Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Tale of the 1959 Winter Dance Party from Tipton, Iowa

Every town, large or small has stories to tell. This one comes from 42N’s Tipton, Iowa and connects the town to the early giants of the Rock’n’Roll era – fifty two years ago today!

Many people know the tragic story of the airplane crash on February 3, 1959 that ended the lives of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) and their pilot, Roger Peterson. A couple of movies have been produced about it (The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba) and the song, American Pie by Don McLean speaks to the event about the day the music died. Annually, Clear Lake, Iowa’s Surf Ballroom, the site of the last Holly-Valens-Richardson concert, remembers the stars with music and dance.

In the days prior to the Surf Ballroom performance, the stars (Holly, Valens, Richardson, Dion, future star, Waylon Jennings and others) made their way to several concert locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa by bus. In these latitudes at this time of year winter conditions can be very cold. 1959 was no exception.

On Friday, January 30th after performing at the Capitol Ballroom in Davenport, Iowa the night before, the stars travel by bus for their next gig in Fort Dodge, Iowa some 250 miles away. Complicating the long road trip is the fact that the bus’ heating element is not working. The riders are miserable and the driver decides to stop in nearby Tipton for repairs.

While the heater issue is diagnosed and repairs made at the Gaul Motor Company for four hours, the Winter Dance Party band members go for a bite to eat at Al’s Meet and Eat Restaurant on the 300 block of Cedar Street. The band interacted with the town’s folks who didn’t appear to know who they are.

Some of the band members looked for warmer clothes at the T & M Clothes Store. In 1992 store owner George Tevis recalls that the band members were underdressed with lightweight coats and pants. They paid for new winter gear with lots of $100 bills, he said.

But at the Meet and Eat there was something a bit more interesting going on. Ritchie Valens and maybe others chatted up the wait staff at the tiny diner. Ritchie Valens asked waitress Ester Wenck if she wanted to hear the song he made famous. Wenck said yes and Valens went over to the diner’s juke box and played his hit, Donna. Wenck said that Valens then sang along with his record to her.

Al's Meet and Eat photos are courtesy of the Cedar County Genealogical Society in Tipton, Iowa. These photos represent the time period of the 1959 Winter Dance Party but do not show any of the band members.
A repair of the heater is completed and the band leaves for their Laramar Ballroom performance in Fort Dodge. There is speculation that the band may have discussed renting a plane while in Tipton to avoid the cold and long traveling times afforded by bus travel. The next day, Saturday, January 31st as they enter Duluth, Minnesota the bus breaks down again. A chartered plane is now in the works as something that Valens wants, but a replacement bus is found. On Sunday, February 1st the bus again breaks down again while traveling to Appleton, Wisconsin for a matinee, which is subsequently canceled. The band takes the train to Green Bay and plays at Riverside Ballroom that evening.

On Monday, February 2 the repaired bus picks the band up after the show and travels to their next stop – the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. After the performance at the Surf, shortly after midnight on February 3rd a chartered plane takes off from the Mason City, Iowa airport and crashes within minutes.

News reaches Tipton on Tuesday and those who had seen the band members were quite taken back since the stars had just around a few days prior. “All we know was they were very nice guys – just a bunch of nice boys,” said Bob McGregor, a Tipton Shell Station owner who later recounted the story in 1992.

J.P. Richardson’s son visited Tipton in the early 1990s. Many people who had firsthand accounts of the band’s brief stay in town met JP jr. and retold their stories. Ritchie Valens’ relatives have also visited the town. Today, a museum on Cedar Street downtown (Cedar County Genealogical Society) at a place called, Ms Molly’s is where you can find the Tipton version of the Winter Dance Party story and talk to people who remember. Know that.