For most rock 'n' roll fans, Feb. 3 will forever be known as The Day the Music Died — though it actually stayed alive and stopped in Peoria.
Sixty years ago Sunday, during what was billed as The Winter Dance Party, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane wreck in Clear Lake, Iowa, along with their pilot. But as news of the tragedy filled newspapers nationwide, so did announcements that the tour would go on, including two shows on Valentine’s Day in Peoria — redubbed The Shower of Stars — before ending the next night in Springfield.
“Many do not know of the connection that Peoria has to this very famous tour,” says Sevan Garabedian, who has made documentaries about the fateful day. “Many people don’t know that the tour carried on.”
It not only carried on, but didn’t miss a date — not so much a testament to the musicians’ dedication but the promoters’ insistence, Garabedian says. Indeed, even before Feb. 3, the tour had suffered transportation problems, mostly for a lack of planning. Shows were scheduled by availability of venues, with no regard to distance. Thus, performers — the three headliners, plus Dion and the Belmonts, along with opener Frankie Sardo and multiple side musicians — were stuffed into one bus, which was under-heated and overworked, breaking down repeatedly as they’d slog hundreds of miles overnight between shows.
The tour started on Jan. 23 in Milwaukee, slated to hopscotch across the Midwest for 24 shows in 24 days. On Feb. 2, the bus arrived late at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, just two hours before the show. Afterward, as famously chronicled in books and film, an exhausted and frustrated Holly chartered a plane to get to the next stop (Moorhead, Minn.) far ahead of the bus, to allow some rest. The plane had two other seats; different legends attest to how they were filled.
At the time of the tour, Holly had broken away from his band, The Crickets. Backing him up were a pair of session players: bassist Waylon Jennings and guitarist Tommy Allsup. Upon hearing news about the chartered plane, Jennings wanted to fly with his pal Holly but gave up his seat to Richardson, who had the flu.
Joshing, Holly told Jennings, “Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings retorted, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes” — a comment that later would haunt the future country-music icon.
Two tales surround the second seat. One version has Allsup flipping a coin with Valens, who won. But Dion later said he was the one who flipped a coin with Valens and won the seat; however, the price of the ticket — $36, the cost of a month’s rent for his parents in New York — prompted him to give up the seat to Valens.
Regardless, at 1 a.m. the next morning, the plane took off from Mason City Airport and into a snowstorm. Six miles away, the craft crashed, killing Holly, Valens, Richardson and the pilot.
“3 Rock ‘n’ Roll Idols And Charter Pilot Die in Plane Crash,” blared a front-page headline in the Journal Star’s evening edition the date of the wreck. A secondary story announced — not even a day after the tragedy — that the tour would go on, including two Feb. 14 shows in Peoria: “A spokesman for WIRL (the radio station promoting the Peoria stop) said the show(s) will be present as scheduled, with other performers taking the place of the three victims.”
Meanwhile, the tour did not miss a stop, not even Feb. 3. That night, Bobby Vee — then just age 15 — and a band of fellow schoolboys joined the remaining musicians for the stop in Minnesota. Vee did just one performance. The tour then brought aboard Fabian, Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Avalon, though the latter did not appear in Peoria.
The surviving musicians were not thrilled about the tour’s perseverance, says documentarian Garabedian. Especially aggrieved was Jennings, who wanted to attend Holly’s funeral in Lubbock, Texas, on Feb. 7. Instead, Jennings was pressured to stay with the tour, which on the night of Holly’s service played the Les-Buzz Ballroom in Spring Valley, about 50 miles northeast of Peoria.
“Jennings was a good friend of Buddy’s,” Garabedian says. “He wanted to be at the funeral. It left a really bad taste in his mouth.”
By Valentine’s Day, the tour rolled into Peoria. Later to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Dion said he and other surviving musicians could not shake the lost of Holly, Valens and Richardson.
“They were like brothers to me,” Dion said. "We went on with the tour. But it was not the same.”
Some fans in central Illinois — including Larry Wilson, then 15 — felt conflicted about the Peoria stop.
“There were a lot of mixed emotions with the show,” says Wilson, 75 of East Peoria. “It was exciting to see the stars that were there. But in the back of your mind you knew that they were there because of someone dying.”
Many ticket-buyers — such as Sheila Joiner, then 11 — were still in grade school. For them, death was a foreign experience.
“At age 11, there’s a low impact regarding all those lives that were lost,” says Joiner, 71, of Pekin. “I think it’s different when you’re an adult.”
Echoing that notion was Susie Maxwell, then 10.
“The sadness of the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper seemed to all fade away at the excitement of being there,” says Maxwell, 70, of Morton.
Indeed, Peoria was agog with the newness and excitement of rock 'n' roll, which until then had not made a concert impact here. For the city’s first notable rock show, promoters chose the Peoria State Armory, the venue used for big events such as basketball games by Bradley University, the Caterpillar Diesels and local high schools, along with circuses and Golden Gloves boxing.
One next-day headline in the Journal Star proclaimed, “Rock N Roll Hits Peoria.” Further, a story raved, “Nothing short of a full-blown tornado will ever come as close to ripping the roof off the Peoria State Armory as did the wild antics of more than 6,000 screaming, stomping teenagers Saturday. It was the magical, musical madness of Rock-n-Roll that precipitated the kids’ vocal and physical carryings-on and gave the city the most amazing show it has ever had.”
For the afternoon show, some of the 2,300 ticket-buyers began arriving at 7:45 a.m., nearly eight hours ahead of time. The night crowd was even bigger: 3,800. Though a few curious adults attended, most of the fans were youths.
The Journal Star took note of the unprecedented public enthusiasm: “Great bursts of shrieking and clapping accompanied the presentations of each of the young entertainers on the stage. … As each one sang, gestured, danced and snapped his fingers, his fans out front did the best they could to simulate the familiar Rock-n-Roll maneuvers from their chairs.”
The attendance figures did not include 20 Marines brought in to keep the peace, along with an unspecified number of police officers, firefighters, National Guardsmen and Civil Defense personnel. They were especially visible when Fabian prepared to close each show.
“Fabian was my heartthrob," concert-goer Joiner recalls. “A lot of the girls went nuts for him.”
Admirers thronged him as soon as he’d leave the dressing room to head to the stage, prompting a Marine-led security detail to escort his every move — “lest his young worshipers rip his clothes to shreds for souvenirs,” as the paper recounted.
Concert-goer Wilson remembers, “When he came on stage, the girl I was with started screaming and dug her nails into my arm so hard that I had marks for several days.”
Why the excitement? His looks, says Mark McLinden, who was 16 when he attended one of the shows.
"Fabian was enormously popular at that time and was an excellent choice as a replacement,” says McLinden, 76, now of Ocala, Fla. “Fabian was a dreadful singer but fortunately could barely be heard over the piercing screams of the thousands of teenage girls. The noise level was unbelievable, far exceeding any number of Caterpillar or Bradley games at the Field House.”
The tour ended the next night in Springfield. And a select number of fans — especially those fortunate to witness rock 'n' roll’s premiere splash in Peoria — carry a different perspective on the 60th anniversary of The Day the Music Died.
As McLinden says, “I guess the music never did really die, even after all these years.”
(Some information for this story came from ultimateclassicrock.com, rollingstone.com and wikipedia.com.)
Documentarians Sevan Garabedian and Jim McCool are seeking memories and photos from the tour’s Peoria shows. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (514) 931-6959. They are willing to pay for photos of the shows.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.