In 1959, Buddy Holly Stopped in the Northwoods on the Winter Dance Party Tour

Jul 13, 2018

Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings photographed in a photo-booth in Central Station, in New York City in January of 1959.
Credit 8tracks.com/markymark25 / Wikimedia Commons

We've all heard about the fatal plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly and many other pioneers of Rock and Roll in 1959. Did you know they had just recently passed through the Northwoods before the crash, though? This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz tells us the whole story.

In the early morning hours of February 1, 1959, Bob Eckert and three other drivers in Mercer were called out by a Sheriff’s Deputy to bring their cars and help rescue a group of musicians who were stranded out on Highway 51 near Pine Lake.  The early months of 1959 were some of the coldest on record, and the temperature during the early hours of February 1 had dipped down to 35 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit.  It was dangerously cold that night, but the drivers went out, picked up what the Iron County Miner later in the week blithely identified as “an orchestra,” and brought them into the town of Hurley.  Most of the musicians were put up in a hotel for a few hours rest, but one of them had such badly frostbitten feet that he had to be hospitalized in Ironwood.

The musicians rescued that night in 1959 were not members of any orchestra.  Rather, they were some of the pioneers of Rock and Roll.  On the bus that night were Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch, Richie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts, and J.P. Richardson, better known as the Big Bopper.  Holly and the others with him were on one of the most poorly organized tours in the history of rock music.  Called “The Winter Dance Party,” the tour started in Milwaukee on January 23rd and followed a grueling schedule that had the bands playing every night across three states in towns and cities that were often hundreds of miles apart.

The Winter Dance Party Tour schedule before and after the February 3rd, 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, Richie Valens, and pilot.
Credit Claire Mogren / Wikimedia Commons

The ride that brought them to the Northwoods was typical of the tour. Traveling in an old, reconditioned school bus, the musicians finished playing in Duluth around 11:00 pm on January 31st.  Packing up their own instruments, they boarded the bus for the long, overnight haul to Appleton, Wisconsin.  None of the musicians had dressed properly for the northern winter, let alone for a sub-zero breakdown in the middle of the night.  They got no relief either.  Although the Appleton concert was cancelled, they played on the evening of February 1st in Green Bay.  The Northwoods breakdown, combined with the overall weariness of a non-stop tour, is what convinced Holly to charter a private plane rather than endure another long night in a freezing bus after his February 2nd concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Holly’s plane crashed in the early morning hours of February 3rd.  Carl Bunch, Holly’s drummer, was still in the Northwoods, recovering from frostbite in an Ironwood hospital when he learned of the tragedy.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. Some sound effects for this commentary came from Freesound.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.