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Buddy Holly played the Armory 60 years ago, landing Duluth a place in rock 'n' roll history

It was 60 years ago, Feb. 3, 1959, that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson died in a plane crash, shortly after performing at the Duluth Armory. The site has been a part of rock 'n' roll lore ever since. 2012 file photo / News Tribune 1 / 3
John Mueller portrays Buddy Holly on Sunday night during the Buddy Holly's Winter Dance Party at the Holiday Inn. Mueller has taken the Winter Dance Party Tour route and said it almost killed him. 1999 file/ News Tribune2 / 3
Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and Tommy Allsup perform at the microphone during the Buddy Holly Winter Dance Party concert at the Armory on Jan. 31, 1959. Photo by Colleen Bowen3 / 3

About this time 60 years ago, the up-and-comers on the Winter Dance Party Tour had finished a concert at the Duluth Armory and were en route to Green Bay, Wis. Most of the musicians were warm-weather bred, and it was cold. The bus was rickety; the heaters didn't work; the drummer ended up hospitalized.

Buddy Holly fan Dan Heikkinen of Cloquet calls the scene "the final straw."

"That bus breaking down and Carl Bunch getting frostbite was pivotal in why (Buddy Holly) chartered that plane," Heikkinen said.

After playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson jumped bus in favor of a single-engine plane piloted by Roger Peterson. The expected 3-plus-hour flight from Mason City to Fargo, N.D., lasted about 2 minutes before crashing into a cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959. Everyone on board died.

That day has been called "The day the music died," — as famously sung in "American Pie" by Don McLean.

It's a fitting descriptor, according to Sevan Garabedian, the co-producer of a documentary series about the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour. "The Winter Dance Party Tapes" includes interviews with fans along the historic route, vintage photographs and memorabilia, glimpses of the storied venues.

"Rock 'n' roll at the time was fragile," Garabedian said of the era.

Little Richard had traded music for religion. Chuck Berry was in jail. Jerry Lee Lewis' marriage to his underage cousin cost him fans. The crash "marked the end of the innocence and the end of the first wave of rock 'n' roll," Garabedian said.

One night in Duluth

The Winter Dance Party was an illogically-planned tour that ping-ponged between venues in the Midwest: from southeastern Wisconsin to south-central Minnesota to western Wisconsin and back to Minnesota before dipping down to the Iowa-Illinois border. There were 11 stops, including the Jan. 31, 1959, performance at the Duluth Armory — days before the plane crash.

About 2,000 people were at the armory for the show, and tickets were no more than $2.

The late Lew Latto, who emceed the event and went on to have a long career in radio, told the News Tribune in 2009:

"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," he said. "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."

Jim Heffernan, then a sophomore at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was at the show and recalled talking about the plane crash afterward with friends. One, he said, had an especially strong response: "Why did it have to be Buddy Holly? Why couldn't it be me?"

A piece of the lore

Like other stops on the tour, including venues in Green Bay and Montevideo, Minn., Duluth has claimed a piece of the Buddy Holly lore. Last weekend, local musician Todd Eckart performed his Buddy Holly tribute show at Grandma's Sports Garden. There were about 300 tickets sold to what has become an annual fundraising event, said Mark Poirier, executive director of the Armory Arts and Music Center.

It's justified, according to John Mueller, a Los Angeles-based musician who has taken his tribute show along the Winter Dance Party Tour route.

"If you can imagine: Only 11 cities got to see him," he said. "That's really not that many people. You figure 11 cities, maybe 12,000 people go to see him on that tour."

It's rumored that fans stop even at Abra Auto Body in St. Paul, site of the former Prom Ballroom. John Rucinski, an estimator at the shop, said he hasn't seen that — but he's pretty busy.

"There are old-timers who come and ask" about the site's history, he added.

In collecting stories for his documentary, Garabedian found that each stop on the tour had its own unique story. In Mankato, he said, a few of the musicians were invited to a fan's birthday party after the show. He's seen the photographs.

"You can see the musicians at the girl's house, surrounding a birthday cake," Garabedian said. The bus incident and Bunch's frostbite give Duluth and Green Bay an extra tie to the narrative.

But the bigger story in Duluth was an eye-lock between Holly and a young Hibbing fan who was reportedly in the audience.

"My honest opinion is that the whole Dylan connection affects a lot of people that really, really think it was a big deal that Dylan was there that night," Heffernan said.

At the Armory

In the past two decades, the Winter Dance Party Tour has played a key role in efforts to save the Duluth Armory, which was active as a venue into the 1970s. While plenty of storied musicians played there — Liberace, Johnny Cash, the Harlem Globetrotters, The Osmonds — and at least one of them also died in a plane crash — Patsy Cline — it's just the Winter Dance Party Tour that got a rare shout-out from Bob Dylan when he received a Grammy Award for "Time Out of Mind" in 1998.

"I just want to say that one time when I was 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at the Duluth National Guard Armory, and I was 3 feet away from him, and he looked at me," Dylan said after receiving his award. "And I just had some kind of feeling that he was, I don't know how or why, but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way."

Bob Dylan performs at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth in 2013. (File / News Tribune)Dylan's nod renewed interest in the space. In addition to preservationists, it also got the attention of the Dylan-heads.

"When I heard that connection, I heard that landmark rock 'n' roll history was made right here, I couldn't believe people weren't, like, gaga," said Poirier. "It wasn't Woodstock, but it was just about."

The Armory attracts people on a Dylan pilgrimage, he said, because of the moment with Holly.

"He's a nebulous person," Poirier said. "You kind of have to work a little bit. You can't just go to Graceland or Paisley Park. They're coming to the Northland. The Armory is a piece of it, if you want to know Dylan."

We're no Clear Lake, though

Garabedian and co-producer James McCool have taken part of their documentary to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper played their last show.

This week, the city becomes a bubble set in the 1950s — a prime spot to show what they've collected. (They expect to show the Duluth footage here later this year.)

"It's surreal," he said. "You literally forget about your life outside."

This has become the go-to memorial site since 1979, Garabedian said, and this year, as usual, he will walk with friends out to the crash site at 1 a.m., have a few drinks, sing "American Pie."

Heikkinen would be there, too, but he just got back from a weekend trip that included a stop in Tipton, Iowa, where he visited T&M Clothing, where some of the musicians bought warmer clothes on the tour. Then he visited Al's Meat and Eat, where Valens reportedly sang along to his own song on the jukebox, convincing other patrons he was the Ritchie Valens.

Heikkinen has been listening to Buddy Holly since about the mid-1980s, he said.

"Each song was kind of different," he said. "Buddy Holly's songs were diverse."

Garabedian said that though Holly's career was brief, it had a resurgence when 1950s nostalgia hit: "Happy Days" was on TV, "American Graffiti" in theaters. The movie "La Bamba," a biopic about Ritchie Valens, was released in the mid-1980s.

He said we will still be talking about Buddy Holly in 20 years: "He's forever young, frozen in time."