February 1, 2016. Traffic rumbles past the enormous brick bulk of The Cincinnati Gardens on Seymour Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio. Six bas-relief sculptures in groups of three rise from the exterior brick walls on both sides of the main entrance doors. One is a basketball player, one is a hockey player and one is a boxer, each a symbol of the sports that once drew visitors to the Gardens. Several high school boys carrying hockey sticks and large bags enter the building. It is quiet inside. An elderly woman sits behind a ticket window. A man driving a Zamboni machine cleans the ice in the arena. An entrance to the arena next to the ticket window is closed off with a thick dingy-gray curtain and metal barricades.
It’s one of those behemoth old-time venues, a massive pile standing since 1949. The rows of seats retreat upwards into pockets of shadow. The very quiet seems to contain within itself all the vibrancy, music and noise that ever resounded within this space. The building isn’t just an edifice of bricks and mortar—it is everything that ever happened here.
A creation of postwar America, the Cincinnati Gardens for decades was the place in the city for big time indoor sporting events and rock and roll concerts. It was home to the city’s long vanished pro basketball and hockey teams. Roller derby was a fixture in recent years. Boxing matches, pro wrestling contests and political rallies were held at the Gardens, and plenty of rock concerts too. The Gardens hosted its share of rock legends. When the Beatles first came to Cincinnati, they played the Gardens on August 27, 1964.
So did Buddy Holly. He played twice at the Gardens. His last concert there was in April, 1958.
February 3, 1959: An overcast morning ten months after Holly’s last visit to the Queen City. Gray skies. Men in heavy coats, winter hats and fedoras walk among the wreckage of a small twin-engine plane near Clear Lake, Iowa. Three bodies lie flung in the snow. One is Ritchie Valens of California, famous for his hits “LaBamba” and “Donna.” He is only seventeen years old. On the other side of a barbed wire fence, a noticeable distance from the others, is the body of J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, best known for his novelty hit “Chantilly Lace.” He is the oldest of the three men—twenty-eight years of age, an Army veteran, former disc jockey, husband and father. And lying near Valens is Buddy Holly, the fabled singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose influence on rock music is incalculable. Holly is only twenty-two years old. The body of pilot Roger Peterson is trapped in the plane’s wreckage. Peterson is a young man too—only twenty-one.
Many of us have seen the photos taken of the scene on the cold morning of February 3, 1959. The images are stark and powerful. When I look at those lawmen and officials walking among the wreckage and bodies, I can almost hear the crunch of their feet on the cold white earth and the cold wind rippling among cornstalks while the dead lie silent on the field. The news of the accident deeply upset young rock and roll fans. But in the years since, the losses of this day have been more widely felt, becoming a cultural marker and a powerful reminder of youthful possibility and innocence suddenly gone—“The Day The Music Died.”
Just the night before it was the oasis of warmth and light that was the crowded Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, a relief from one of the famously frigid tour buses Holly and the other stars rode through the Midwest. Holly had separated from the Crickets and was backed up by Tommy Allsup on rhythm guitar, Carl Bunch on drums and future country music legend Waylon Jennings on bass. The trio supported the other performers: Valens, the Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Sardo. Dion and Holly got to be pretty good friends on the trip, sharing stories of their respective neighborhoods in the Bronx and Lubbock as they huddled below blankets on the bus and jamming some when it wasn’t too cold to play.
This tour had become a miserable and at times dangerous experience for the musicians. No one had the comfort of a bed—what sleep they got came while sitting on rigid bus seats. Shortly before the Clear Lake show the bus had broken down on a two-lane road in a forested section of northern Wisconsin. The temperature had dropped to thirty degrees below zero. Drummer Carl Bunch’s feet were frostbitten. They built a fire with newspapers in the bus aisle while waiting for help. No one had gotten the chance to wash clothes and all had begun to reek. “We smelled like goats,” recalled future country star Waylon Jennings. Holly was fed up. He decided to take a short charter flight after the Clear Lake show to their next stop so he could rest and do laundry. He began recruiting people to join him on a plane.
Buddy Holly didn’t want to be on this tour. He needed the money as his royalties were tied up in a dispute with former producer Norman Petty. This was a tour through the upper heartland in the thick of winter, with many of the dates in the first half of the tour scheduled in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Towards the end of the tour in mid February the musicians were to swing back east to play one night each in Canton and Youngstown, Ohio before playing in Louisville, Kentucky and finishing the tour in Illinois. The twenty-four day tour began on January 23 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was slated to end in Springfield, Illinois on February 15. Holly and the Crickets were no strangers to the Midwest. They had toured there before, and had been in the same neck of the woods during the previous summer. But now the weather was brutal.
One by one they played their venues, showing up and performing, then climbing back onto the bus, bound for their next destination. The tour followed a strange route that makes little sense, zipping back and forth between states on two lane roads in the heart of winter.
Holly was a newly married man who had recently moved to Greenwich Village with his wife Maria Elena. Holly had big ambitions—writing music for the movies, acting, music production, a song publishing company and record pressing plant to be based out of Texas. He was also checking out the arts scene in Greenwich Village and exploring other musical genres. Holly is noted as a singer, songwriter, all-around musician and a take-charge kind of artist interested in the business side of music. Innovation was an interest: he explored multi-tracking and overdubbing techniques with producer Norman Petty. He recognized Waylon Jennings’ talent, took him under his wing, and oversaw two of Jennings’ first recordings. The lost future of Buddy Holly is one of early rock music’s most compelling “what ifs.” Despite his enduring presence, the most successful part of Holly’s career lasted for only about one and a half years.
Holly’s rise was fast. He began playing country music as a young boy. In his teens he was part of a duo called Buddy and Bob with his friend Bob Montgomery. They became a fixture in Lubbock. During their senior year in high school the two boys opened for Elvis Presley when he came to Lubbock on February 13, 1955. Holly was stunned to see Presley’s performance and became interested in rock and roll. An agent took an interest in Holly. Soon the young man from Lubbock had inked a deal with Decca Records and also a songwriting contract with a publishing company in January of 1956. Holly recorded a number of sides in Nashville before being dropped one year later.
Holly wasn’t discouraged. He traveled to Clovis, New Mexico and met with producer Norman Petty, who would be an important figure in helping to shape Holly’s sound and create hit records. Soon the group known as the Crickets took its final shape with Jerry Allison on bass, Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar and Joe Mauldin on drums. Before long the young musicians were recording and had a deal. Sullivan would later resign from the band because of the grueling tour schedule.
But after beginning work with Petty, they were on their way. The band would tour the states, Australia, and England. They appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and the Arthur Murray Party. The band had a number one hit with “That’ll Be The Day,” which reached the top spot on the charts in September, 1957. Holly would later split with the Crickets not long before the Winter Dance Party, but when he played his two dates at the Gardens, it was with this band. The dates were September 11, 1957 and April 14, 1958. It is also possible that Holly and the Crickets performed there in January of 1958, but I haven’t found confirmation of this yet.
The Cincinnati Gardens is the only connection I’ve found to the legendary musician Buddy Holly in my hometown. Soon that landmark will vanish. The Gardens will be demolished to make way for new business development. Use has steadily declined in recent years, and the Gardens are a victim of time. Other venues have emerged in Cincinnati for large crowd events. The Gardens’ draw as a rock and roll destination began to wane some years ago, although big ticket acts were still booked at the Gardens. I have fond memories of a rowdy packed house thrilling to AC/DC on their “Thunderstruck” tour in the early 1990s. I never got to see Buddy Holly, but I did see Angus Young spinning on the floor while playing his guitar and not missing a note. That WAS something to see. I’m glad I got a taste of rock and roll in the beloved Cincinnati arena.
Still, there’s something about this stolid building on Seymour Avenue in Cincinnati that brings those vanished days of Buddy Holly alive for me. That world when he created his music was so long ago, but for me it feels close at hand.
The dizzying pace and deep impact of social and cultural change, the calamities that shook American life since 1959, and the computer revolution of the past thirty years can make the era seem longer ago than it was. We chuckle and shake our heads at the changes we’ve seen when a character in a movie from the 1990s says he needs to get to a pay phone. On the other hand, a significant amount of time has passed since this tragedy happened—almost sixty years.
But we are also the inheritors of that postwar world. The youth culture born in the 1950s blossomed and set in motion changes that influence our world today, so there is an evergreen quality to this long-gone time that belies the number of years that have passed. The rise of rock and roll was like the proverbial cat let out of the bag. Social changes followed in its wake, and there’s no going back to what was before. Our culture is continually going back and reexamining those vital years after WWII, and the influence of American culture was felt worldwide, particularly with music and film.
I feel we’re still grappling with the dramatic changes that transformed America after WWII. In my own life and in the lives of many I know, I have witnessed a reconsideration of where we are and where we’ve been, and popular discourse I read suggests the phenomenon is widespread. Such a thing is probably always occurring, but we live in a time when two populations in America are retreating further into history. The generation that survived the Depression, World War II, Korea and created the Baby Boom is rapidly fading into the past. Hundreds of World War II veterans die each day. The earliest of the boomers are entering their seventies. During the past five years I have seen Vietnam veterans with walkers, oxygen tanks and canes. Buddy Holly himself would have been eighty years old this past September.
But with time comes a deeper appreciation of the American Century’s best. We better understand how deep in the American grain this rock and roll music was. The kids of the time responded to it with joy and excitement, but we have a more profound awareness of its importance and quality that only arrives after further travel down the road. Now there is a Buddy Holly Cultural Center in Lubbock, Texas. A musical about him has been a hit on Broadway. As I write this post there is a current version of the Winter Dance Party on tour in the United States, which has become an annual event. It’s not just that Buddy Holly was a great rock and roll performer. He was a brilliant, influential mid twentieth century American musician.
Holly’s impact was felt from the start, and after his death it increased noticeably. Posthumous Holly releases sold well, often selling more in Britain than they did in the U.S. Dion later said he preferred to see the tragedy as “The Day The Music Was Born.” Dion praised Holly’s skills as group leader, as musician, as disciplined but fiery performer. He created the essential rock combo of guitarist, bassist and drummer, he added. Even the finality of death in that Iowa cornfield couldn’t vanquish the influence and reach of his legacy and music.
Each year people make the pilgrimage to the Surf Ballroom and the lonely farm field where the Beechcraft Bonanza went down. Greatest hits compilations continue to appear. There is a Buddy Holly Foundation, and a new documentary film is in the works. Buddy Holly is an instantly recognizable and iconic figure known around the world. The roll call of English musicians who cite Holly as an influence is a who’s who of 1960s rock royalty. The Beatles, huge Holly fans, got their name from the Crickets (and the Crickets came close to calling themselves the Beetles), and the Hollies’ paid an even more direct homage to the musician with their name. John Lennon and Paul McCartney watched Buddy Holly on TV when performed on the BBC in London. Lennon became more willing to wear his glasses after seeing Holly. It was only six years later that they were performing in the Cincinnati Gardens, following in their hero’s footsteps.
I’ve enjoyed Buddy Holly’s music for decades, but during the past three years I’ve listened to his music and that of other early rock and roll musicians more closely and with deeper appreciation. I’ve learned a lot more about their lives and careers. I have often thought about how so much of this was just young men having fun and experimenting with music, who were unsure how long they would interest American teenagers. At the time of their deaths, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson were all part of a rock and roll scene many dismissed as an ephemeral phenomenon. Even Holly was skeptical about rock’s shelf life. But rock and roll was indeed here to stay.
I first learned of Buddy Holly during my childhood in the 1970s. I was intrigued by his appearance, this geeky figure with large glasses who died tragically, but who radiated a tremendous cultural power even after death. He belonged to a world that existed not too long before I was born, a part of the old fifties culture of sock hops and crew cuts, loafers and poodle skirts, a time I envisioned when I saw the gymnasiums, football fields and hallways of older high school buildings in Cincinnati. My father was a high school teacher who coached football and wresting, and I had three older brothers who were athletes, so I spent many childhood hours at high school athletic events around the city. The Fifties at this time began to take on a new meaning in American culture, and the rough textures of the decade—the fight for integration, development of more sophisticated birth control, anxiety about nuclear war, to name but a few of many examples overlooked in the nostalgia—were often scrubbed out of the picture.
This resurgence of interest in the 1950s and early 60s really took off in the years after Nixon’s 1972 reelection. As the years passed after John Kennedy’s assassination, as looks and styles got increasingly bizarre, as the news from Vietnam got worse and worse, a yearning emerged for that earlier time along with the idea that we had lost some kind of innocence along the way, and maybe a sense of national purpose. Don McLean famously referenced the 1959 tragedy—and the pop culture evolution that followed—in his 1971 hit “American Pie.”
Americans began looking back to the 1950s and the Kennedy era. Films like “American Grafitti” tapped both nostalgia and reflection as the country grappled with its seismic shifts in manners and mores. Buddy Holly was the subject of a 1978 biopic starring Gary Busey, and Linda Rondstadt had a hit during 1977 with Holly’s “It’s So Easy.” Buddy Holly was back, but he had never been gone.
The anxiety and social turbulence of the Vietnam era had roots in a continuum of change that went further back, but this was hard to see at the time. To cite but one example, women had already established strong beachheads in the equality fight with factory production and nursing work in WWI and suffrage in 1920, followed by the emancipation afforded war workers in WWII. Factory employment for women wasn’t new: women had been working in industry throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The return to the idea of women being only in the home was destined to be short-lived. WWII itself had profound social impacts. Social anxiety about juvenile hoodlums, so much a part of 1950s American culture, didn’t begin after the war. It began during the war, with so many men in service and so many women in war work.
Rock and roll was part of the incredible transformation in American life during the 1950s. The post war baby boom and demobilization of millions of servicemen transformed American institutions, culture, and landscape. So much of the world I knew growing up—the neighborhoods, the shopping centers, some of the schools I attended—were created in the 1950s and early 1960s. It’s hard to believe now the sheer amount of construction that occurred. The American interstate highway system was built. As the novelist Jack Cady wrote, “Reaction to economic depression and war caused the nation to embark on a frenzy of building and, literally, economic joy. Anyone who poured concrete was thought to be engaged in holy work, no matter what was being built.”
I live near the area where I grew up. My parents moved to their house in 1958, one year before Buddy Holly died. It was a brand new home in a brand new suburb created out of old farmland, just like so many others were. Being history-obsessed, and seeing my own history reflected in my surroundings, I have learned more about when buildings and neighborhoods were constructed, and how these surroundings have transformed over time. I have witnessed much of that transformation. Some things remain, and like the Gardens, really show their age. It is a landscape where certain buildings survived for only short periods of time before being razed and replaced. Others were reused or transformed, contributing in their own way to a sense of transience, of time passing, of instability.
Existing storefronts recall businesses and shops long vanished. The ghosts of buildings that supported stores, restaurants, and other businesses are present for me as well. A strip mall on a corner lot was once a hamburger joint complete with roller skating carhops, the kind of place where Holly’s “Maybe Baby” could come drifting through the air from a car radio. Senior housing occupies a tract of land once a local drive-in that was a parking destination for local teenagers. This was an America that disappeared a long time ago.
A year ago I visited the Gardens on a bright February day to see the place where Buddy Holly performed in Cincinnati. I went inside and got permission from the elderly lady in the ticket booth to walk around, take some pictures and look at the Gardens. For about twenty minutes or so I walked around a bit, wandered up into the seats and gazed down some hallways. Buddy Holly was on my mind. I thought about those concerts long ago. The tour buses pulling in, the excitement all day at school about the big show that night, the lights going down and the first performers coming out on stage.
He performed here, the sounds of guitar, bass, drums and his voice mingling with the screams of the crowd. We are fortunate to have a description of one of Holly’s appearances at the Gardens by a man who was a teenager then. Richard B. Schwartz is an English professor who has published a range of books, including literary criticism and crime novels. He has also written a charming memoir about growing up in southwestern Ohio during the 1950s. Schwartz grew up in Norwood, Ohio, a stand-alone community surrounded by the city of Cincinnati. He attended Catholic schools. His memoir is called The Biggest City In America: A Fifties Boyhood in Ohio. After mentioning that he can turn any musician’s eyes green with envy when he relates that he saw Buddy Holly perform, he describes the night when he witnessed Buddy Holly and the Crickets onstage:
“ ‘Saw’ is probably better than ‘heard,’ since the acoustics at Cincinnati Gardens were better for hockey and professional wrestling than for rock and roll. The sets were also very short. These were more rock shows than rock concerts. If memory serves, the Crickets played only three songs that evening: ‘Peggy Sue,’ ‘That’ll Be The Day,’ and ‘Maybe Baby.’ Those who have seen Thomas Pynchon always seem to agree on a single, striking trait: his height. Buddy was tall as well, fronting the band in a trim and formal dark suit which matched the suits of the other Crickets and accentuated his long legs and the foot with which he kept time. He was far more gangly than Gary Busey and slightly stiffer and more businesslike in appearance. There was no rap with the audience, just a to-the-point flawless performance.” Schwartz mentions other performers that night, among them Jerry Lee Lewis, Screaming Jay Hawkins and Danny and the Juniors. These performers were all part of “Alan Freed’s Big Beat Show,” so I can tell from this information that this was the April, 1958 concert—Buddy Holly’s last performance in Cincinnati. Less than a year later he would be gone.
Sunlight through glass windows and doors. A Zamboni machine driven around and around the ice. Empty seats. The quiet of a winter early afternoon. All those years ago.
A spring night in 1958. From across the city they come. Girls and boys file eagerly into the Gardens, holding their tickets, their programs. Thousands of teenagers in the rows of seats rising away from the arena, school and homework forgotten. School? What school? This is their world. Backstage the musicians tune their instruments. The smells of cigarette smoke and pomade in the dressing room. Minutes to showtime.
The lights are out. A spotlight reveals three young men walking briskly onto the stage. A piercing surge of screams and shrieks. For only a matter of minutes Holly and the Crickets tear through their songs, the music struggling to rise in the sound of a new world being born.
Soon the set is ended. Holly and the other two men make their way backstage. Before long it is over. The tour bus pulls out of the lot into the spring night, bound for the next city, the next show. The kids go home. Programs and tickets are tucked away, cherished mementoes of a special night. A young girl leans back on her pillow and closes her eyes. She can still hear the sound of the crowd in her ears, like the distant roar of the surf. As she falls into the twilight world before sleep she can see the tall figure of Buddy Holly on that stage.
Him. That was really him.
Another morning. Time to get up. Schoolday. Ring, ring goes the bell. Cook in the lunchroom waiting to sell.
Winter sunshine through lobby windows. A Zamboni machine round and round on the ice. In the hallways of the Cincinnati Gardens only silence. Seats rising upward into pockets of shadow. Somewhere a seventy year old woman opens a scrapbook, examines an old program and ticket stub. She remembers that night, the tall young man fiercely strumming the guitar, taking command of the stage. She remembers nodding off to sleep, the sound of the crowd that stayed with her, a ringing in her ears, her friend next to her at the show with the tears streaming down her face.
Hail hail rock and roll, deliver me from the days of old.
In an Iowa cornfield on a cold, overcast morning, men walk among bodies and wreckage. They create a pile of clothes and luggage in the snow. Musicians ride in silence on a bus to the next city.
Winter sunlight through lobby windows. An old woman in the ticket window. A thick dingy curtain behind waist-high metal barricades. Cars streaming down Seymour Avenue. Soon it will be gone, the heavy ball rising into the air and dropping, rising up again to fall down onto the solid pile of the Cincinnati Gardens, a hose streaming water over the surface as the ball rises and drops again and again. Eventually it will be gone, an empty parcel of land. New development, they said.
Somewhere a kid plugs a cord into an electric guitar. A low hum sounds from the speaker. He draws a pick across the strings and the sharp, slashing metal power chord throbs through the space of his room. He adjusts a knob and draws the pick again, harder, sounding a series of chords even louder, the neighbor next door hearing the electric grind in the suburban night.
Rave on, son. Rave on.
Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography by John Goldrosen and John Beecher. Revised version of Buddy Holly–His Life and Music, published in 1975. Penguin Books. London and New York, 1987.
“The Night the Music Died: Searching For The Ghost Of Buddy Holly In Clear Lake, Iowa” by Michael Hall. Texas Monthly. February, 2009.
“The Day the Music Died” by Claire Suddath. Time Magazine. February 3, 2009.
“Buddy Holly: The Tour From Hell” by Pamela Huey. Minneapolis Star Tribune. February 3, 2009.
Timeline from the Buddy Holly Archives online.
Wikipedia entry: “The Day The Music Died.”
The Biggest City In America: A Fifties Boyhood in Ohio by Richard B. Schwartz. The University of Akron Press (Ohio History and Culture series). Akron, Ohio, 1999.
The American Writer: Shaping A Nation’s Mind by Jack Cady. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999.