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Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died 50 years ago today

Memories emerge from fateful night in rock...

Tour poster
The poster for the Winter Dance Party held Feb. 3, 1959, in the Moorhead Armory featured Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Frankie Sardo. Special to The Forum

Memories emerge from fateful night in rock

It drew the first tears of rock 'n' roll, a culture so young death was new.

Fifty years ago this morning, Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Ritchie Valens died when the tiny plane they chartered to Fargo from Iowa slammed into the ground five minutes after takeoff, killing all three and the young pilot.

Helping to fill in for the fallen at the Moorhead Armory that night was Fargo 15-year-old Bobby Vee and his band, The Shadows.

The rest is history. Vee went on to be a pop star with hits such as "Rubber Ball" and "Suzie Baby," further cementing the local link to the first chapter in rock's long mythology.


It's not easy to learn new facts about an intensely studied and 50-year-old event, one with a narrative so well-known. But there are lots of nuggets that have been largely forgotten. Here are four of them:

Plenty of potential

Holly, Richardson and Valens were innovators, and their deaths probably stalled rock's development.

Buddy Holly was one of the first to use double-tracked guitar parts and overdubbing in the studio. He also used orchestral strings on several songs, an unusual move at the time.

Lewy Ronken, a Holly impersonator, said the musician was strong-willed in the studio, especially after his first recording in Nashville that gave little control or satisfaction.

"I think he walked away from that kind of bitter," Ronken said.

"When he actually got the chance to do it his way, he enjoyed that experimentation."

The other two were ahead of their time in different ways. Valens was one of the first to bring a Hispanic influence to rock music. Richardson already had dreamed up an idea that didn't catch on for many years: the music video.


Sent Dylan packing

Three days before it hit Moorhead, the 1959 tour was in Duluth, Minn. A high school senior named Robert Zimmerman was impressed enough that he later recalled the night as an inspiration, saying it was like Holly had a halo around his head.

Zimmerman, of course, later became Bob Dylan. By spring 1959, he'd left his home to seek a career in music. A stop in Fargo didn't go so well, said Bob Korum, a founding member of The Shadows.

"We used him two nights and got rid of him. We thought, 'This kid will never make it,' " Korum said. Bob's main problem? "He didn't look at the crowd," Korum said.

Tragedy again

The tragic event indirectly linked to another one in Fargo. Del Shannon, the '60s star who sang "Runaway," played a tribute show at the Fargo Civic Center in 1990 commemorating the anniversary. It was his final gig. He shot and killed himself five days later.

Dale Hannasch of Watertown, S.D., promoted that concert. He said he could tell right away that Shannon was not right: "He looked sunken and thin."

Then in the middle of the show Shannon came backstage and unsuccessfully tried to convince Hannasch he was too sick to continue.


Hannasch told him to go back on stage and finish.

Interest never died

The crash continues to captivate, as Big Bopper's coffin shows. Richardson's family exhumed the body in 2007 to place it in a grave where a memorial would be allowed, said Tom Kreason, founder of the Texas Musician's Museum.

While they were at it, the family had an autopsy to confirm it was crash injuries that killed him. (As opposed to Holly's pistol, which was on the plane.)

Since then, his family lent Richardson's steel coffin to Kreason's museum, pending a potential auction. If you think that would be too macabre or too obscure to draw a crowd, you'd be wrong.

"We've been packed because of it," Kreason said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

Related Topics: MOORHEAD
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