Winter Dance Party tour poster
By STEVE SEYMOUR
When rock 'n' roll legend Buddy Holly was performing for what turned out to be the final time, drummer Carl Bunch was missing from the stage in Clear Lake, Iowa.
But, Bunch had a good excuse. He was hospitalized in the Upper Peninsula, hundreds of miles away.
Thousands of teenagers showed up during the upper mid-west tour to see Holly perform such hits as "That'll Be The Day," "Peggy Sue" and "Oh, Boy," all top ten hits for the 22-year-old sensation from Lubbock, Texas.
But the tour had other attractions as well. Concert goers also saw future legends Dion and the Belmonts, The Big Bopper (aka J. P. Richardson) and Ritchie Valens.
Still, everything wasn't perfect. The schedule for the shows was haphazardly organized causing the rickety tour bus to criss-cross the three states seemingly at random.
Despite the constant stress of travel, Holly and his fellow performers didn't disappoint their fans. One admirer, especially taken with Holly's performance at Duluth's National Guard Armory on Saturday, Jan. 31, was 17-year-old Robert Zimmerman. Holly made eye contact with the young music devotee sitting in the front row, then a high school senior.
It was a defining moment in rock 'n' roll when you consider Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the greatest musicians of his generation. Dylan recalled the incident with Holly when he accepted a Grammy award for "Time Out Of Mind" in 1998. "I just have some sort of feeling that he was-- I don't know how or why-- but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way," he said.
As Zimmerman left the show to return to Hibbing, Minn. Holly and his fellow entertainers boarded a bus for their next engagement, a matinee at the Cinderella Ballroom in Appleton, Wis. on Sunday, Feb. 1.
For the performers, the adoration of the crowds soon turned to the harsh realities of the road. The heater on the old bus didn't work and the weather was bitterly cold. They huddled under blankets to keep warm, but then things got even worse. The bus broke down about 15 miles south of Hurley, Wis. Without winter jackets, hats or gloves, the crew of rock 'n' roll stars was in serious trouble that frigid night. In the middle of nowhere, there was no traffic and 19-year-old drummer Carl Bunch was suffering from frostbite to his feet.
Eventually, a trucker who passed the disabled vehicle contacted the sheriff's department which sent deputies to the rescue.
Bunch was taken to Grand View Hospital in Ironwood, just across the state border in Michigan.
The bus was towed into Ironwood so repairs could be made as the driver waited at a local garage. But the performers didn't have time to waste. Although the promoter cancelled the Appleton show, an evening concert at the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay remained on the schedule.
Minus Bunch, the weary musicians took a train to the venue. During Holly's show, Ritchie Valens, familiar to teenagers for his hits, "Donna" and "Come On, Let's Go," filled in on drums for Bunch, who was to spend several more days recovering in Michigan's western-most city.
When the driver arrived in Green Bay with the repaired bus, the tour pressed on to Clear Lake, Iowa, almost 360 miles away, where a performance was scheduled for Monday, Feb 2. En route, the bus broke down again, to everyone's chagrin.
With a distant Minnesota gig set for Tuesday, Feb 3, Holly decided to end his travel aggravation by chartering a plane to Moorhead. Blizzard-like conditions prevailed when the small aircraft took-off. Tragically, it slammed into a cornfield minutes later, killing Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and the pilot.
In true show business fashion, no dates were missed, even with the deaths of the three stars. Bobby Vee, Frankie Avalon, Jimmy Clanton and Fabian served as substitutes for the remaining shows.
Bunch, who learned of the crash in the hospital, rejoined the tour in Sioux City, Iowa on Thursday, Feb. 5. The last concert of the 12 dates following the tragedy was held on Sunday, Feb. 15, 1959 in Springfield, Ill.
After the tour, Bunch looked for a new direction and decided to join the Army. Following his discharge, he played drums in Nashville for Roy Orbison and Hank Williams Jr.
Later, he operated Dove's Nest Ministries in California, working as a substance abuse counselor.
Despite the passing of decades, Bunch, who acquired the name "The Frostbitten Cricket," never forgot his experience with the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour. Over the years, he has often taken part in tributes in Buddy Holly's home state of Texas and in Iowa, where he played his last concert.
While Bunch missed the Green Bay stop in 1959, he made up for it with an appearance at the Riverside Ballroom on Friday, Jan. 28, 2000. The mayor's office declared the date "Carl Bunch Day."
The occasion became another milestone for the man who drummed his way into rock 'n' roll history.