Legendary as one of the three rock greats to die in the tragic 1959 Clear Lake, IA, plane crash that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper (born Jiles Perry Richardson) had just established himself as a rock hit-maker with the rollicking "Chantilly Lace."
Born in the heart of Texas, Richardson grew up in Beaumont and changed his first name to Jape. He broke into show biz as a DJ over at KTRM radio, where he coined the nickname the Big Bopper.
In March 1955, he was drafted into the United States Army and did his basic training at Fort Ord, California. He spent the rest of his two years service as a radar instructor at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. Following his discharge as a corporal in March 1957, Richardson returned to KTRM radio, where he held down the "Dishwashers' Serenade" shift from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
One of the station's sponsors wanted Richardson for a new time slot and suggested an idea for a show. Richardson had seen the college students doing a dance called The Bop, and he decided to call himself "The Big Bopper". His new radio show ran from 3 to 6 p.m. Richardson soon became the station's program director.
In May 1957, he broke the record for continuous on-the-air broadcasting by eight minutes. From a remote set-up in the lobby of the Jefferson Theatre in downtown Beaumont, Richardson performed for a total of five days, two hours and eight minutes, playing 1,821 records and taking showers during five-minute newscasts. Richardson is credited with coining the term music video in 1959, and recorded an early example himself.
Richardson - who played guitar - began his musical career as a songwriter. George Jones later recorded Richardson's "White Lightning", which became Jones' first #1 country hit in 1959 (#73 on the pop charts). Richardson also wrote "Running Bear" for Johnny Preston, his friend from Port Arthur, Texas. The inspiration for the song came from Richardson's childhood memory of the Sabine River, where he heard stories about Indian tribes.
Richardson sang background on "Running Bear", but the recording wasn't released until September 1959, after his death. Within several months it became #1.
The man who launched Richardson as a recording artist was Harold “Pappy” Daily from Houston, Texas. Daily was promotion director for Mercury and Starday Records and signed Richardson to Mercury. Richardson's first single, "Beggar To A King", had a country flavour, but failed to gain any chart action. He soon cut "Chantilly Lace" as "The Big Bopper" for Pappy Daily's D label. Mercury bought the recording and released it in the summer of 1958. It reached #6 on the pop charts and spent 22 weeks in the national Top 40.
It also inspired an answer record by Jayne Mansfield titled "That Makes It". In "Chantilly Lace", Richardson pretends to have a flirting phone conversation with his girlfriend; the Mansfield record suggests what his girlfriend might have been saying at the other end of the line.
Later that year, he scored a second hit, a raucous novelty tune entitled "The Big Bopper's Wedding", in which Richardson pretends to be getting cold feet at the altar. He was known for his "Hello Baby!"
With the success of "Chantilly Lace", Richardson took time off from KTRM radio and joined Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Dion and the Belmonts for a "Winter Dance Party" tour. On the eleventh night of the tour, Holly chartered an airplane to fly them to the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota.
The musicians had been travelling by bus for over a week, and it had already broken down once. They were tired, they had not been paid yet and all of their clothes were dirty. With the airplane, Holly could arrive early, do everyone's laundry and catch up on some rest.
A 21-year old pilot named Roger Peterson had agreed to take the singers to Fargo, North Dakota, where the airport serves the twin cities of Moorhead and Fargo. A snowstorm was on its way and the young pilot was fatigued from a 17-hour workday, but he agreed to fly the trip.
The musicians packed up their instruments and finalized the flight arrangements. Buddy Holly's bass player, Waylon Jennings, was scheduled to fly on the plane, but gave his seat up to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from influenza. Holly's guitarist, Tommy Allsup, agreed to flip a coin with Ritchie Valens for the remaining seat; Valens won.
The three musicians boarded the red and white single-engine Beech Bonanza around 12:30 am on February 3. The musicians waved and then climbed onto the plane. Snow blew across the runway, but the sky was clear. Peterson received clearance from the control tower, taxied down the runway and took off.
He was never told of two different weather advisories that warned of an oncoming blizzard ahead. The plane stayed in the sky for only a few minutes; no one is quite sure what went wrong. The best guess is Peterson flew directly into the blizzard, lost visual reference and accidentally flew down instead of up.
The four-passenger plane ploughed into a nearby cornfield at over 170 mph, flipping over on itself and tossing the passengers into the air. Their bodies landed yards away from the wreckage and stayed there for ten hours as snowdrifts formed around them. Because of the weather, nobody could reach the crash site until later in the morning.
This information is provided as a brief overview and not as a definitive guide, there are other sources on the net for that. If however you have a story or information that is not generally known we would love to hear from you. Content@rokpool.com
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