When Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens and pilot Roger Peterson died in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959 — 60 years ago today — a ripple went through history like a stone thrown into a pond.
That ripple affected not only the families and fans — the tour the trio was involved in played at Dubuque’s Melody Mill on Feb. 10 — but also a filmmaking pair who has been documenting that ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour.
“Originally, it was meant as a two-hour documentary that we would maybe sell to PBS or another station,” said Sevan Garabedian, who along with producer Jim McCool is the creator of “The Winter Dance Party Tapes.”
“Once we were done doing all the interviews with the musicians who were on the final tour, they were such great interviews that it seemed to be such a shame to cut them down to four or five minutes,” he said. “On top of that, we interviewed fans who were at all 11 shows, up to and including the one at the Surf Ballroom, in Clear Lake, Iowa (the last show before the crash).”
Instead, the material is part of a documentary series that will be released on YouTube throughout the year, beginning in March. The first interview, featuring musician Frankie Sardo, can be viewed now in two parts.
Garabedian has filmed and visited several stops on the tour — including Dubuque, though Melody Mill closed in 1964 and was torn down shortly thereafter — in the course of researching the musicians and the fans.
“The Midwest, especially this time of year, you can’t walk into a restaurant or bar without hearing about the tour,” he said. “Iowa, as a state, has adopted Buddy Holly as its rock and roll representative.”
Garabedian made his last swing through the Dubuque area in 2017, collecting stories and historical photos, as well as meeting fans of all stripes. His visits often correspond with Clear Lake’s Tribute to Buddy Holly concert, which began in 1979.
Today, Garabedian said, the tradition of celebrating Holly, Richardson and Valens h as become “like time traveling to the ’50s.”
“It’s funny because this year is the 40th year of the tribute show,” he said. “And, that itself has its own history. People talk about the first tribute show in ’79. They have become famous unto themselves.”
John Mueller’s Winter Dance Party tribute tour is another event that takes place annually in the Midwest and beyond going back to 2015. The tour will make a stop at the Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque on Saturday, March 23.
Garabedian encourages anyone who was at any of the shows on the 1959 tour to contact him at 514-931-6959, or email@example.com. He also continues to collect photos, often providing rewards for previously unseen pictures, from all the Winter Dance Party tour stops in the hopes of one day documenting all of them.
“We got really lucky; we found some amazing things,” Garabedian said. “The best one being the last photos taken at the Surf (Ballroom). Forty-nine-and-a-half years and no photos had ever surfaced from the show until then.”
Garabedian has offered a reward for photos in the past, too. And, at the 50th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party in 2009, it paid off.
Former Iowan Mary Gerber turned out to have verifiable photos from the Surf Ballroom the night the tour played there.
“It was important for Ritchie’s family, in particular, because the last photo of him was from the night before in Green Bay (Wis.),” Garabedian said. “He’s backstage, and he’s really sick and tired and sad. And thankfully, these Clear Lake photos show him on stage and smiling and clearly having a great time. Three hours before the plane crash, he’s on top of the world and having a great time.”
For Garabedian, the years-long process of putting together the documentary comes down to more than just fandom for the music. It’s about preserving history.
“Our timing was great because we filmed in 2009, ’10, ’11 and ’12,” he said. “And since then, most if not all of the surviving musicians have passed away. It’s a bittersweet feeling because we feel privileged to have met them when we did. But they’re no longer around now. It makes the words they said even more important.”