50 years since the day the music died

Buddy Holly
A publicity photo of Buddy Holly to promote Winter Dance Party.
Photo courtesy of Larry Lehmer

The concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was part of the Winter Dance Party, a rock and roll tour which played to enthusiastic crowds in ballrooms across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Buddy Holly was the headliner, but the rising star on the tour was 17-year-old Californian Ritchie Valens. He had a doubled-sided hit with "La Bamba," and a ballad inspired by his girlfriend whose name was "Donna."

Ritchie Valens
Singer Ritchie Valens, in a photo to promote Winter Dance Party.
Photo courtesy of Larry Lehmer

The Big Bopper was the stage name of Texas disc jockey J.P. Richardson. He was known for just one song, "Chantilly Lace." But during the tour he often stole the show with his on-stage theatrics.

Larry Lehmer is the author of "The Day the Music Died," the definitive history of the Winter Dance Party. Lehmer said the brutal weather that winter made traveling on the tour especially unpleasant.

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"They would go from one place in Wisconsin to a place in Iowa, to a place in Minnesota, back to Iowa, back to Minnesota. They just jumped all over the place," said Lehmer. "These were largely 300 and 400-mile trips, performing every night. There were no nights off. It was the dead of winter, and the transportation they found for them was not very reliable. They had a lot of buses that would break down in that cold weather."

On Jan. 31, the tour stopped in Duluth for a performance at the armory. Right after the show, the musicians hit the road for Appleton, Wis., for a concert the next afternoon.

The Big Bopper
The Big Bopper, in a publicity photo for Winter Dance Party.
Photo courtesy of Larry Lehmer

Lehmer said they traveled through the night through bitter cold weather, and their bus broke down along the way. To keep warm, they burned papers inside the bus. It was so cold, their drummer got frostbite.

By the time the musicians got to Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly was fed up with riding the bus. To get to the next stop on the tour, in Moorhead, Minn., Holly chartered a plane at the Mason City airport. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed in an Iowa cornfield, killing the three rising stars.

A couple of men who would go on to become Minnesota broadcast legends are part of the story of the Winter Dance Party tour.

In 1959, Bill Diehl was the drive-time disc jockey on the No. 1 rock and roll radio station in the Twin Cities, WDGY. When a big act would come to town, Diehl would almost always be involved.

So it's no surprise that he was asked to be the master of ceremonies for two concerts during the Winter Dance Party tour.

In 1959, Charlie Boone, who would go on to be the longtime voice of morning radio on WCCO, was working as a rock and roll disc jockey on KFGO in Fargo, N.D. The Winter Dance Party's next show -- after Clear Lake -- was to play across the river in Moorhead, Minn.

Boone put out the call for replacement musicians during his radio show on the afternoon of the crash, and was the master of ceremonies at the concert that night.

MPR's Cathy Wurzer talked with Diehl and Boone about their memories of that time.