Red Robinson and Buddy Holly
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 3, 2009
Fifty years ago today, three young musicians boarded a four-seat propellor airplane after playing a show at a Midwest ballroom.
They flew in a storm to avoid another overnight ride on an unheated bus on an arduous midwinter tour.
By morning’s light, searchers found the wreckage on a cold, windswept Iowa farm. The crushed fuselage held a crumpled body. Three others lay in a snowy field.
The young pilot, Roger Peterson, died at the controls. His passengers were Richard Steven Valenzuela, 17, of Pacoima, Calif.; Jiles Perry Richardson, 28, of Beaumont, Tex.; and, Charles Hardin Holley, 22, of New York and Lubbock, Tex.
The rock ’n’ roll world knew them as Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly.
The tragedy is remembered as The Day the Music Died.
The trio performed at the Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake before chartering the airplane. It was said Mr Valens and Mr. Richardson were nursing colds, while Mr. Holly needed to do laundry.
Mr. Holly’s rise and tragically literal descent was brief even by rock’s unforgiving standard. Only 20 months passed from the release of his first hit, a recording of “That’ll Be the Day,” until his death.
That rockabilly song broke as a regional hit in Buffalo, New York and Philadelphia, as well as in Vancouver, where a young, red-haired disk jockey included it as one of his top-10 picks in a list published by Cash Box magazine.
“I was the first guy ever to drop a needle on it,” Red Robinson says.
Mr. Robinson, 71, is a legend of the Vancouver music scene. A disc jockey at age 16, he won an ardent following among local teens for his championing of rock ‘n’ roll. It was a time when platters by black artists were sold under the counter in brown wrap, as if possessing a “race record,” as they were known, was shameful. The deejay served as master of ceremonies for a concert by Elvis Presley in 1957 and by the Beatles in 1964. He befriended most every musician to pass through the city. A suburban show theatre now bears his name and his life story has been presented as a musical stage show in “Red Rock Diner.”
On Oct. 23, 1957, a touring troupe of musicians, billed as “The Biggest Show of Stars,” played two evening shows at the Georgia Auditorium in Vancouver. The lineup included Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, Paul Anka, Buddy Knox, the Drifters, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, and Mr. Holly with his Crickets, as well as Jimmy Bowen and the Rhythm Orchids and an orchestra. Admission was $2 with a top ticket price of $3.75.
As the host of twice-daily radio shows on 50,000-watt CKWX, the most powerful station west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco, the ginger-haired jock enjoyed a large following among teens. Mr. Robinson introduced acts before retreating backstage to interview performers for his radio show.
A half-century later, he describes an excited, three-minute chat with Mr. Holly as being “like two high school buddies having a talk.”
The 21-year-old musician, who had yet to earn enough money to cap his front teeth, posed backstage with the 20-year-old deejay, who put his left arm around the shoulder of the rising star.
“We’d like to congratulate you here in a special way,” Mr. Robinson told the singer. “Because the west coast is sort of responsible for ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (getting) its start. It started out here and went big. We’re all happy about it here.”
“That’s what I heard,” Mr. Holly said, chuckling.
“What you got coming up in the future for records?”
“We got one we just released the other day by the Crickets called ‘Oh, Boy!’ You should be getting that just about any day now.”
The single, with “Not Fade Away” on the B-side, was released four days later.
The news excited the deejay.
“That’s terrific,” Mr. Robinson chirped. “We’ll be playing it just like the other ones. That’ll mean that you’ve got ...” He counted silently. “... three songs on our charts when that comes out.” He was almost shouting in excitement. “ ‘Peggy Sue,’ ‘That’ll Be The Day,’ and ‘Oh, Boy!’ How do you think it compares with the others?”
“I like ‘Oh, Boy!’ better than ‘That’ll be The Day,’ really,” Mr. Holly replied. “Of course I’m no judge.”
“It’s always the listeners that decide the fate of a record in the end,” the deejay agreed. “We’d like to congratulate you and I think you’ve got a good future in the business. One other question, Buddy. If trends change, would you hop on to the trend and go into the other, or would you just give up?”
“I’d hop on the trend.”
“Uh huh. I’d prefer singing something a little bit quieter anyhow.”
Mr. Holly said he thought rock ’n’ roll’s future was limited and would not last much beyond Christmas.
Mr. Holly even recorded a promotional spot for the deejay.
“This is Buddy Holly of the Crickets,” he said, “inviting you to listen to the show that makes the hits, Red Robinson’s Teen Canteen Show.”
The Crickets’ set list for the show was “Ready Teddy,” “Oh, Boy!” and “That’ll Be The Day.”
Mr. Robinson even found time to take the Texas singer to a nearby White Spot drive-in, known for milkshakes and hamburgers with a sauce known as the Triple O.
In his brief touring career, Mr. Holly performed in five provinces, missing only Manitoba and the Atlantic. His Canadian debut came a month before the Vancouver show at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. He played the Montreal Forum the following night.
In the span of 13 months, Mr. Holly also performed in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Ottawa, Kitchener, Ont., and Peterborough, Ont.
A grinding schedule of tour dates was the price of rock ’n’ roll fame.
The trio of doomed performers were part of a Winter Dance Party Tour in 1959 across the American Midwest with Dion and the Belmonts, as well as an aspiring teen idol from New York named Frankie Sardo. Waylon Jennings, who would go on to forge a legendary career of his own as a country outlaw, played bass behind Mr. Holly.
Mr. Holly joined the tour in part to promote a new record. He had not charted for several weeks. The Big Bopper’s novelty tune “Chantilly Lace” had been a phenomenon. At the time of the crash, it was Mr. Valens, a teenaged Chicano artist who first hit it big with the raucous “Come On, Let’s Go,” who had the hottest record. “Donna,” a ballad written about his high school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig, neared the top of the charts. The flipside was a rocking version of a traditional Mexican festival song, “La Bamba.”
In 1971, Don McLean’s epic, 8 1/2-minute “American Pie” offered an autobiographical recounting of his memory of learning the news of Holly’s death — “I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride” — forever associated the tragedy with his description of it as “the day the music died.”
Mr. Robinson’s own recollection of the moment when he first heard remains indelibly etched in memory.
He was working at station KGW in Portland, Ore.
“I’m on the air. The news director barges in, says, ‘Red, look at this.’ ”
He scanned a news bulletin about the wreck.
“I’ve got to break in right away,” the news director insisted.
The deejay agreed. As the terrible news was broadcast, Mr. Robinson grabbed a record, pinching it between thumb and forefinger even as the turntable spun, a technique called slip-cueing, which eliminates the silence before music sounds.
At the right moment, he let go of the platter and was shocked to realize what he had placed on the turntable. It was Mr. Holly’s latest record, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” written by Ottawa’s Paul Anka, released just two weeks earlier.
To this day, 50 winters later, the memory gives him a chill.
'We thought maybe it was like a hula hoop. A fad.'
The disc jockey Red Robinson taped a chat with Buddy Holly backstage at the Georgia Auditorium in Vancouver before a 1957 concert. The interview can be heard on YouTube. It is also available for purchase on iTunes for 99 cents.
The two young men talk excitedly about weather and music. Mr. Holly thought the rock ’n’ roll craze near its end.
“None of us believed it was going to last forever,” Mr. Robinson, 71, said in a recent interview. “It was so youthful and so refreshing. We thought maybe it was like a hula hoop. A fad.”
Mr. Holly recorded an eight-second promotional spot for Mr. Robinson’s radio show. It is also for sale on iTunes.
Vancouver’s daily newspapers did not think much of the singers at the 1957 show.
“They performed the stiff-legged, spasmodic rites of the cult with an unimaginative sameness that makes their wide appeal an enigma,” wrote Alan Hope of the Vancouver Sun.
He noted the music made the teenagers in the audience scream.
“Occasionally the jungle beat caught them and they strained forward, hands clapping,” he wrote.
The Province dismissed the concert as “two hours of brash musical noises,” noting that Frankie Lymon “sings in a high shriek.”
The Fabulous Forty vs. The Sensational Sixty
More on the exciting days of competitive Top 40 radio in Vancouver can be found at the online Vancouver Radio Museum.
Music fan Jim Bower has compiled lists of Vancouver radio station surveys. The lists of hits forgotten and unforgettable are an irresistible delight.
The day the music died
Many tributes to the three recording artists killed in the plane wreck on Feb. 3, 1959, can be found online.
The Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake, Iowa, has been maintained in a state much like it was on that night 50 years ago when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper stepped on stage for what would be their final performances. Fans travel the continent to make a pilgrimage to a site that has become a shrine to rock and roll. A full program of events has been held at the ballroom to mark the anniversary.
Many falsehoods about the tour's final days are debunked by the anonymous experts who post the Buddy Holly Online website. Among the many highlights are fan photographs of the Winter Dance Party shows leading to the fateful flight.
The Des Moines Register newspaper has published an online multimedia presentation of the crash, including links to the official crash investigation, as well as the coroner’s reports. From these, you learn the personal effects found with Buddy Holly’s body included cufflinks, the top of a ballpoint pen, and $193 cash, from which the coroner deducted $11.65 in fees.
The Mason City Globe-Gazette, with the motto “North Iowa’s daily newspaper, edited for the home,” found itself on the international stage with the death of the three performers. Check out the newspaper's front-page for Feb. 3, 1959.
The Buddy Holly Center in his hometown of Lubbock, Tex., has posted a timeline and a biography.