Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Vancouver legend's brush with Buddy Holly

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.”

“You would?”

“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.

'Spasmodic Rites'

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.


Johnny Hughes, author of Texas Poker Wisdom, a novel said...

Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, and the Cotton Club
by Johnny Hughes,
January 2009

Elvis Presley was leaning a against his pink, 1954 Cadillac in front of Lubbock's historic Cotton Club. The small crowd were mesmerized by his great looks, cockiness, and charisma. He put on quite a show, doing nearly all the talking. Elvis bragged about his sexual conquests, using language you didn't hear around women. He said he'd been a truck driver six months earlier. Now he could have a new woman in each town. He told a story about being caught having sex in his back seat. An angry husband grabbed his wife by the ankles and pulled her out from under Elvis. I doubted that.
Earlier, at the Fair Park Coliseum, Elvis had signed girl's breasts, arms, foreheads, bras, and panties. No one had ever seen anything like it. We had met Elvis' first manager, Bob Neal, bass player, Bill Black, and guitarist Scotty Moore. They wanted us to bring some beer out to the Cotton Club. So we did. My meeting with Bob Neal in 1955 was to have great meaning in my future. I was 15.

The old scandal rag, Confidential, had a story about Elvis at the Cotton Club and the Fair Park Coliseum. It had a picture of the Cotton Club and told of Elvis' unique approach to autographing female body parts. It said he had taken two girls to Mackenzie Park for a tryst in his Cadillac.

Elvis did several shows in Lubbock during his first year on the road, in 1955. When he first came here, he made $75. His appearance in 1956 paid $4000. When he arrived in Lubbock, Bob Neal was his manager. By the end of the year, Colonel Tom Parker had taken over. Elvis played the Fair Park Coliseum for its opening on Jan. 6th, with a package show. When he played the Fair Park again, Feb. 13th, it was memorable. Colonel Tom Parker and Bob Neal were there. Buddy Holly and Bob Montgomery were on the bill. Waylon Jennings was there. Elvis was 19. Buddy was 18.

Elvis' early shows in Lubbock were:
Jan 6th 1955, Fair Park Coliseum. Feb 13th. Fair Park, Cotton Club April 29 Cotton Club June 3: Johnson Connelly Pontiac with Buddy Holly, Fair Park October 11: Fair Park October 15: Cotton Club, April 10, 1956: Fair Park. Elvis probably played the Cotton Club on all of his Lubbock dates. He also spent time with Buddy Holly on all his Lubbock visits.

Buddy Holly was the boffo popular teenager of all time around Lubbock. The town loved him! He had his own radio show on Pappy Dave Stone's KDAV, first with Jack Neal, later with Bob Montgomery in his early teens. KDAV was the first all-country station in America. Buddy fronted Bill Haley, Marty Robbins, and groups that traveled through. Stone was an early mentor. Buddy first met Waylon Jennings at KDAV. Disk jockeys there included Waylon, Roger Miller, Bill Mack, later America's most famous country DJ, and country comedian Don Bowman. Bowman and Miller became the best known writers of funny country songs.

All these singer-songwriters recorded there, did live remotes with jingles, and wrote songs. Elvis went to KDAV to sing live and record the Clover's "Fool, Fool Fool" and Big Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle and Roll" on acetates. This radio station in now KRFE, 580 a.m., located at 66th and MLK, owned by Wade Wilkes. They welcome visitors. It has to be the only place that Elvis, Buddy, Waylon, and Bill Mack all recorded. Johnny Cash sang live there. Waylon and Buddy became great friends through radio. Ben Hall, another KDAV disc jockey and songwriter, filmed in color at the Fair Park Coliseum. This video shows Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis, Buddy and his friends.

Wade's dad, Big Ed Wilkes, owner of KDAV, managed country comedian, Jerry Clower, on MCA Records. He sent Joe Ely's demo tape to MCA. Bob Livingston also sent one of the tapes I gave him to MCA. This led to a contract. Pappy Dave Stone, the first owner of KDAV, helped Buddy get his record contract with Decca/MCA.

Another disc jockey at KDAV was Arlie Duff. He wrote the country classic, "Y'all Come." It has been recorded by nineteen well-known artists, including Bing Crosby. When Waylon Jennings and Don Bowman were hired by the Corbin brothers, Slim, Sky, and Larry, of KLLL, Buddy started to hang around there. They all did jingles, sang live, wrote songs, and recorded. Niki Sullivan, one of the original Crickets, was also a singing DJ at KLLL. Sky Corbin has an excellent book about this radio era and the intense competition between KLLL and KDAV. All the DJs had mottos. Sky Corbin's was "lover, fighter, wild horse rider, and a purty fair windmill man."

Don Bowman's motto was "come a foggin' cowboy." He'd make fun of the sponsors and get fired. We played poker together. He'd take breaks in the poker game to sing funny songs. I played poker with Buddy Holly before and after he got famous. He was incredibly polite and never had the big head. The nation only knew Buddy Holly for less than two years. He was the most famous guy around Lubbock from the age of fourteen.

Niki Sullivan, an original Cricket, and I had a singing duo as children. We cut little acetates in 1948. We also appeared several times on Bob Nash's kid talent show on KFYO. This was at the Tech Theatre. Buddy Holly and Charlene Hancock, Tommy's wife, also appeared on this show. Larry Holley, Buddy's brother, financed his early career, buying him a guitar and whatever else he needed. Buddy recorded twenty acetates at KDAV from 1953 until 1957. He also did a lot of recording at KLLL. Larry Holley said Niki was the most talented Cricket except Buddy. All of Buddy's band mates and all of Joe Ely's band mates were musicians as children.

Buddy and Elvis met at the Cotton Club. Buddy taught Elvis the lyrics to the Drifter's "Money Honey". After that, Buddy met Elvis on each of his Lubbock visits. I think Elvis went to the Cotton Club on every Lubbock appearance. When Elvis played a show at the Johnson Connelly Pontiac showroom, Mac Davis was there. I was too.

The last time Elvis played the Fair Park Coliseum on April 10,1956, he was as famous as it gets. Buddy Holly, Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison, and Don Guess were a front act. They did two shows and played for over 10,000 people. Those wonderful I.G. Holmes photos, taken at several locations, usually show Buddy and his pals with Elvis. Lubbock had a population of 80,000 at the time. Elvis was still signing everything put in front of him. Not many people could have signing women as a hobby.
Many of the acetates recorded at KLLL and KDAV by Buddy and others were later released, many as bootlegs. When Buddy Holly recorded four songs at KDAV, the demo got him his first record contract. It wasn't just Lubbock radio that so supportive of Buddy Holly. The City of Lubbock hired him to play at teenage dances. He appeared at Lubbock High School assemblies and many other places in town.

Everyone in Lubbock cheered Buddy Holly on with his career. The newspaper reports were always positive. At one teenage gig, maybe at the Glassarama, there was only a small crowd. Some of us were doing the "dirty bop." The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal had photos the next day showing people with their eyes covered with a black strip. Sonny Curtis mentions that in his song, "The Real Buddy Holly Story." When Buddy Holly and the Crickets were on the Ed Sullivan show, the newspaper featured that. The whole town watched.

Buddy was fighting with his manager Norman Petty over money before he died. They were totally estranged. Larry Holley told me that Norman said to Buddy, "I'll see you dead before you get a penny." A few weeks later, Buddy was dead. When Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, it was headline news in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Over 1000 people attended the funeral on February 7, 1959. Buddy was only twenty-two years old. His widow, Maria Elena Holly, was too upset to attend. The pall bearers were all songwriters and musicians that had played with Buddy: Niki Sullivan, Jerry Allison, Joe B. Mauldin, Sonny Curtis, Bob Montgomery, and Phil Everly. Elvis was in the Army. He had Colonel Tom send a large wreath of yellow roses.
In 1976, I was managing the Joe Ely Band. They had recorded an as-yet -to-be-released album for MCA Records. I was in Nashville to meet with the MCA execs. They wanted Joe to get a booking contract and mentioned some unheard of two-man shops. Bob Neal, Elvis' first manager, had great success in talent managing and booking. He sold his agency to the William Morris Agency, the biggest booking agency in the world, and stayed on as president of the Nashville branch.

I called the William Morris Agency and explained to the secretary that I did indeed know Bob Neal, as we had met at the Cotton Club in Lubbock, Texas when he was Elvis' manager. He came right on the phone. I told him the Joe Ely Band played mostly the Cotton Club. He said that after loading up to leave there one night, a cowboy called Elvis over to his car and knocked him down. Elvis was in a rage. He made them drive all over Lubbock checking every open place, as they looked for the guy. Bob Neal invited me to come right over.

Bob Neal played that, now classic, demo tape from Caldwell Studios and offered a booking contract. We agreed on a big music city strategy: Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, London, and Austin. Bob drove me back to MCA and they could not believe our good fortune. The man had been instrumental in the careers of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rodriguez, and many others. The William Morris Agency sent the Joe Ely Band coast to coast and to Europe, first to front Merle Haggard, then on a second trip to front the Clash. The original Joe Ely Band were Lloyd Maines, Natalie's father, steel guitar, Jesse Taylor, electric guitar, Steve Keeton, drums, and Gregg Wright, bass. Ponty Bone, on accordion, joined a little later. The band did the shows and the recording. The recorded tunes were originals from Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

However, some of the William Morris bookings led to zig zag travel over long distances to so-called listening clubs. When I complained to Bob Neal, he'd recall the 300 dates Elvis played back in 1955. Four guys in Elvis' pink Cadillac. When Buddy made some money, he bought a pink Cadillac. Joe Ely bought a pristine, 1957 pink Cadillac that was much nicer than either of their pink Cadillacs.

When I'd hear from Bob Neal, it was very good news, especially the fantastic, uniformly-rave, album and performance reviews from newspapers and magazines everywhere. Time Magazine devoted a full page to Joe Ely. The earliest big rock critic to praise Joe Ely was Joe Nick Patoski, author of the definitive and critically-acclaimed Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. After one year, MCA was in turmoil. Big stars were leaving or filing lawsuits. We were told they might not re-new the option to make a second record. MCA regularly fired everyone we liked. Bob Neal thought the band should go to Los Angeles for a one-nighter.

He booked the Joe Ely Band into the best known club on the West Coast, the Palomino, owned by his dear pal, Tommy Thomas. We alerted other record companies. They drove back and forth to L.A. in a Dodge Van to play only one night. Robert Hilburn, the top rock critic for the Los Angeles Times, came with his date, Linda Ronstadt.

The Joe Ely Band loved to play music. They started on time, took short breaks, and played until someone made them stop. Robert Hilburn wrote that Ely could be, "the most important male singer to emerge in country music since the mid-60s crop of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson." The long review with pictures took up the whole fine arts section of the biggest newspaper in the country. Hilburn praised each of the band individually. He was blown away when they just kept playing when the lights came on at closing time. After that, several major record companies were interested.

The last time I saw Bob Neal was at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco on February 22, 1979. Little Pete, a black drarf who was always around Stubb's Bar-B-Q, was traveling with the band. To open the show, Little Pete came out and announced, "Lubbock, Texas produces the Joe Ely Band!" Then he jumped off the elevated stage and Bo Billingsley, the giant roady, caught him. Bob Neal, the old showman that had seen it all, just loved that.

This comment originally appears on Anyone may make copies of this one article or post it on any web site. Thanks to Chris Oglesby and Larry Holley.

Anonymous said...

He is a young and cute pilot...
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