Review: The Night Before “The Day the Music Died” at Pike Performing Arts Center

February 2, 1959. Clear Lake, Iowa. The Surf Ballroom.

If you’re an early rock ‘n’ roll fan, or have ever seen Gary Busey in thick black glasses in The Buddy Holly Story, you know what happened in the wee hours of the next morning. Charles “Buddy” Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were all killed when their small chartered plane crashed on the way to the next stop on a rock tour. It’s a moment—much more than a moment, really—that Don McLean so memorably captured in the song “American Pie.”

But the rockers went out with one hell of a party, and it was brought back to life beautifully on the night of Jan. 20 at the Pike Performing Arts Center, when “John Mueller’s Winter Dance Party” stopped by. In a re-creation of that final Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom, Buddy Holly (John Mueller), Ritchie Valens (Ray Anthony), and the Big Bopper (Jay Richardson, the real man’s son) took the stage for two hours of good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll: “That’ll Be the Day,” “Rave On,” “La Bamba,” “Chantilly Lace,” “Let’s Go,” and much more. Dance floor? Of course, and it got hoppin’ by the second act.

Things I did not know:

[1]  Waylon Jennings, who was playing bass in Holly’s backup band, was supposed to have a seat on the ill-fated plane, but he gave it up. In an interview with VH1’s Behind the Music, he says Holly jokingly told him, “I hope your ol’ bus freezes up!”—which prompted Jennings to reply, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes!” That haunted him for decades, he says.

[2]  The Big Bopper didn’t just perform “Chantilly Lace” (though, boy, did he ever); he also wrote big hits for other guys. Hits like “White Lightning,” which became George Jones’s first No. 1 song, and “Running Bear,” inspired by his childhood in Texas, where he’d heard stories about Indian tribes. The Bopper even sang backup on “Running Bear,” which was released a few months after he died and went on to become No. 1.

[3]  When “Running Bear” gets in your head, it will stay there until it is good and ready to go.

Here’s to the rock ‘n’ rollers who are keeping the music wonderfully alive. And here’s to John Mueller, Ray Anthony, and Jay Richardson.