Before the music died in 1959, it lived in Duluth

A copy of the poster for the Winter Dance Party concert that was held on Jan. 31, 1959, from an ad in the Duluth News Tribune at the time. (News Tribune file image)

Before it died, the music lived in Duluth.

Fifty-five years ago today (Jan. 31), on a cold Saturday night in 1959, the Winter Dance Party tour featuring Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens played the Duluth Armory.

Two nights later, they were gone, the victims of a plane crash in a snowy Iowa cornfield.

“This was the biggest teenage music show we’d ever had at the Armory. Kids were there dancing; kids were there in front of the stage just watching. And as everyone knows, we found out later Bob Dylan was there from Hibbing,” the late Lew Latto, local promoter and master of ceremonies for that show, told the News Tribune in 2009. “When I read in the newspaper … that these guys were gone in a plane crash, I was shocked like everyone else. Buddy Holly would’ve continued to be a dominant force in the music business — but just like that, he was gone.”

Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and Tommy Allsup perform during the Winter Dance Party concert at the Duluth Armory on Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo by Colleen Bowen)

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The text above is taken from a story written by the News Tribune’s Kevin Pates for the 50th anniversary of the concert and the subsequent crash, Here’s the full story from Jan. 25, 2009:

BEFORE THE MUSIC DIED, IT LIVED IN DULUTH

Kevin Pates, Duluth News Tribune

The one wish Lew Latto has from that cold Saturday night in 1959 is that he’d had a camera. He took no pictures at the Duluth Armory on Jan. 31 as a troupe of rock ’n’ roll entertainers put on a Winter Dance Party show for about 2,000 fans — a performance that takes a place of honor in Duluth entertainment lore.

Latto, then a 19-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth freshman, was the local promoter and master of ceremonies. He had no way of knowing history was right around the corner.

The Day the Music Died was 48 hours away for Buddy Holly , 22, of Lubbock, Texas; J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, of Beaumont, Texas; and Ritchie Valens, 17, of Pacoima, Calif.

“This was the biggest teenage music show we’d ever had at the Armory. Kids were there dancing; kids were there in front of the stage just watching. And as everyone knows, we found out later Bob Dylan was there from Hibbing,” Latto, 69, said recently from his winter home in Hallandale Beach, Fla. “I spent most of the time on the side of the stage and had the chance to talk quite a bit with Ritchie Valens.

“When I read in the newspaper three days later that these guys were gone in a plane crash, I was shocked like everyone else. Buddy Holly would’ve continued to be a dominant force in the music business — but just like that, he was gone.”

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 2, 1959, the Winter Dance Party reached the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where 1,300 youngsters showed up. It was the 11th stop on a tour that began Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and had become a tedious, bitterly frigid bus excursion. Holly rented a plane to get to the next destination, 440 miles away for a concert the next day in Moorhead, Minn. They were to land in Fargo, N.D.

Just after midnight on Feb. 3, Holly, Richardson, Valens and pilot Roger Peterson, 21, boarded a 12-year-old single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza at an airport in nearby Mason City, Iowa. Peterson, a rookie, wasn’t given weather advisories about a band of snow moving southeast through Minnesota and North Dakota. The plane flew two minutes before crashing into a cornfield eight miles from the Surf Ballroom. Everyone aboard was killed.

The Duluth Armory, built on London Road in 1915, decommissioned and given to the city in 1978 and now mothballed in hopes of renovation, is no longer a performance venue. But the building will be the site of a 50th anniversary Winter Dance Party gathering for about a half-hour starting at noon Saturday. Fans will be able to look into the Armory but not go inside, said Susan Phillips, president of the nonprofit Armory Arts and Music Center. The entrance is at 13th Avenue East and Jefferson Street.

Buddy Holly performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

Holly fan

Dan Heikkinen, 40, of Cloquet is a Buddy Hollyphile. He grew up a Beatles fan and then heard that his favorite band was influenced by Holly and his group, The Crickets. The Beatles sang “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “Think It Over,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “It’s So Easy,” “Raining In My Heart,” “Reminiscing,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and “Everyday,” and recorded “Words of Love.”

Heikkinen had a new favorite band and has since become a Holly historian. He’s helped organize re-creations of the Winter Dance Party in Duluth in the past decade, helps select a Winter Dance Party Scholarship winner for a Minnesota high school student with a musical background, and almost never misses the annual Winter Dance Party celebration at the Surf Ballroom. He’ll drive the 290 miles there this week with his brother, Scott Heikkinen, 51, of Hermantown and brother-in-law, Terry Purcell, 56, of Esko.

“I read biographies about Buddy and then went and bought some of his music at the old Carlson Books and Records [in Duluth],” said Heikkinen, store manager at Super One in Two Harbors. “I put those records on at home and thought: ‘This guy is fantastic.’ He was ahead of his time. To know that he played right here, in Duluth, well that’s a pretty big deal.

“Going to the Surf is like being in a time machine. It’s like walking back into the 1950s with people wearing poodle skirts and letter jackets. It’s an amazing place.”

That night

Latto was hired at WDSM Radio in 1958 after his senior year at Duluth Denfeld. He played the Top 40 format of the day from 4-6 p.m., labeling it the Nifty 50. As a young entrepreneur, he fronted music shows at the Armory, including acts like Gene Vincent and Brenda Lee, and a Summer Dance Party stop on July 11, 1958, when Holly first played in town and stayed overnight at the Hotel Duluth.

For the Jan. 31, 1959, show at the Armory, Latto put posters up in music stores like Mickey’s Melody Lane at Third Avenue West and First Street. Fans paid $1.25 to $2 that night and General Artists Corp., a rag-tag outfit that booked the tour, was promised $1,000 or 50 percent of the gross receipts. Because of the large crowd, Latto estimates the payout for the performers was about $2,000, while he split his half with the National Guard.

A bus carrying the approximately 12-person group traveled 370 miles from Fort Dodge, Iowa, after a Jan. 30 concert, arriving in Duluth just before the 9 p.m. performance. The bus left shortly after the dance ended at midnight. Also on the tour were singer Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts, and musicians including guitarists Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup.

“Compared to some acts, Holly and his group had a refined presentation. Everyone was dressed in sport jackets and acted like gentlemen,” said Latto, now an owner of radio stations in Eveleth and Grand Rapids, and still employed by WDSM as a freelance talk show host, on weekdays from 7-9 a.m.

Latto has great memories from 1959, just no memorabilia. In the past two years, a Los Angeles entrepreneur offered $20,000 for a promotional poster from the Duluth performance, but Latto says there are none as far as he knows. They were discarded after the dance.

Photos, however, have surfaced from that night — black-and-white shots taken by teenagers Sharon Johnson and Colleen Bowen, which can be viewed at www.buddyhollyonline.com.

The Winter Dance Party moved to Green Bay on Feb. 1, ultimately by train after difficulty with its school bus because of wind-chill temperatures of 40 below zero. Then it was on to Clear Lake and a meeting with destiny.

– end –

J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

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The News Tribune’s Kevin Pates also wrote a story about the event on Jan. 30, 1999, for the 40th anniversary:

RELIVING THE LEGEND

Kevin Pates, News Tribune

Three days after leaving Duluth, Buddy Holly and three others boarded a plane after midnight in Mason City, Iowa.

Holly, 22, had chartered a flight to Fargo, N.D., for the next stop of the 1959 Winter Dance Party: Moorhead, Minn. Also on the single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza were entertainers J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson, 28; Ritchie Valens, 17; and pilot Roger Peterson, 21.

Peterson wasn’t given weather advisories about a band of snow moving southeast through Minnesota and North Dakota on Feb. 3, 1959. The plane flew two minutes before crashing into a cornfield. Everyone aboard was killed.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s fatality list had its first superstar.

The news of Holly’s death was a blow to America’s teen-agers, including those in Duluth, where he had performed Jan. 31 at the National Guard Armory on London Road.

“We had a chance to see him, just as he was getting started, and then he was gone. It was like `Oh my God. He was just here.’ It was devastating,” said Yvonne Pavelich, 54, a bartender at Duluth’s Radisson Hotel. She was a 14-year-old Washington Junior High freshman when she attended the Armory dance. “The next day at school the boys wore black armbands and the girls had black ribbons in their hair.”

The Lubbock, Texas, songwriter, who played guitar, sang with a trademark hiccup-style and wore black, horn-rimmed glasses was like no one before him.

In the 40 years since the crash, Holly has become recognized as the founder of the first modern rock band. He was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His life has been portrayed in a 1978 movie. His face is on a U.S. postage stamp.

On Sunday, the Winter Dance Party will live again, 40 years to the day after it stopped in Duluth. An anniversary tour is hitting 11 towns in 11 days. Because Duluth’s National Guard Armory is no longer a performance site, the party is at the Holiday Inn’s Great Lakes Ballroom.

Niki Sullivan, a member of Holly’s band the Crickets, and Ernie Valens, nephew of Ritchie Valens, will be among those performing here.

John Mueller will portray Holly. He’s played the rock ‘n’ roll legend for the past 4 1/2 years, first in a production called “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and more recently in the play “Buddy.”

“I hope what comes across is the pure joy I get from his very straightforward, innocent music. I try not to make it a caricature and I don’t even like the word impression. I would say my performance is 50 percent me and 50 percent Buddy Holly,” Mueller, 36, said from a tour stop in Montevideo, Minn.

Sullivan has seen many Holly impersonators, but says Mueller is unique.

“John is a clone of Buddy Holly. I’m not kidding,” said Sullivan, who was a pallbearer at Holly’s funeral. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over Buddy’s death, but I’m getting a chance to relive my past every time I see John perform.”

Second time in Duluth

In 1959, Lew Latto was a 19-year-old top-40 disc jockey-entrepreneur at Duluth’s WDSM. The University of Minnesota-Duluth freshman acted as booking agent and master of ceremonies for musical acts coming to Duluth.

The Crickets, with Holly, first played the Armory on July 11, 1958, as part of a Summer Dance Party. To finance the Winter Dance Party stop on Jan. 31, 1959, Latto got an advance on his WDSM paycheck.

The largest crowd for any of Latto’s events — about 2,000 — paid $1.75 to $2 that winter night. The package of entertainers, which also had singer Frankie Sardo and Dion and the Belmonts, earned about $1,000.

Teens came to Armory dances to listen to music, meet friends and dance, said Duluth News-Tribune columnist Jim Heffernan, 59, who was at the Winter Dance Party as a UMD sophomore.

“The girls were screaming over Holly and I remember thinking `What has he got? He looks geeky,’ ” said Heffernan.

Holly’s appeal was obvious to some fans, like Hibbing’s Bob Zimmerman, later known as Bob Dylan. He was a 17-year-old high school senior and budding musician when he came to the Winter Dance Party. Dylan has credited Holly with being an influence in his music.

Latto knew Holly was onto something.

“There’s no doubt that had he lived, he would’ve been one of the top rock performers of his era. I look at Holly’s effect on music like what James Dean was to movies,” said Latto, 59, who now owns radio stations in Eveleth and Grand Rapids and has a weekday talk show on WEBC.

Duluthian Darrell Paulson was a drummer in his own group, the Rock and Roll 5. The band was on the same bill with Holly in 1958 at the Armory and Paulson later worked for stars like Gene Vincent, Marty Robbins, Skeeter Davis and Brenda Lee. He met and talked with Holly again, in Canada, while with Vincent.

“I’ve worked with other big shooters, but Holly was very personable, very kind. All of his musicians carried themselves as professionals. They were very concerned about the kind of music they were making,” said Paulson, 60, who still owns two drum sets, and is now in the food sales business.

Ritchie Valens performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

Holly’s burning star

Holly’s meteoric rise was just that — a brief three-year recording career. He had three albums and just one No. 1 hit (“That’ll Be the Day” in 1957) before his death.

The band that recorded many of the Crickets’ studio albums was Holly, drummer Jerry Allison, bass player Joe B. Mauldin and rhythm guitar player Sullivan.

Demanding travel and recording schedules, and problems with business manager-producer Norman Petty led to changes in the group.

Sullivan says he never regretted leaving the Crickets in 1957 yet enjoyed his time with the group and its leader.

“Buddy was a good, old Christian boy, who knew what he wanted and how to get it. His burning desire was to be an entertainer and he got there and became a legend,” said Sullivan, 61, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and still receives royalty checks for his association with the Crickets.

Holly left the Crickets and Petty in 1958. He married and moved to New York to begin a solo career that October.

The final tour

Holly’s motivation was to grow as a rock innovator, producer and artist but he lacked the money. He reluctantly agreed to headline the 1959 Winter Dance Party put together by General Artists Corp.

“More than anything, Buddy went on the tour as a favor to GAC. They felt they needed a bigger attraction, so they really urged Buddy to help them out,” his widow, Maria Elena, said in the 1975 biography “Remembering Buddy.”

Holly needed a new touring band and got Carl Bunch on drums, former Cricket Tommy Allsup on guitar and Lubbock disc jockey Waylon Jennings, 21, on bass.

The GAC tour chartered a bus that proved to be a lemon on the icy, snowy roads of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. It broke down several times the first week.

The Dance Party began Jan. 23 in Milwaukee and the 11th stop was Feb. 2 in Clear Lake, where 1,300 fans showed up.

Weary from travel, Holly chartered the 12-year-old Beechcraft for a 3 1/2-hour flight to Fargo. Allsup and Jennings were to join him, yet legend has it that an ailing Big Bopper talked Jennings into trading places and Valens won a coin flip for Allsup’s seat.

When the plane didn’t arrive, a search began. When the tour bus reached Moorhead at noon, Allsup was first into the hotel and the news was on the lobby television. The desk clerk relayed the details.

High schooler Bobby Vee, 15, and his band, The Shadows, made their professional debut that night in Moorhead, filling in for Holly. The tour went on, finishing Feb. 15.

The music does matter

Paul Anka had written “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” specifically for Holly. It turned out to be Holly’s last studio track, released Jan. 5, 1959, and ultimately reached No. 13 on the Billboard charts.

Certainly, Holly and his music have mattered. While record sale totals aren’t available, an MCA Records spokesman said Holly’s albums continue to consistently sell well. His records have influenced rockers from the Beatles to Elton John to Linda Ronstadt.

It’s estimated that Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper combined to sell more than 10 million records in the 12 months leading up to the Winter Dance Party.

Dennis Farland, who works for the Maytag Co. in Newton, Iowa, took time off to put the 40th anniversary tour together.

“It’s been far beyond my expectations. It has been phenomenal,” Farland, 54, said from a tour stop in Eau Claire, Wis. “I’m pretty passionate about the music, but even so, I think this is a magical show.”

– end –

Dion and the Belmonts performing at the Duluth Armory as part of the Winter Dance Party tour, Jan. 31, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Johnson)

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As noted above, one of those in attendance at the Duluth Armory show was a young Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing – later to be known to the world as Bob Dylan. In February 1998, when he won the Grammy for Album of the Year for “Time Out of Mind,” Dylan mentioned the concert in his acceptance speech:

Were you at any of the Winter Dance Party concerts in 1959? Share your memories by posting a comment.

5 thoughts on “Before the music died in 1959, it lived in Duluth

  1. While on a family vacation I veered of the Interstate and into Clear Lake, IA. My family was not too pleased. I said because we were so close, I wanted to see a place in history. We drove past the Surf Ballroom and out to a cornfield on the edge of town. There wasn’t much of a sign, but a couple of cars on the edge of the road indicated where to stop. It was about 92 degrees. I told my kids the tale of ‘how the music died’ as we walked about 1/2 mile between the cornrows. We came upon a metal marker. A singular indication that something terrible had happened there. My kids kind of knew Buddy Holly from the movie. “He was the one with the glasses, right?,” “That’s right,” I said. We bow our heads and said a little prayer. One daughter left a bracelet as a memorial. To this day, one of the most enduring memories of that vacation was the time taken to remember ‘The Day the Music Died.”

  2. I was a freshman at UMD and attended the concert. After the concert we went to the Gopher Bar and Grill to have a sandwich. Most of the group was there on a second floor.

    • I have never forgotten that night of January 31st 1959 as I was 15 years old. I agree with Jan Borg, you could hear a pin drop. They were so good. I also was at the Gopher Bar and Grill that night after the concert. We sat upstairs and the singing group walked in and ordered food. They all talked to us. It was a very special night.

  3. I will never forget that night of January 31st 1959 as I was just 14 years old. Two memories of that night stick with me. 1. Their was this motorcycle gang their that night with their girlfriends showing off their tough authority as what they tried to convey for attention. When Buddy Holly took stage, he had so much charisma that even the tough motorcycle gang and friends gave their strict attention to Buddy Holly. You could hear a pin drop in that crowd as per say. and 2. Ritchie Valens sang Donna two or three times, it was absolutely beautiful. It sounded 10 times better than on the 45 Record that I had at home. Without the technology of sound equipment in those days, unbelievable. Just to wrap up a thought, I firmly believe (as they say) that Buddy Holly would be around for a long time going in the direction of using an instrumental orchestra for his last and future music releases such as “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
    most respectfully, Jan T. (Leemhuis) Borg

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