It was early Sunday morning, February 1, 1959. The Winter Dance Party was performing at various locations around the upper Midwest, travelling between stops by bus. It had been a cold and miserable trip so far. The biggest problem on the tour was that the performances were booked with little to no forethought about travelling. They bounced around Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota like they were in a pinball machine. After Saturday night’s performance in Duluth, Minnesota ended at midnight, the performers had to travel through the night for a Sunday afternoon performance in Appleton,Wisconsin, scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
About 10 miles south of Hurley, Wisconsin, the bus carrying the performers died. It simply froze up. Nothing on the bus was working, and since no one knew exactly where they were, it was decided that it would be best to stay on the bus and wait for help. The performers soon started freezing, so they began burning newspapers in the aisle of the broken-down bus to stay warm. One of the musicians broke out a bottle of whiskey that he had been saving, and they wrapped in blankets trying to stay warm.
Finally, a car approached…a local sheriff who offered to take the tour manager into town to arrange for someone to rescue the rest of the cold musicians. As more cars came down the desolate road, the performers were catching rides into town, one and two at a time, until the bus was just about empty. By the time most of the performers got to town, it was very early in the morning, and the temperature was well below zero.
Some got something to eat at an all night diner. Some were able to book hotel rooms in neighboring towns. Drummer Carl Bunch was taken to a local hospital to be treated for frostbite. Richie Valens reportedly called his manager in California, complaining about the tour. His manager told him to come home on the first plane he could find.
They were not feeling like rock and roll stars. They were cold. They were tired. They were hungry. They were disillusioned. But they got a break of sorts. When the bus was finally towed into a garage in town, it was discovered that the engine was beyond repair and the Sunday afternoon gig in Appleton had to be cancelled as the entourage had to wait for another bus to arrive from Chicago.
Their rest didn’t last for long, as the performers started to arrive in taxis for an 8 p.m. performance in Green Bay. Since Buddy Holly’s drummer was in the hospital, the drummer from Dion’s backing group filled in. The performance went well, and the performers got back to their hotels for a short night’s sleep. They had to get up early the next morning to get on a new bus that would carry them all the way to the next stop on the tour…Clear Lake, Iowa. From there, the tour was scheduled to go all the way back to Moorhead, Minnesota.
Upon arriving in Clear Lake, some of the performers just couldn’t bear the thought of getting back on that cold bus to take them to their next stop. 17-year-old Richie Valens was suffering from a bad cold. JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson was a large man who was found it hard to get comfortable on the bus. Buddy Holly wanted to travel ahead so he could get some laundry done and get a good rest. It was his decision to rent a chartered plane to take him and his band to the next stop on the tour. Richie Valens convinced guitarist Tommy Allsup to flip a coin to see which of them would get to fly. Valens won the toss. Richardson was able to talk bass player Waylon Jennings into giving up his seat on the plane. Holly teased Jennings about not wanting to fly by saying, “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up.” Jennings jokingly replied, “Well, I hope your old plane crashes.”
To be continued.