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Upcoming docuseries digs deep into Buddy Holly’s final tour, including his St. Paul concert five days before his death

29January 2021

Buddy Holly had had enough.

It was January 1959 and the 22-year-old musician was in the midst of an ill-conceived tour of the Upper Midwest. It was 24 shows in 24 days, with little regard to routing logistics. The tour started Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and ping-ponged back and forth across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

Holly, his band and the other musicians on the bill shared a converted school bus with no heat that kept breaking down and getting replaced. With no interstates yet in the region, the driver had to navigate rural two-lane highways and endure particularly brutal winter weather. The trips between cities took up to 12 hours of travel time.

After a Jan. 31 show in Duluth, the bus broke down once again on the way to Green Bay, in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere.

“It was dark and freezing and they started panicking,” said Holly historian Sevan Garabedian. “They thought they were going to die.”

They were rescued, but Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, was hospitalized with frostbitten feet. And that was the turning point for Holly, who vowed to book an airplane to fly his band from city to city. He was unable to find an available flight out of Green Bay but did secure a plane the following night, Feb. 2, in Clear Lake, Iowa.

After a rousing show at the Surf Ballroom, Buddy, his bassist, Waylon Jennings, and guitarist, Tommy Allsup, were set to board the plane. But Jennings offered his seat to tourmate J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who had the flu. Allsup lost his place to singer Ritchie Valens with the flip of a coin.

The plane took off at 12:55 a.m. Just minutes into the flight, the plane crashed into a cornfield just six miles from the airport, killing the pilot and three musicians.

In the decades since, the tragedy has been the subject of countless books and several films and songs, most notably Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie,” which dubbed the crash as “the day the music died.”

Now, Garabedian and his co-producer Jim McCool are readying a new docuseries about the tour and the crash called “The Winter Dance Party Tapes.” The pair currently has an extended trailer up on YouTube along with two interviews with Frankie Sardo, the tour’s opening act.

An ad for the Winter Dance Party tour stop at the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul on Jan. 28, 1959. (Courtesy of Blue Days Productions)

Garabedian, who lives in Montreal, is just 45, but he fell hard for Holly’s music as a kid thanks to his local oldies station. Each February, the DJs would talk about the ill-fated tour, which fascinated Garabedian. When he heard that annual gatherings in Clear Lake had been held each year since 1979, he knew he had to go.

“It was back when I was sort of green,” he said. “I took the bus. It took a couple of days. But once I got there, it was a magical place.”

It was in Clear Lake where Garabedian met McCool, who lives in Madison, Wis. The pair hit it off and, in 2009, started interviewing the surviving musicians, as well as fans who saw the shows, for a documentary.

“We’re passionate fans, not filmmakers,” he said. “But this seemed like a unique and big task to track down all these surviving musicians.”

They ended up talking to Allsup, Bunch, saxophonist Thom Mason and members of Dion and the Belmonts, who were also on the tour. Most of the musicians have since died, including Sardo, who Garabedian said was particularly difficult to find.

The death of Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens made the front page of the St. Paul Dispatch. (Courtesy of Blue Days Productions)

Among the many other people they talked to was the late Bill Diehl, who spent 53 years covering entertainment for the Pioneer Press while also working as a DJ.

“At the time, Bill was so busy and popular. He not only emceed the Prom Ballroom show in St. Paul, he also emceed the concert in Mankato. Hearing his stories was incredible.

“We had so much footage, we knew if we only made a two-hour documentary, we’d have to leave so much good stuff out,” Garabedian said.

Once they completed the interviews, the project got delayed due to their day jobs. Months turned into years as the pair continued to search for more fans who saw the shows and had photos from them. (Garabedian asked anyone who saw the tour live to email him at sevan1@sympatico.ca.)

The pandemic, however, freed up time for Garabedian and McCool to refocus on the project and they’re aiming to get the first episode up on YouTube in May and periodically release new ones through 2022. They’re planning to produce around 20 episodes in total, with each show on the tour – including the Jan. 28 stop at the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul – getting its own episode.

“We asked every little thing. Anyone who wants the full story, this is it,” he said. “From the weather to all the freaky things that happened, like how every person on that tour had a gun. You would think there would have been a lot more suspicion (among the interviewees), but as soon as they knew we were legit, they opened up and said things they never thought they’d say. So many people cried and echoed the same sentiment.”

That sentiment, Garabedian said, was that the plane crash really did symbolize the end of innocence.

At the time of the crash, he said, Elvis Presley was in the Army, Little Richard had left rock ‘n’ roll for the church, Chuck Berry was in jail and Jerry Lee Lewis had fallen out of favor after marrying his 13-year-old cousin.

“Rock ‘n’ roll was on its way out,” he said. “It wasn’t going to last.”

Rock did, indeed, make it through just fine and Holly turned out to be a massive influence, starting with the Beatles, whose name paid tribute to Holly’s first band, the Crickets. But the music business, and pop culture in general, was never the same after the crash.

“That’s why people still write books about this and why they’re making another movie about Buddy Holly,” Garabedian said. “People long for a time we’ll never see again, an era that will never happen again.”

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