The Day the Music Died
Much has been written about February 3, 1959 being the day the music died. That simply wasn't the case. In fact the ill fated Winter Dance Party continued on for another two weeks following the tragic events of that winter day. Dion & The Belmonts as well as the ersatz “Crickets” (Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup & Carl Bunch) saw the tour through to the bitter end. (Dion Dimucci was offered a seat on the doomed plane, though the idea of paying $36 for the ride, more than his father spent on rent, led him to reject the offer. Bobby Vee, Jimmy Clanton, Fabian & Frankie Avalon were brought in to headline the remaining shows)
Though the day is forever immortalized as “The Day the Music Died” it wasn't until Don McLean's song American Pie topped the U.S. Charts for four weeks in 1972, that the phrase started to take root. American Pie is not specifically about that fateful day, though it does touch on the tragic events in the intro verse as McLean makes reference to Feb. 3rd. 1959 with the line “February made me shiver with every paper I'd deliver” which alludes to his claim that he first learned about the plane crash while folding newspapers for his paper route.
For the longest time McLean remained cryptic about the song lyrics and their true meaning. Stating instead, “It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to” When the lyrics and notes for the song were auctioned off for $1.2 million in April of this year, he coyly revealed that the song was meant to convey a feeling of “things headed in the wrong direction or life becoming less idyllic” Though, I'm pretty sure it still means that the son of bitch will never have to work again if he don't want to.
Goodness gracious great balls of fire!...
Before Feb. 3Rd 1959, rock & roll wasn't dead, but it was in a steep decline. A convergence of a number of seismic factors led many to believe that the tide had turned and America was ready to rid itself of that loathsome “negro” inspired trend. While on a package tour of Australia in 1957 (w/ Gene Vincent & Eddie Cochran) Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman) claimed that he saw a red fireball streak across the sky in the midst of an outdoor performance in Sydney (which in fact turned out to be the launching of Sputnik 1)
Richard also claimed that he saw the engines of the aircraft he flew on from Melbourne to Sydney glow red hot and that angels swooped in and held the plane up in the air. A distraught Penniman abandoned the tour, returned to the states, only to find out that the flight he had originally been scheduled to take had crashed into the ocean. He then found religion. For dramatic effect he tossed all his rings (worth $12,400) into the ocean and swore off rock & roll forever.
Rock & roll was dealt another body blow with Elvis Presley's induction into the army on March 24th 1958. Elvis had been eligible for the draft since 1956 when he turned 21, but thanks to Col. Tom Parker's greased palm strategy, he had managed to defer his service long enough to launch and carry on with his career for two years before the inevitable happened. Contrary to the myth that Elvis wanted to fulfill his patriotic duties and was willing to do so as an ordinary grunt, Presley went into a rage when he received his draft notice.
Elvis had been in favor of serving in the armed forces Special Services unit, as most celebrities did at the time. Col. Parker seeing how that could anger and alienate his legion of working class fans and realizing that the King's image was in need of a makeover, convinced him otherwise. As was usually the case, Col. Parker was right, but he had ulterior motives as well... if Elvis served in the Special Services, all concert proceeds would go to the Armed Forces and not to Parker or Presley.
Due to report on Jan. 20th 1958, Elvis requested and received a deferment in order to film King Creole, a movie that he had committed to before his induction. A public outcry quickly arose, as accusations of preferential treatment hounded Presley. These were anxious times for Elvis, he truly believed that rock & roll was little more than a fad and on the wane, but he also feared that a stint in the army would kill his fledgling movie career. Either way rock & roll's biggest moneymaker was sidelined for two years.
Jerry Lee Lewis was the Devil
Jerry Lee Lewis, who was finally getting his career into high gear after years of hard work (Lewis had stuck with Sun records even after the big stars had left) ran afoul of the British press while on a UK tour in May of 1958. Jerry Lee had quietly married his thirteen year old first cousin once removed, Myra Gale Brown (Lewis claimed she was fifteen) when persistent British reporters dug up this fact.. a shit storm of bad press broadsided Lewis. In the wake of the ensuing controversy, Lewis performed just twice in England before he was shown the door.
Lewis was a study in controlled chaos, “He seemed to have a lot of time to spare, an unshakeable ease” remarked author Nik Cohen. “His great gift was that no matter how frantic he got his voice remained controlled and drawling country”At his first concert, Lewis stormed out dressed in red from head to toe, he lunged into his first two numbers bringing the crowd to its feet.... then he made a fatal error. As he was wont to do, Jerry Lee pulled out a gold comb and carefully combed his golden locks back in place.
A leather lunged Teddy boy bellowed out “Sissy” and chaos ensued. Lewis barely made it through one more song before he fled the stage. The British press demanded the tour end immediately and that Lewis and his child bride be shipped back to the Louisiana back waters that spawned them. For Lewis it was his second marriage, his first being when he was just fourteen years old “Hell, I was too young” he exclaimed. He pleaded with the British press “Hell, I'm only country” but it only made matters worse. Jerry Lee returned to the states in disgrace, his career null and void upon arrival.
Pilot Error and Snow
Back in the U.S.A., the old guard, exemplified by Variety, Billboard and the ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers) feeling threatened by the growing influence of popular disc jockeys, had started to grumble about “the cancer of payola” A scandal was brewing, one which President Eisenhower himself would call “an issue of public morality”, directing the FCC to declare payola (the practice of paying for radio play) a criminal act. It would take the tragic events of Feb. 3rd. 1959 to shove that nefarious bit of business to the back burner.
The Winter Dance Party wasn't even scheduled to stop in Clear Lake, Iowa. It just so happened that they had an open date and the manager of the Surf Ballroom, agreed to hold the show on short notice (1,100 were in attendance that night) Buddy Holly fed up with the decrepit buses they were traveling in decided to charter an airplane (a Beechcraft Bonanza) from Dwyer Flying Service in nearby Mason City, Iowa. The plane would carry three passengers (Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup) and the pilot (Roger Peterson) to Moorhead Minnesota.
The Crickets drummer Carl Bunch had suffered frost bite on board the bus and was hospitalized in Ironwood, Mi. J.P. Richardson aka The Big Bopper, begged his way onto the flight, bumping Waylon. Ritchie Valens who had never flown on a small plane, pestered Tommy Allsup to give up his seat. This led to the now infamous coin flip, which according to Allsup took place after he had already loaded his bags on the station wagon taking the men to the airport. Valens won the flip.
“ There are three new stars, brightly shining forth” The frozen earth had barely thawed on Juhls' cornfield before Tommy Dee came out with a tribute song to the fallen musicians. Three Stars , released in April of 1959, earned Dee a gold record. Eddie Cochran would record his version of the schmaltzy tune that same year, though it wasn't released until well after his death. The nation was rocked by the tragedy “Gee we're gonna miss you, everybody sends their love”
In retrospect, the events of Clear Lake, while despairing, did not alter the course of rock & roll music to the extent that many music“historians” would have you believe. In 1958, after a dispute over royalties, Buddy Holly fired Norm Petty and then ditched the Crickets when they sided with Norm. He moved to New York City, married Maria Elena Santiago and began to mature as a musician. However, he was in a rather desperate financial state as 1959 rolled around. (as the saying goes, nobody got rich working with Norm Petty, other than Norm Petty) This forced him to sign on with the Winter Dance Party.
Of the three musicians lost on Feb. 3rd. 1959, Holly was by far the most accomplished. He would have been just 27 years old when Beatlemania swept the U.S. I imagine that he would have stayed on the charts at least into the late sixties. His contemporaries, Elvis and Roy Orbison certainly did. Teen icon, Rick Nelson evolved as a country rock musician. I could easily see Buddy going down that route. Waylon Jennings was at the forefront of the Outlaw Country movement.... Buddy Holly, growing a beard and donning a sweat stained cowboy hat over his curly locks wasn't out of the question.
Ritchie Valens (Valenzuela) was a minor talent at best, probably destined to emulate Trini Lopez, a lounge singer who topped the charts with an innocuous strain of upbeat folk/pop music. I hate to say it, but Valens was far more compelling dead than alive. J.P. Richardson, a hack disc jockey destined for the overnight shift, was a man of limited musical talent. Everything about him from his stage name (The Big Bopper) to the songs he recorded (Chantilly Lace, White Lightning, Running Bear) pointed towards a limited run as a novelty artist.
Long Live Rock, Be it Dead or Alive
Three new stars brightly shining.... more like one new star and some cosmic scraps.... dust to dust. The year couldn't get any worse for rock & roll, right? In December of '59, Chuck Berry was arrested under the Mann Act for having had sexual intercourse with a fourteen year old girl, whom he also transported across state lines to work at his St. Louis nightclub. It would be the start of a long and arduous legal effort by Berry to stay out of prison. He was sentenced to five years at his first trial in 1960, his appeal was upheld and Chuck then received three years at his second trial in 1961.
I see a pattern developing and apparently so did Chuck, who appealed again hoping for a shorter sentence. That appeal was shot down, but he wound up serving just one and a half years, from Feb. 1962 till his release in Oct. of 1963. His legal struggles didn't quite torpedo his career, though his popularity did fall off dramatically after that. By 1960 America was ready to move on, McCarthy had been vanquished, Eisenhower's term was winding down, the Viet Cong attacked and took control of several districts in the Mekong Delta, an event now referred to as “the start of the Vietnam War”
None of that really mattered, the Payola hearings were under way in Congress and two of rock & roll's iconic torch bearers were caught in the line of fire. The inquisition would clearly foreshadow the Nixon/Kennedy debates... Alan Freed a sunken eyed chain smoker, came across as abrasive and uncooperative. His refusal to acknowledge any fault or to sign an affidavit saying that he'd never accepted payola would spell his doom. Dick Clark, though every bit as guilty and dirty as Freed, was well groomed, polite, articulate and he copped to everything.
Time magazine declared disc jockeys the “poo-bahs of musical fashion and pillars of U.S. low and middle brow culture” They were to a man nothing but scum sucking dogs (including Clark) though in all fairness they were abiding by the business ethic of the day. Disc jockey, Joe Finan sheepishly admitted that the 1950s were “a blur of booze, broads and bribes” Most of the top rock jocks went down, Freed, Joe Niagara, Tom Clay, Murray the K, Stan Richards, Phil Lind. Rock & roll was reeling and rocking on a pair of wobbly legs.
In the long run, the House Oversight Committee and the subsequent legislation that was passed did little to end payola. In effect all the payola scandal accomplished was to strip the decision making power from the disc jockey and give it to the program director. The process of paying for radio play was now streamlined, instead of having to deal with the whims and vices of thousands of dee jays, record pluggers only had to grease the program director.
Dick Clark received a slap on the wrist and the committee declared him “a fine young man” Alan Freed lost both his radio and television gigs at WABC in New York City. He almost restarted his career on the West Coast at KDAY in Santa Monica, Ca. before butting heads with station management over their refusal to allow him to promote his stage shows. After that Freed fell into a spiral of alcohol abuse that eventually led to his death from uremia and cirrhosis on January 20, 1965 in Palm Springs, Ca.
George Harrison caught Eddie Cochran's performance in Liverpool during that last fateful tour. He was impressed with the guitar playing but it was Eddie's stage persona that made a strong impression. “He was standing at the microphone and as he started to talk he brushed his hair back with his hands” Harrison recalled “and a girl, one lone voice screamed out, Oh Eddie! and Cochran coolly murmured into the mike, Hi Honey! And I thought, Yes! That's it!, that's rock & roll”
As the decade of the sixties dawned upon us, Cochran was the last man standing, the only rocker other than Link Wray worth a damn. It was Eddie Cochran and not Buddy Holly that held the future of rock & roll in the palms of his hands. Thus it was the death of Cochran and not Holly that reverberated with the hard core rockers_ In the backseat of a chauffeur driven Ford Consul taxi, sitting between Gene Vincent and his girlfriend Sharon Seeley, Eddie sang a capella just before the impact flung him and his sheet music out of the vehicle and across a dark, winding section of the two lane A4 in the village of Chippenham. _ April 17th, 1960 the day the music finally died...
Funnel of Love- Wanda Jackson
Sweet Little Rock & Roller- Chuck Berry
Cotton Pickin'- Mickey Hawks and The Night Raiders
Real Wild Child- Ivan (Jerry Allison w/ Buddy Holly)
Ooh My Head- Ritchie Valens
C'mon Everybody- Eddie Cochran
Sugar Baby- Johnny Carroll & the Hot Rocks
Long Blonde Hair- Johnny Powers
Pretty Thing- Bo Diddley
Rebel Rouser- Duane Eddy
Something Else- Eddie Cochran
Tequila- The Champs
Rumble- Link Wray
Mau Mau- The Fabulous Wailers
Bongo Rock- Preston Epps
Sleepwalk- Santo & Johnny
Cherry Pie- Skip & Flip
Well Alright- Buddy Holly
Rawhide- Link Wray
Ooh Wee Marie- Dick Dale
Bulldog- The Fireballs
Teen Beat- Sandy Nelson
Over the Rainbow- Gene Vincent
Tall Cool One- The Fabulous Wailers
Peter Gunn- Duane Eddy
Time Machine- Dante & the Evergreens
Alley Oop- The Hollywood Argyles
Alley Oop- Dante & the Evergreens
Jenny Lee- Jan & Arnie
Muleskinner Blues- The Fendermen
Love is Strange- Buddy Holly
Weekend- Eddie Cochran
Walk Don't Run- The Ventures