In 1958, we went from glory to glory, headlining with the likes of Eddie Cochran (“Summertime
Blues”), Gene Vincent (“Be-Bop-A-Lula”) and Bobby Darin (“Splish Splash”). Bobby was another Italian boy from the Bronx, a few years my senior and more hip to the ways of the business world.
He became a close friend and a mentor, giving me good advice about how to read my contracts and file my taxes. Bobby grew up the same way I did and had many of the same worries. He spoke to my frugal nature, my inner Mom.
A lot of early rockers got jerked around and bled dry by their agents, their record companies and the crowd of scammers that follow the money wherever it goes. If I managed to survive rock stardom with a couple nickels to rub together, no small credit goes to Bobby Darin, who spoke my language and gave me free accounting lessons on the tour bus.
In the fall we got invited to join another superstar, Buddy Holly, on what was billed as “The Biggest Show of Stars.” Buddy had a streak of hits that could make DiMaggio jealous: “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday,” “Oh Boy,” “Maybe Baby” and “It’s So Easy (to Fall in Love).”
He’d only been recording for a year, but he had already established a rock-and-roll sound that everyone was mimicking. I got to know Buddy when he moved to New York in August. He’d just married a New Yorker, Maria Elena Santiago, and he was happy in his new apartment. (He’d proposed to Maria Elena on their first date.)
We spent three weeks together on “The Biggest Show of Stars,” and we established a strong relationship––friendship and mutual musical admiration. When Buddy invited me to join him on his upcoming all-star “Winter Dance Party” tour, I was honored and I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
There was lots of money flying around, and we were pulling down a good bit of it. But we were nowhere near the days when rock stars owned private jets and traveled with an entourage of valets and hairdressers.
Most of the time we went from town to town in the kind of yellow bus we rode to school only a few years before. We did our own laundry. We packed our own bags. And we weren’t playing big arenas with lighted mirrors in the dressing rooms. We sang our hearts out in venues like Sans Souci Park in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where we had to compete for attention with the roller coaster and Ferris wheel.
So when Angelo, Carlo, Freddie and I signed up for a touring “Party” set for the Midwestern states in the dead of winter, we knew we weren’t going on a pleasure cruise. But we could rock and roll with the world’s greatest names.
Buddy had booked Ritchie Valens––the Latino kid from Los Angeles who’d made it big with “La Bamba”––and the Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson, who was best known for “Chantilly Lace.” You may already know how this story ends; it’s part of rock-and-roll mythology. People call February 2, 1959, “the day the music died,” after Don McLean’s poetic 1971 hit, “American Pie.”
But what you think you know may not be the truth. I was there. I was one of the headliners on that concert tour, and I’ve read all the interviews, all the things that pass themselves off as histories––and I can authoritatively say to you that most of it is bunk.
The events, as they happened, have been completely eclipsed by urban legends, cinematic retellings, gossip and outright grandstanding. There are people whose lives peaked because they were somewhere near the epicenter of the pop-culture earthquake that happened on February 2, 1959.
They’ve exaggerated their role, which is understandable and forgivable; but in doing so, they’ve distorted history and they’ve unintentionally done an injustice to the memory of my friends.
For 50 years I kept quiet about this, until very recently, when the historians at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame asked me to help them reconcile conflicting accounts of the tour. I gave them the same facts I’m giving you here.
I have nothing to lose or gain from my telling of the story. My career was well established when I set out from New York with my group, the Belmonts. That’s why we were on an all-star tour in the first place. I’ve been able, thank God, to continue making music ever since. I never needed to hitch my wagon to a death-star to hold on to fame.
I’m willing to bet that most of the people who’ve come to my shows and bought my records know nothing about my connection with the Winter Dance Party or its fateful events. Nevertheless, for my friends’ sake, I feel obligated to set the record straight.
We expected discomfort, but we weren’t quite ready for what we got on this three-week “Party.” America’s heartland is a lovely place full of lovely people, but let me tell you, its winters make a New York December look like Palm Beach in May. We made our way through Iowa, where the temperature dropped to 25 below zero at high noon. And that’s before windchill.
That would have been all right. We had no desire—and no time––to get out and throw a football around. We would have been happy to sleep on the bus, except that it wasn’t the latest model. It was pretty drafty and its heating system was nonfunctional.
You think I’m exaggerating? Buddy’s drummer on that tour, Carl Bunch, got a nasty case of frostbite while he was sitting on the bus, and he had to be admitted to a local hospital. Buddy wasn’t traveling with his band, the Crickets, at the time; they’d had a rift. So we were all sharing backup musicians––and we were all playing backup for one another.
Carlo Mastrangelo took over behind the drum kit when Buddy was singing. Ritchie Valens took over the drumming for the Bopper. And Buddy drummed for me. I’m the only rock singer who can boast that Buddy Holly drummed for my backup band. On the bus we would sing together to keep warm. I wrote us a song called “I’m Gonna Hug My Radiator When I Hit My Hotel Room,” and all the guys sang it with gusto.
The schedule got more crowded as the promoters called us with new bookings, new dates, in out-of-the-way places. That meant more time on the road, in the bus. One of those last-minute additions was a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. By the time we got there, we were all pretty miserable.
Buddy gathered up the headliners and told us he couldn’t take another night on the bus; he was going to try to charter a plane to take us to the next stop on the tour—Moorhead, Minnesota. He found a single-engine craft that could seat three, in addition to the pilot. The problem was that there were four headliners––Buddy, Ritchie, the Big Bopper and me. Someone would have to ride the bus.
In a closed dressing room, we flipped a coin to see who was going to fly. The Big Bopper and I won the toss. Buddy would also fly, of course, since he had found the plane. Then Buddy told us what the flight would cost: $36. Thirty-six bucks. That figure set off an alarm in my brain.
All my childhood I had listened to my parents argue about money and argue about the rent, and the figure kept coming up. So I could never forget how much they paid. It was 36 bucks.
I couldn’t bring myself to spend a month’s rent on an hour’s flight to Minnesota. I had too much of my mother in me. I said to Ritchie, “You go.”
He shouldn’t have said yes. Ritchie had a dread terror of airplanes. When he was a little kid, a plane crashed into his school playground, killing some of his schoolmates. His manager got him over the fear by showing how it would limit his career. Ritchie took the lesson all too well. He accepted my offer and took my seat.
Only the four of us knew who was getting on the plane when we left the dressing room that night. Of the four who were in that room, I’m the only one who survived beyond February 3, 1959.
The plane took off around one in the morning from the Mason City Municipal Airport. As it flew away, the plane’s owner, watching from the tower, noticed the taillight begin to descend and
Air-traffic controllers tried to make contact by radio but got nothing. After daylight they found the wreckage in a cornfield about five miles from the airport. The pilot and all three of my
friends were dead.
There are times when clichés sound hollow. There are times when they sound cruel. The promoters, of course, were distraught by the news. They had a fondness for the guys, and they had a lot invested in the future of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. But they had no doubt about what they would tell us: “The show must go on.”
We met our obligations, every one of them, joined by Jimmy Clanton (“Just a Dream”) and Bobby Vee, a 16-year-old from North Dakota who’d been profoundly influenced by Buddy Holly. The world would hear more from him in the years ahead––“Take Good Care of My Baby” would hit number one––but this Winter Party was his big break.
We got back on our bus, but we weren’t in the mood for singing. We felt a lot of survivor’s guilt, and we discussed the events of February 2 over and over again. I told the story of the coin toss, and it went abroad from there, in various forms, picking up new characters and dramatic twists along the way.
It was a long, numb two weeks till the tour closed on February 18. I went back to New York and tried to go home. Every culture and every ethnic group has its own way of dealing with grief. In my family we bottled it up. We didn’t say anything. And there weren’t any grief counselors in the Bronx in 1959.
My knucklehead friends must have felt bad for me but didn’t really know what to say. They’d try to get me interested in gang life again, to make me feel better. They’d invite me to go out and bust some heads. They didn’t get it.
But frankly, neither did I. How do you make sense of something like this? I leaned on my wife, Susan, and I leaned into my addictions. As much as I kept quiet, the story kept coming back to me, and in the most absurd forms.
If all the people who said they’d flipped a coin with Buddy Holly were telling the truth, we would’ve needed a military personnel carrier to fit them all. I didot think the coin flip was important, because it was not the deciding factor for my taking the bus. But I guess a story like that makes for good TV, and it makes the guys respect you at the bar.
I found the whole business distasteful and even made an oblique reference to it in a song in the ’60s. But Don McLean got more notice with his song about “the day the music died.” I prefer to think about it as the day the music was born.
In Buddy Holly and the Crickets, rock music had found its lasting form: two guitars, a bass and drums. The news of Buddy and his “widowed bride” touched a lot of people deep inside, and it made them love their music all the more because they knew the artists were mortal. The songs may last forever, but we singers were trying to outrun the clock.
Years later I read a line about a natural process, and it seemed to provide a good analogy for what happened to us and to rock and roll back in 1959. Jesus told his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”
The Wanderer Finds Peace
GRIEF IS A STRANGE THING. My father was gone. I was a Christian. Those circumstances should have been good enough for me to get over it and move on.
It was still preoccupying me in midyear 2005 as I prepared to make a pilgrimage to Rome with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio. I went with a group of about a hundred people, and Dr. Scott Hahn led us on a relentless and relentlessly cheerful march through all the ancient sites: St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, St. John Lateran, the holy stairs, the Colosseum, the Forum.
Even though I’d been to Rome several times before, I learned so much. Scott carries a library of biblical studies, history and theology in his brain, and he shares it in a genial and generous way.
I was impressed also by the center’s chaplain, Father Joseph Linck. He was a quiet, bashful, scholarly guy in his early 30s, with wire-rimmed glasses and a receding hairline. From table talk in the restaurants where we ate, I concluded that Father Joe was brilliant.
He was a historian, a scholar of American Church history but also of the early Church Fathers. He wore his brilliance lightly and spoke with a quiet wit. In the pulpit he turned into a lion—the man could preach the Word with the best––though in the confessional he was the Lamb.
Rome was suffering that summer through record heat and record humidity. By midday we pilgrims were swimming in our own sweat and only too happy to duck into the historic churches. The temperature dropped a good 10 degrees when I stepped into the Church of St. Peter in Chains.
Our group shuffled along slowly toward the place where the apostle’s chains were kept for veneration. My turn came. As I knelt before those chains, some strong chains on my heart were broken. I started sobbing uncontrollably but with utter joy, and all I could think about was my father,
I stepped out of the church and into the sun, and there was Father Joe sitting in the little piazza. I walked up to him and said, “Can you please explain what just happened to me?” He said he’d try. So I told him. He smiled. The man was just a kid, but he spoke with the wisdom of years. He said, “Dion, relationships don’t end.”
I had never heard anything like that. He went on: “Dion, be open to all the grace God wants to give while you’re here. Your father wasn’t open to grace in his life. So you need to be open and pray for him, pray for his soul, pray for his rest. Where he is, he may be praying for you. You’ll be helping each other.”
He brought the Communion of Saints down to just hanging out. That changed my life. Through the rest of the pilgrimage—and the rest of my days––I was under obligation to reconnect: with Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Sam Cooke.
That’s what the Church prays in the Mass of Christian Burial: “Lord, for Your faithful people life is changed, not ended.”
Ah, now I see.
This article and sidebar are drawn from Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth (Stories, Humor, & Music), by Dion DiMucci, with Mike Aquilina, Servant Books, 2011.