to Tuesday to accommodate the Winter Dance Party which had an open date on Feb. 2, he said.
"The three performers impressed me and the audience, not only in performance but also in demeanor," Hale, who was 25 at the time of the show, said. "They were polite, not a cuss word or off-color remark. They called my wife and me 'Mrs., Mr.' It took some doing to get them to call me Bob."
Southeast Texas singer Johnny Preston credits Richardson with giving him a "big break."
Preston, who grew up in Port Arthur and now resides in Port Acres, said he didn't know Richardson too well, but the two became friends when they were in the recording studio.
Richardson wrote Preston's 1959 No. 1 hit, "Running Bear," and gave him his first opportunity to record a song when he saw Preston and his band perform at a local nightclub in 1957.
"He said 'Would you like to record?'" Preston, 69, remembered. "After I got through kissing him, I said 'Yeah.'"
Richardson also wrote George Jones's 1959 No. 1 hit "White Lightning."
"He was a great songwriter," Preston said. "He's written a lot of big hit records. I think if he'd have lived, that's what he would be doing. That's really where his passion lay, in writing."
Richardson was born in Sabine Pass and grew up in Beaumont.
He graduated from Beaumont High School in 1947 and attended Lamar State College of Technology for two years.
He started working full time at KTRM in 1949, where he developed his "Big Bopper" persona.
"He had an afternoon drive time show from 3 to 6," Preston said. "I can hear him now: 'Hello there you cats and chicks, you got the Big Bopper speaking here. Stay with me now. We gon' jive, we gon' fly.'"
Preston remembered a time in May 1957, when Richardson, then a disc jockey at KTRM, locked himself in the Jefferson Theater and stayed on the air for hours without going to sleep. He had to be carried out on a stretcher.
That broadcast, dubbed the "Japeathon," lasted 122 hours and eight minutes, and broke the world record for longest time on the air, according to a story that appeared in The Enterprise in 1987.
"He was a character," Preston said. "He'd be one of these guys who would climb on a telephone pole and stay there for hours."
At the time of the Winter Dance Party tour, Richardson was on leave from his job as program director at KTRM, according to a 1959 Enterprise story.
The tour had dates scheduled throughout the Midwest, and Richardson was supposed to return home after the last show, according to The Official Big Bopper Web site, which Jay Richardson, the Big Bopper's son, runs.
The musicians on the tour traveled by bus - which had engine problems and no heating system - from city to city, according to the site.
Buddy Holly chartered a plane to fly his band to the next gig when they arrived in Clear Lake, according to the site.
Richardson, who had come down with the flu, approached Holly's bass player, Waylon Jennings, and asked for his seat on the plane in hopes to get some rest and a doctor's appointment, according to the site. Jennings obliged.
The plane took off just after 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, and what was supposed to be a 300-mile flight to Fargo, N.D., lasted only minutes, according to a 1959 Enterprise story. The plane crashed about 15 miles northwest of Mason City, Iowa, on a private farm.
Richardson was supposed to meet his manager, Bill Hall, in Chicago on Sunday - five days after the plane crashed - to receive a gold record in recognition of his song," Chantilly Lace," selling a million copies, according to a 1959 Enterprise story.
The day of the crash, Hale said dozens of high school and college students skipped school and went to the site, to the ballroom and to the radio station.
Last Wednesday, thousands of people started to gather at the Surf Ballroom to celebrate the lives and music of the three performers killed in the plane crash.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designated The Surf Ballroom, where the three did their final show hours before the crash, a historic landmark on Jan. 28, according to the museum's Web site.
Hale and Preston attended, and Preston performed at a show on Saturday.
Preston is headlining a concert tonight at Lamar State College-Port Arthur called "The Day the Music Died 50th Anniversary Concert."
Preston, along with 13 of Lamar's commercial music band and singers, will perform more than a dozen songs from the three late musicians, as well as a few of Preston's hits.
They will start the night with Don McLean's 1972 No. 1 hit "American Pie," the song that famously dubbed Feb. 3 "the day the music died."
"This (anniversary) is a big one," Preston said. "Nobody's going to be around for another 50."
If you go:
What: The Day the Music Died 50th Anniversary Concert
Where: Lamar State College-Port Arthur Performing Arts Theater, 1700 Procter St.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 7 p.m.
How much: $20
Call: (409) 982-7000