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60 Winters Later: The 1959 Winter Dance Party

Updated: Jan 27, 2019


On this day 60 years ago, General Artist Corporation's 1959 Winter Dance Party, the ill-fated "tour from hell" kicked off at George Divine's Million Dollar Ballroom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The roster boasted a firmament of rock and roll stars in bright ascent, among them Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper") along with Dion & The Belmonts and Frankie Sardo. There were also those lesser known at the time, Holly's new band for the tour that consisted of Waylon Jennings on bass guitar, Tommy Allsup on lead and drummer Carl Bunch.



The 1959 Winter Dance Party presented a grueling schedule of 24 midwestern cities in three weeks during one of the coldest winters on record - and all of it to be accomplished in poorly adapted school buses with broken heating systems. During the first 11 days when Holly, Valens and Richardson were headlining the tour, they zig-zagged the Upper Midwest from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Minnesota and then back to Iowa for what would tragically be their final career performances. The late Buddy Holly historian Bill Griggs estimated that five different buses were used before the tour reached the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2, 1959, arriving an hour late, tired, cold and without a drummer for the show as Bunch had been hospitalized with frostbite (both Holly and Valens helped out on drums that night). Only two evenings before, after leaving their Duluth Armory stop that changed life forever for 17-year-old Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan), the bus had broken down, debilitatingly frozen, leaving the musicians stranded roadside for several hours near Hurley, Wisconsin, in temperatures plummeting to 35 below zero. They were eventually discovered in the early morning hours by local passersby and police who'd taken them to a nearby hotel to warm up and rest for a few hours, and in the case of Bunch to the hospital for his frostbitten feet. "They (GAC) didn't care," said Griggs. "It was like they threw darts at a map. . ... The tour from hell -- that's what they named it -- and it's not a bad name." The context gives ample insight as to what likely compelled Holly to charter a plane from Dwyer Flying Services in Mason City, Iowa, when he arrived in Clear Lake.


January 23: George Devine’s Million Dollar Ballroom - Milwaukee, Wisconsin January 24: Eagles Ballroom - Kenosha, Wisconsin  January 25: Kato Ballroom - Mankato, Minnesota January 26: Fournier’s Ballroom - Eau Claire, Wisconsin January 27: Fiesta Ballroom - Montevideo, Minnesota January 28: Prom Ballroom - St. Paul, Minnesota January 29: Capitol Theater - Davenport, Iowa January 30: Laramar Ballroom - Fort Dodge, Iowa January 31: National Guard Armory - Duluth, Minnesota February 1: Riverside Ballroom - Green Bay, Wisconsin

February 2: Surf Ballroom - Clear Lake, Iowa


Despite the tragedy of losing "The Three Stars" to the snowy and desolate farm field a few short miles and moments from the Surf Ballroom stage, the tour did go on the very next day and for the remaining two weeks. Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup continued on with Jennings taking Holly's place as lead singer and other artists were added like Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vee.


February 3: The Armory - Moorhead, Minnesota

February 4: Shore Acres Ballroom - Sioux City, Iowa

February 5: Val Air Ballroom - Des Moines, Iowa

February 6: Danceland Ballroom - Cedar Rapids, Iowa

February 7: Les Buzz Ballroom - Spring Valley, Illinois

February 8: Aragon Ballroom - Chicago, Illinois

February 9: Hippodrome Auditorium - Waterloo, Iowa

February 10: Melody Hill - Dubuque, Iowa

February 11: Memorial Auditorium - Louisville, Kentucky

February 12: Memorial Auditorium - Canton, Ohio

February 13: Stanbaugh Auditorium - Youngstown, Ohio

February 14: The Armory - Peoria, Illinois

February 15: Illinois State Armory - Springfield, Illinois


Next week rock and roll fans from across the US and around the world (myself included!) will unite at the historic Surf Ballroom to commemorate the 60th anniversary of The Three Stars' final career performances - a place where the music lives!



In October 2015, while researching for The Surf Speaks: Voices of a Living History project, I discovered the husband and wife team of Kevin and Julie Romig and their project, "Not Fade Away: The Geographic Dimensions of Buddy Holly's Meteoric Career," in the Journal of Texas Music History. It is a series of maps illustrating Holly's 18-month professional touring career with companion anecdotes - a completely unique form of storytelling and preservation through geography. The opening paragraph introduces a mark of distinction, contending that Holly was ahead of the game not only musically but also with international touring: "Within 18 months of his first hit, 'That'll be the Day,' which charted on the Billboard Top 40 list in 1957, Holly released seven other songs that made the Billboard Top 40. He and his band toured extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain, while many contemporaries, such as Elvis Presley, did not tour much, if at all, outside of the United States."


Kevin and Julie accepted my invitation to display their work at the "Buddy 80" exhibit opening, symposium and concert October 15, 2016, that I organized at the Iowa Rock 'n' Roll Music Association for Buddy Holly's 80th birthday year. Traveling from Missouri, they were kind enough to let me take this photo of them posing with their exhibit in our "Buddy glasses" party favors!


Oct. 15, 2016 - Kevin and Julie Romig wear "Buddy glasses" while standing next to their exhibit at Buddy 80.

Kevin is an assistant professor of geography at Northwest Missouri State University and Julie is a science teacher at West Nodaway High School in Burlington Junction, Missouri. Both have had a long-term interest in Buddy Holly (one of their first dates was to a Halloween party where Kevin went as Holly and Julie dressed as "Peggy Sue")!


© 2020 by Sheryl Davis.