Once a year for the past decade, our town — Green Bay, Wisconsin — has stepped forward to reclaim its place in rock ‘n’ roll history. This year, that night was Friday night. The place, as always, the historic Riverside Ballroom.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party. That was the early rock ‘n’ roll tour that became legend when a small plane crashed in a corn field northwest of Clear Lake, Iowa, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) and their pilot, Roger Peterson.
The tour’s second-to-last stop was at the Riverside in Green Bay, on Sunday night, Feb. 1, 1959.
For the past 10 years, they’ve revived the Winter Dance Party at the Riverside. A musician named John Mueller plays Holly. A musician named Ray Anthony plays Valens. The Big Bopper is played by his son, Jay Richardson, who was born two months after his father’s death. They’re backed by a four-piece band. It’s the best tribute show I’ve seen.
The revival plays some of the other original venues, but its stars say there is no place like Green Bay.
The Riverside was sold out well in advance, with more than 1,000 people — many of them getting up there in years — packing the place.
Twice as many people were there in 1959, but back then, everyone was younger, and everyone stood. These days, not everyone can stand for a show that runs three hours plus. So they set up long banquet tables at the back of the big room. Only the young, and the young at heart, stood at the front of the stage.
There usually are special guests. This year, one was Bob Morales, the older half-brother of Ritchie Valens. Bob Morales is in his 70s, but he’s still a badass. He wore biker leathers and boots and was rocking a white Fu Manchu mustache. When he took off his black cowboy hat, he was rocking a wispy white Mohawk with a ponytail.
During the first intermission, they introduced some more special guests — 40 or so people who were at the Riverside for the original Winter Dance Party show 50 years ago.
A local gent, improbably named Jim Morrison, also was there 50 years ago. He was back at the Riverside on Friday night as one of the emcees. As he introduced the show, he mentioned “American Pie,” the 1971 song in which Don McLean recalled Feb. 3, 1959 — the day of the crash — as “the day the music died.”
“He was wrong,” Morrison said. “Three gentlemen died, but the music will never die.”
Not as long as Green Bay remembers its place in rock ‘n’ roll history.
“Come On Let’s Go,” Ritchie Valens, from “Ritchie Valens,” 1959. (Re-released on Rhino Records in 1987. This is what I have.)
“Maybe Baby,” Buddy Holly, 1958 …
“Chantilly Lace,” the Big Bopper, 1958 …
Both from the “American Graffiti” original soundtrack, 1973.
And one more …
“Maria Elena,” the Smithereens, 1990, from “Attack of the Smithereens,” 1995. It’s out of print.
This tune is the B side to the cassette single of “Blues Before and After,” released 19 years ago today, Jan. 24, 1990.
From Pat DiNizio’s liner notes: “The full band version appears on the third album ‘Smithereens Eleven,’ but this version is how I heard the song in my head originally, just acoustic guitar, accordion and vocal. Lyrically about Buddy Holly’s widow Maria Elena Diaz.”