This year marked the 60th anniversary of “The Day The Music Died,” a phrase used to describe the plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Ritchie Valens—three young rock and rollers that died way, way too young; Holly was 22 and Valens was 17. (Though still a young man, at 28 Richardson was a veritable music veteran, having worked in the industry for nearly a decade prior to his death.) The accident that took place outside of Clear Lake, Iowa on the morning of February 3, 1959, was the first major loss of life for the nascent rock and roll genre. To commemorate this tragic loss, the esteemed German label Bear Family has compiled The Great Tragedy: Winter Dance Party 1959, a fantastic scrapbook of the tour’s participants as well as the aftermath effect it had on the music industry.
At a staggering 40 tracks on one CD, The Great Tragedy is indeed a scrapbook. To establish what it is that was lost that day, the album features the biggest hits from each act. Holly, being the most established of the three and the headliner of the tour, is represented here with the most material. His signature hits are here, “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” and “It’s So Easy,” as well as a radio interview and performance on DJ Alan Freed’s radio program—including a snippet of conversation about a near-accident they’d had in a helicopter. The end of his career is also well-covered; “Ting-A-Ling,” from his final solo album, featured a Sonny Curtis-led band known as The Three Tunes, while “Heartbeat” and “It Won’t Matter Anymore” were the last singles released in his lifetime. (Though released at the start of the tour, the latter would become a #1 hit in several countries, making it the first posthumous rock and roll song to top the charts.)
The material featured here from the other two casualties is of equal quality. Valens, being a young man, had but three hits to his name: “Donna,” “La Bamba,” and “Come On, Let’s Go,” all of which still shimmer with the scent of youth and an inescapable specter of doomed innocence. Richardson, too, only had a handful of releases to his name; “Chantilly Lace,” his biggest number, kicks off the record, while the other singles released in his lifetime are featured here—the humorous “Big Bopper’s Wedding” is a bit more adult-minded, but “The Monkey Song” and “A Teen-Age Moon,” his final lifetime single, is a superb collection of rockabilly. Both artists’ songs show that neither of the two had yet to reach their peak. In fact, one of the highlights of this set is a posthumously released single credited to Arvee Allens, featuring two fine instrumentals, “Fast Freight” and ”Big Baby Blues,” both numbers showing off Valens’ impressive guitar playing skill.
As heavy as their deaths were, the Winter Dance Party had other artists on the bill, either as a full touring opener or as regional guests. Dion & The Belmonts were just on the cusp of a long and fruitful musical career; “I Wonder Why” was a big hit, as was “I Can’t Go On (Rosalie).” Frankie Sardo was a young pop vocalist with two regional hits, “Class Room” and “Fake Out,” neither bad but both of their era. Debbie Stevens was a bit older than the rest of the group, but had one hell of a hot rockabilly number, “If You Can’t Rock Me.” Also included here is “When Sin Stops,” a Holly-produced debut single by Buddy’s close friend and guitar player, Waylon Jennings.
Not surprisingly, musicians were quite quick to pay tribute to the fallen stars. Eddie Cochran—himself to die a year later—recorded a touching ballad, “Three Stars.” Also included is a rare side from Hershel Almond, “The Great Tragedy,” while “The Ballad of Donna And Peggy Sue” by Ray Campi is a deft rewrite of “Donna” and “Peggy Sue” that starts off sad but then turns into a rockabilly romp. The set concludes with the honky-tonk tribute “Gold Records In The Snow” from country musician Benny Barnes. While the tributes may occasionally be winsome, they’re sincere, even if they occasionally feel a bit like cash-ins. (Would have loved to have had the superb “The Man I Met,” Campi’s tribute to The Big Bopper, but at 40 tracks, something had to be left off. Unfortunately, it’s a fine track that did.)
Considering Bear Family’s adherence to offering up a quality historical document—the liner notes are fantastic, as are the rare photos of the tour and of Holly and his tourmates’ final hours—this collection is a superb scrapbook of rock and roll’s first tragedy. Short of actual recordings from the tour (none exist, sadly, so don’t get your hopes up) The Great Tragedy is as close to a comprehensive document as you’ll find about The Day The Music Died.