Friday, January 26, 2018

Remembering Buddy Holly & the Dance Party: Jim Heffernan Takes Us Back In Time

Jim Heffernan
Jim Heffernan began his 42-year journalism career with the Duluth News Tribune in 1963, the year JFK was assassinated, the year before the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. On his blog he describes himself as a "semi-retired newspaper journalist-columnist who contributes online columns about growing up in Duluth's western environs on Zenith City Online." Good-natured and anything but hard-boiled, his book Cooler Near The Lake compiles a 52-card stack of fave columns from the first three-fourths of his career. I reached out to Hef, as he's oft referred to, to unearth some memories about that moment in history when a busload of stars rolled into town.

These past several years the Armory Arts and Music Center has been throwing a Winter Dance Party on the anniversary of this famous evening. This year the AAMC has moved the date into closer proximity with Valentine's Day. Todd Eckart has been selected as captain of the time machine that will take everyone back in time to that memorable era, February 11 at 6:00 p.m. The Dance Party will be at Grandma's Sports Garden in Canal Park this year, so you'll not have to contend with parking up on Fourth Street. A link for ticket info is at the end of this story.

EN: You graduated in 1957, and saw Buddy Holly here in 1959. Who did you go with that night and what were you doing at that time in your life?

Jim Heffernan: Can't recall which friends I might have attended the Winter Dance Party (the official name) with. Likely one or two buddies from college. I was a sophomore at UMD in January1959.

EN: How often were there concerts at the Armory and what were your favorite acts that you saw there?

JH: Remember, it was not considered a "concert." It was a dance. That meant the Armory floor was not set up with concert-style seating. Most everyone stood before the stage and either danced or, when Holly, Valens and Richardson (Big Bopper) performed just stood and took it all in. This was one of several such events at the armory in those days. Teenage boys went to hook up with teenage girls, or maybe even dance with them. Not too many couples on dates. We were all pretty young and single and unhooked up. We -- my friends and I -- went to most of them, but I can't recall any specific acts. Maybe Dave Dudley, but that came a little later and he was living in Superior at the time, before he hit it big with the truckers.

EN: In "American Pie" Buddy Holly's death is equated with the "day the music died." How significant was he to young people at the time?

The planned Dance Party tour route.
JH: Of course "The Day the Music Died" in referring to that night came much later. I wasn't much into pop music by then (I kind of checked out after Elvis faded a bit or was in the Army), but most kids my age were very much into Holly and the other two because their music was being played on the radio. So he was fairly significant to young people at the time.

EN:​ Who were your favorite groups or performers at the time? Did you have a record collection? Favorite album?

JH: As stated, I wasn't much into pop music, although I enjoyed following the crowd of my generation. My mother was a classical pianist and organist and by then I'd drifted into that genre. I didn't collect any pop records, but I did listen to pop radio, usually WEBC. I was a real anomaly.

​EN: Where were you in the audience during that concert? How packed out was the place?

JH: As stated, the crowd gathered before the stage on the dance floor. I was standing off stage right maybe 25 feet from the front of the stage. Very good place for a six-foot-plus patron. It seemed quite crowded down toward the stage, but I don't know how far back it went. Very hard to estimate the size of the crowd.

EN: What's your favorite memory from that night?

JH: Favorite memory? My most vivid recollection was seeing Holly strut out from stage left and hearing the girls in the crowd screaming. It was exciting, but I couldn't figure out why they'd scream at a kind of geeky looking boy in horn-rimmed glasses. I didn't get it. I still think the music's fine. "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be the Day" will be around forever. I thought Ritchie Valens was a chubby little guy in a tight black suit and the Bopper was just silly, in a loud sport coat, howling "Chantilly Lace." He was pretty hefty too.

One memory that sticks with me occurred when we got back to school early the next week and had learned about the plane crash. Everyone was stunned, of course, having just seen them. One classmate uttered, "Why did it have to be Buddy Holly? Why couldn't it have been me?" There's a 60-year-old quite I'll never forget.

EN: How many Hibbing kids were there that night?

JH: I can't say how many Hibbing kids were there, other than Dylan. Didn't know any. I've been told later that Dylan was accompanied by a couple of Duluth friends from his earlier days here, Louis Kemp and Stan Green. That has not been documented, and might not be true. I've just heard that. I knew Kemp pretty well at UMD but never talked to him about it.

Addendum: The dance was put on by my friend Lew Latto, who was a local disc jockey at the time and with whom I'd gone all through school, in association with the units of the Minnesota Army National Guard, who owned the Armory. Lew and I were pretty good friends. He was MC at the event, introducing the acts, etc. He mentioned to me later that when dealing with the Dance Party touring people, he went up to a room in Hotel Duluth where Holly was staying. Communicating with others, he could see Holly lying on the bed napping, those glasses beside him on the bed table. Lew died a few years ago.

Hef added this Postscript:

That's it, Ed. Right from the horse's mouth.

Thanks, Jim.

* * * *
Related Links
Map of the intended Winter Dance Party agenda.
This year's Dance Party will be February 11, featuring Todd Eckart. Tickets here. Doors open at 6:00 p.m.
Blog post about The Day the Music Almost Died.
The Historic Duluth Armory home page.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Dance when you hear the music.

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