On a fateful February night 60 years ago, rock ‘n roll idols Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens boarded a small plane to take them to their next gig. But the plane crashed shortly after take-off, killing all on board and robbing the world of three wonderful musical talents, writes Liam Nolan.

It happened 60 years ago this year. And it happened 11 days into a 24-concert, 24-city tour that was billed as The Winter Dance Party Tour, but which came to be known as “The Tour from Hell”.

Why did it get called that?

There were many reasons. Not the least of them was transport. The tour promoters had the group of rock ‘n roll stars criss-crossing the frigid Midwest in old, clapped-out, former school buses. The ancient vehicles were supposed to have been reconditioned, but they continually broke down and their heaters didn’t work.

The bus seats were hard and narrow, and sometimes during the inordinately long, slogging drives, the musicians huddled under blankets for warmth. They even burned newspapers in the aisle of the bus in an effort to generate a tiny bit of heat.
During one breakdown they were stranded for hours on a remote highway in Northern Wisconsin.

“I couldn’t believe how cold it was,” Waylon Jennings recalled. “We tried to hang our wrinkled suits in the aisle, and we smelled like goats.”

Tommy Allsup, Buddy Holly’s guitarist, said they were running out of underwear.
Holly’s drummer got severe frostbite in his feet and legs, and the journey to Clear Lake took nine hours.

It was an appallingly organised tour for which the promoters, General Artists Corporation, were fiercely criticised. Buddy Holly historian Bill Griggs said, “It was like they threw darts at a map…The tour from hell… it’s not a bad name.”

He reckoned the musicians had had to use five different buses by the time they reached Clear Lake. There was seemingly no thought given to geographic sanity. During the first 11 days of the tour the travel schedule had them zigzagging from Wisconsin to Minnesota, back to Wisconsin, then back once more to Minnesota, then on to Iowa, and from there to Minnesota one more time; there followed Wisconsin to Iowa again, and then, unbelievably, to Minnesota!

Buddy Holly and his reconstituted Crickets were the headline act. The other performers were The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmont’s.

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