The Day After the Music Died

 February 2, 2011 will mark the 52nd Anniversary of the last concert Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson “The Big Bopper” performed at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. On that cold winter’s night, their small private plane took off from Mason City, Iowa bound for the Fargo, North Dakota airport for their next performance. It never made its destination.

Their plane crashed around one o’clock, the morning of February 3, 1959, and claimed the lives of the three performers and their young pilot, Roger Peterson. Three of Rock and Roll’s most promising musical artists were gone. As Don McLean wrote in his classic song, “American Pie”, it was “the day the music died.”

After the crash, there was serious discussion of what to do: should they cancel the show, or find some local talent and carry on? I’m sure everyone involved was in shocked disbelief. The decision was to find some local talent to fill in. They picked a group of teenager musicians who quickly named themselves “The Shadows”.

Bob Korum, Dick Dunkirk, Bill Velline, and fifteen-year-old Bobby Velline, later known as Bobby Vee, comprised the group. Instead of attending the concert that night, they took the stage, and their musical careers were launched, which led to years of booked gigs and hit records. When Bobby Vee moved on to lead other bands, the Shadows continued without him.

Old 45's

So what was it like for the band members who stepped in to replace the three popular performers at the Armory in Moorhead, Minnesota on February 3, 1959?

There is a man at the health club I frequent who was in the band that night and continued with The Shadows all these years. I talk to him on a regular basis and one day asked if I could interview him for a blog. He told me there has been much written over the years and a lot of it is false. He said he didn’t think anyone would care after all this time. There were several others in the sauna who said they would love to hear about what it was like, but he declined anyway.

I was disappointed, but didn’t beg (for too many minutes). Over the course of many months, we’ve discussed a variety of topics, including his band, but those stories are mostly contemporary, their experiences when they have gigs. He said they’ve been lucky–their band never had to play in bars. He’s told me, more than once, “I never smoked, never drank, never did drugs.” That’s probably why he’s a very young-looking seventy-one.

He talks about Bobby Vee and his brother Billy, who died fairly young. About knowing Bob Dylan when he was Bobby Zimmerman. About how the British Invasion in 1963 really hurt American bands. About how in the older days, they were paid three cents every time one of their songs was played on a juke box, and five cents when it played on the radio.

But about the concert, the day after the music died, he doesn’t have much to say, except it was the first time the band had performed in public and that they knew only three songs. Maybe it’s difficult for him to put into words what it was like to be a teenager, shocked as the rest of the rock world to learn three young stars had been dimmed.

Yet they took the stage that memorable night when it was decided the show must go on and the music couldn’t die.

 Christine Husom is the Second Wind Publishing author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, and An Altar by the River


Filed under life, music

16 responses to “The Day After the Music Died

  1. Wow,
    Love this post, Christine. Well said. He must be an interesting man to talk to. Maybe someday he’ll actually consent to give you an interview!

  2. A fascinating post–our generation is now ancient history! 😉

  3. gregg

    Neat post. It’d be great to hear ‘the rest of the story’.

  4. Thanks for this article. I was a teenage during this time and will never forget “the day the music died.”

  5. christinehusom

    Thanks, everyone.

    We went to the 50th anniversary at the Surf Ballroom and stood for the 5 hour amazing tribute concert. Bobby Vee was there. Ritchie Valens’ family, the Big Bopper’s son, Peter and Gordon, The Crickets, on and on. There were countless young people bopping along with us older folks, and young guys wearing Buddy Holly glasses.

    It was a blast! Except that my husband was ill by the time we got to Clear Lake and I had to sell his ticket in the frigid weather outside the ballroom. That was easy–a lot of people had driven to Clear Lake in hopes of getting in. I had reserved about the last available motel room in the area, which turned out to be a real hell hole. We slept in our coats–me with my hood up–so we didn’t have to touch the sheets, if that tells you anything. I guess that’s what memories are made of.

  6. I would have loved to have grown up in the fifties when those fantastic records were unencumbered by dust and abuse. Great job of conveying the humbling effect this tragedy had on these refreshingly clean-cut young performers.

  7. Elizabeth

    Thank you! What an interesting posting.

  8. Mairead

    Christine – Nice post. It would be interesting to hear about what it was like for The Shadows. Maybe he’ll change his mind. Here’s hoping.

  9. christinehusom

    The 50’s were a unique time. Businesses soared after the war, and rock n roll music spread like wildfire. I was very young, but it was a great time. And I’ll keep asking questions, Maggie. Thanks for weighing in, everyone.

  10. Jim Ebsen

    Richard Dunkirk was not part of the Shadows when that band appeared as a replacement act for the ill-fated stars, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson. He joined the group over a year later after he left a group known as the Furys. The original bass player for the Shadows was an individual named James Stillman. It was Stillman who convinced the promoters of the Moorhead, Minnesota ill fated Winter Dance Party to include the Bobby Vee group. Without Stillman Bobby Vee would probably have never known the success he was to later attain. It is time that he be given credit for his endeavors.

    • Thanks for your correction, Jim, and for setting the record straight. Were you from that area, also?

      • Jim Ebsen

        Christine: I grew up and live in Fargo. I know and knew personally all the members of the Shadows. We all went to school together. We are all products of Fargo Central High School which burned down in 1966. “Go Midgets!” Bill Veline and Jim Stillman have both passed on. Only Bobby Vee and Bob Korum remain from the original Shadows band. I remain close to drummer Bob Korum and the bass player Dick Dunkirk who replaced Jim Stillman.

        I regret one thing from my high school years. I did not attend the “Winter Dance Party” at the Moorhead Armory the “Day After the Music Died.” I was fighting with my girlfriend. She always said that the reason we were fighting was because I was cheap and wouldn’t cough up the $1.25 ticket price for the Winter Dance Party. Thinking back, she may have been right. Just think of the history I missed for the sake of frugality.

        1959 was quite a time to have been alive even for cheap people.

        If anyone is interested, I’ll tell you about meeting Bobby Zimmerman when he called himself Elston Gunnn (not a misspelling) and who later became Bob Dylan. He too got his start in Fargo as a bus boy at the Red Apple Cafe.

        Jim Ebsen

  11. Jim, I’d love to hear about your meeting Bob Dylan. His brother Dave lives in Hanover which is 10 miles from Buffalo, where I live. Dave was on District 877 (Buffalo, Hanover, Montrose) School Board for a number of years. One of his sons is a year older than my oldest daughter and one was in my son’s class. Small world. I used to see Dave around at school events back in those days, but never met Bob. I know Bob goes to his brother’s house for R&R and I’ve heard they have a recording studio there, but that could be a rumor.

    I love the 50s–music, dress, sense of patriotism. Even though I was a little kid, not a teenager. I did go to the only Minnesota Beatles concert at the old Met Stadium in 1965. I have my original ticket and the prices were 3.50, 4.50, and 5.50. Or maybe 2.50, 3.50 and 4.50–I’ll have to look it up to be sure. Can you imagine? I paid $250 to see Paul McCartney at the Excel in 2002.

    I appreciate you sharing your experiences and remembrances!

  12. Dan Vick

    Christine – Wonderful blog, which I just stumbled upon. I have the privilege of being Bob Korum’s nephew – my mother is his sister. Because of Uncle Bob, I became interested in playing drums as an 11-year old and took lessons on several percussion instruments. I have continued to play with community orchestras and concert bands as an avocation wherever I have lived. I occasionally get to see Bob when we are on vacation in the Midwest and we talk from time to time. He is a pretty youthful septuagenerian and still plays the drums.

    Dan Vick, MD
    Manlius, NY

  13. Paul Marshall

    I live in Moorhead, MN and I am wondering where the old Armory was located and if it still stands today?

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