Sunday, January 24, 2016

History and Nostalgia Embrace at the Winter Dance Party

It's remembered as "the day the music died." His name was Buddy Holly, and by age 23 he was making music history. Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the hottest thing in rock 'n' roll. Unfortunately, prodded by a financial pinch, they went on ill-advised, mid-winter road tour across the Northland that ended in an Iowa cornfield.

57 years ago Holly and his band signed on for a Winter Dance Party Tour that involved taking a bus on a zig-zag path between various cities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. I'm not sure whose brilliant idea this was because mid-winter can be pretty inhospitable in these parts. When the bus broke down in Wisconsin it was 20 below, something Texans like Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings weren't quite used to. At least those who live here know how to dress for it.

According to a Pamela Huey account written on the 50th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party Tour, it was a tour from hell. When the band pulled out from the Duluth Armory, their 9th gig in nearly as many days, they were exhausted and pretty tired of sleeping on hard seats sitting upright. The only thing worse would be not sleeping at all and that's exactly what they got when the bus broke down while heading through the Wisconsin darkness about ten miles south of Hurley. The temps had now plunged to 30 below with a wind chill on top of that.

To say Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Waylon Jennings, Dion and crew were underdressed is an understatement. They built a fire and tried to stay warm enough to stay alive. Huey describes it as "the day the music almost died."

This breakdown probably played a significant role in the decision a couple days later that cost Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens their lives. "The heck with this bus. Let's rent a plane," someone must have said.

Having done a fair share of winter flying out of the Duluth airport, I know that the airlines take great pains now to make sure the plane is safe for travel. Once everyone is boarded, the plane taxis over to where it can be hosed down with de-icer. I'd put money on it that Buddy Holly's plane had not gotten that kind of attention.

The dance parties were fun, but all that winter travel took its toll. Valens, who was from Califronia, hadn't even packed a winter coat. He knew music better than he knew geography.

You can read more here about that Tour From Hell.

Bob Dylan was in the crowd the night Buddy Holly and the band performed in Duluth's Historic Armory. Unlike the performing visitors from down south, Dylan and the others knew how to dress this time of year. They'd lived here all their lives. And unlike the band, which rolled off into the brutal darkness in an ice cold bus, Buddy Holly's fans went home to warm beds, made even warmer by memories of the music that moved their feet and their souls.

Front ro L to R: Amy Grillo, Gene Lafond, Lonnie Knight, Gary Lopac
Next weekend is the 57th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party concert that took place here in Duluth's Armory and once again the lineup is stellar with music by Lonnie Knight and the Travellons. The concert is a fund-raiser for the Historic Armory. Once again the Dance Party will return to Sacred Heart up on Positively 4th Street. If you need a place to park, the Damiano Center lot is available across the street.

In addition to Lonnie and friends, Todd Eckart is also on the bill. Congrats to Todd for being voted best local band/musician in the 2016 Reader Awards poll. He's in his stride now.

You can read about last year's Dance Party here.

For more about The Buddy Holly Story visit this MPR page.

Here's the place to go for tickets to next weekend's event.

If you're planning to go, add to the fun by inviting your Facebook friends.

It will be another great event not to miss.

EdNote: Lonnie Knight performed with his band in the Historic Armory back in the day. His dream is to perform there once again.... 

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