The Buddy Holly Memorial Villages tour kicked off with some serious 1959 jams Saturday in Savannah Center with the “Winter Dance Party” show.
Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in an airplane crash on Feb. 3, 1959 – 60 years ago.
The “Winter Dance Party” show was a hard-rocking delight drenched in 1950s music and attitude. It featured John Mueller as Holly, Ray Anthony as Valens and Linwood Sasser as the Big Bopper.
In addition to Saturday’s show, Villagers will be able to see Don McLean – who sang and composed “American Pie” as a tribute to Holly – on Feb. 1 at The Sharon. Also Johnny Wild, featuring Andy Matchett as Holly, plays Katie Belle’s on Feb. 2, in a tribute to the three rock stars.
Holly was 22 when he died. His music and iconic pop cultural status has brought a multitude of remembrances throughout the country during this 60th anniversary year of his death.
The “Winter Dance Party” is the only tribute show endorsed by the families of the three stars. They died together a few hours after preforming on the 1959 “Winter Dance Party” tour in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Mueller – who previously appeared in The Villages as Carl Perkins with the “One Night in Memphis” tribute show – went to great pains to recreate Holly’s final concert.
Mueller studied film and pictures of the show, and actually traveled to Clear Lake. He went to the Surf Ballroom where the concert was held. Mueller also visited the site of the airplane crash.
“Thank you for joining us for the 60th anniversary, and thank you for keeping the music alive,” Mueller told the sold-out crowd in Savannah Center.
Sasser was a hoot as the Big Bopper. He peppered his set with a couple of lesser-known Bopper hits, “White Lightning” and “Big Bopper’s Wedding.” He also sang a hit that the Bopper wrote for Johnny Preston, “Running Bear.”
Then came the classic everyone was waiting for: “Chantilly Lace.” Sasser’s bulbous body was squeezed into a zebra-striped jacket. Before singing the song, he had to explain something to the young people in the crowd.
“This,” said Sasser, pointing to a strange-looking gadget with a rotary dial and oversized receiver, “is a telephone. Some of you kids never saw one before.”
Then the old phone rang, and Sasser, in his sassiest Bopper voice bellowed – “Hell-low Bayyybee, yea this is the Big Bopper speaking.” And he rapped on about “Chantilly lace and a pretty face.”
Anthony, as Valens, gave this show raw, rock-and-roll spirit. Anthony opened with the stinging rocker, “Let’s Go,” and covered a couple of tunes, Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and Larry Williams’ “Bony Moronie.” He even blasted away on a cover of Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance.”
Valens, only 17 at the time of his death, added a couple of classics to American popular music. Anthony was in mellow romantic form on Valens’ best love song, “Donna.”
That set the stage for Valens’ Latin anthem, “La Bamba.” Valens turned the Mexican folk song into an American standard. Anthony gave the song plenty of juice and had the packed Savannah Center crowd up on its feet. People were clapping and singing along and the front stage row was filled with dancers.
Mueller came on last and displayed the variety and depth of Holly’s songwriting and performing skill. He opened with “Maybe Baby,” and followed it with “Peggy Sue,” “Brown-eyed Handsome Man,” “It’s So Easy” and “That’ll Be the Day.”
Mueller, long and lean and wearing black glasses, had the Holly look, but he also flashed plenty of nasty guitar licks. Mueller showed he could sing Holly’s ballads, with moving versions of “True Love Ways” and “Everyday.”
This was a satisfying night for Holly fans. But it sometimes seemed strange that there are so many celebrations of his music tied into Holly’s tragic death.
“I wouldn’t call this a celebration; I would call it a remembrance,” said Villager Wally Libenson, a lifelong Holly fan. “Buddy was so far ahead of his time. His music is still vital and that’s why we remember him.”
The same could be said for Valens and the Big Bopper. In a way, they represent a time gone by, when rock and roll was fresh and young – and so were the kids listening to it.
“Buddy Holly and the others made the rock and roll what it is today,” said Villager John Field, who attended the show with his wife, Janice.
“They made great music,” she said, “and it always feels good to hear it again.”
Tony Violanti is a veteran journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.