The Last Day of the Rock & Roll Era


Rock & Roll and an early grave. “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” It’s been fetishized, glamorized, and became the biggest Pop Culture cliche of the 20th Century, even as it continued a centuries old poetic obsession with romanticizing young death. There’s no more major and maudlin a date in that morbid history than February 3, 1959, when Rock’s first fatalities hit in triplicate. The die was cast, lives were ended, legends began.

The night the the plane carrying Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens crashed into that cold, hard Iowa ground, shockwaves were sent that still resonate today,over half a century later. The beginnings of Rock & Roll and the post-war invention of the teenager as marketing target had dovetailed nicely, creating fat cash for everyone from label presidents down to A&R men, even as the young artists creating the commotion saw minimal kickback and were sent out to tour in dodgy transportation. It’s hard to fathom today that three top pop performers would be huddled together on a shoddy late night flight in a weathered plane in frozen conditions, a situation seen as optimal compared to riding to the next night’s tour destination with the rest of the band in a school bus with busted heat. We can conjecture that these three men with top ten charting records weren’t considered to be the vanguard of much more than a fad by the big money men who wrote their paychecks, out on a haggard winter tour as the end of the fifties hurtled near.

It was dubbed “The Tour From Hell,” even as it was the extreme cold that took its toll instead of fire. A row of one nighters, one after the other, all across the frozen winter of the American north. The bus broke down a number of times, and the musicians were only saved by fateful passer-bys. All the band members for all the acts were crammed together. Some ended up with frostbite and, with nowhere to bathe or wash their clothes, smelled like barnyard animals. Valens from California and Holly from Texas were particularly shocked by the brutality of the cold, Ritchie hadn’t even thought to pack a coat. After the crash, the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota wasn’t even canceled. A kid who called himself Bobby Vee and his band the Shadows simply filled in. Vee (It says “Robert Velline” on his license) was just 15 years old.

Bopper and Valens were formidable talents to be sure, but history has taught us that the harshest loss that day was Buddy Holly. Although now retroactively considered one of the first major purveyors of Geek Chic thanks to his appearance, he was still considered part of the wild pack. No one in ’59 found the Crickets leader to seem particularly square just because he wore glasses. Thanks to rhythmic adventures like Peggy Sue, with its beats like jungle drums and a “drive it like you stole it” freewheeling chorus, Buddy was lumped in with the rest as a potential riot inciting and pre-wedlock conoodle encouraging hero to leather jacketed juvenile delinquents. However, his ability to sling out an airtight ballad like True Love Ways kept him in the same rarefied air as the likes of Elvis Presley, who managed a similar dynamic duality. Even the hardest nose in the establishment couldn’t fathom anyone who could sing that sweetly had to be all bad.

In fact, Elvis has departed the active scene and fallen in line himself. In March of 1958, he joined the army and let the buzzing of his famous greasy head become an international photo-op, making the papers everywhere. Rock disciples as varied as John Lennon and Sex-Pistols founder Malcom McLaren would later say that moment felt like nothing less than a betrayal. They believed in the rebellion heard in Hound Dog, but it was still a good boy who sang Love Me, and Elvis wasn’t about to burn his draft card. It wasn’t so dramatic or tragic as death, but it was still a heavy blow to Rock & Roll, and one of several that landed in quick succession.

Sun Records founder and head Sam Phillips famously sold Elvis cheap to RCA. That was partly because his operation was too small to keep ahead of production. Supply generated from the small Memphis operation of Elvis singles couldn’t keep up with demand, and money was left on the table. It was also because Sam didn’t figure Elvis was the future- Jerry Lee Lewis was. The literal fair haired boy in the sun, JLL became Mr.Phillips’ main meal ticket and great white hope all the way back to 1955. This plan seemed solid until ’58, when it hit the fan that not only was his blushing bride under-aged, but she was also a blood relation, and his second concurrent wife to boot. Any one of those details would’ve been enough to hobble any career in that age, all three at once was like comical overkill. He was blacklisted, his popular career was ended, no DJ but Alan Freed would still spin his records.

It wouldn’t be long until Freed’s name turned up on that same blacklist. Also in 1958, Freed was arrested for inciting a riot at one of his shows in Boston after telling a packed out and rowdy audience “It looks like the police don’t want you to have any fun” once their raucous antics led to the event being canceled in the middle. The teens ripped the theater apart, giving the press exactly what they wanted- headlines about Rock And Roll fueled delinquents acting out. The establishment had enough. Freed was fired from the New York station he had been spinning records for, and then found himself the primary figure in the Payola scandal, which would insure that he was banished from the airwaves altogether and forever, fortunate to narrowly avoid doing time. An ignoble end to an important career, his influence was pervasive and important, even if his methods were shady. He first coined the term “Rock & Roll” and helped artists like Chuck Berry find his audience. All Chuck had to do was give up half of his songwriting royalties to Freed.

Not even a month after Buddy, Bopper, and Ritchie Valens died, Chuck Berry found himself in the slammer. On trumped up charges implying (but not outright stating) that he had intercourse with a minor, Chuck went straight down the river. Freed was able to duck when they threw the book at him, Chuck caught it square in the face. Once sentenced, he wouldn’t see freedom again for five years. Once released, he wasn’t the same man.

Little Richard was lost to us as well, but rather than being pushed, he simply turned away. His reasons were internal and not external, unless you count Russian rocket science. During an October 1957 show in Sydney, a fireball appeared in the sky as he was performing. As it turned out, it was Sputnik hurtling over, but Richard would have none of that. He was certain it was a sign from God to renounce Rock & Roll, which he did. For a few years, anyway- by the early 60’s, he was back. However, the world was a very different place by then.

In the vacuum created by the loss of so many top Rock names, prefabricated pop stars and producer driven acts became the order of the day in the early 60’s. The likes of Fabian would prove easier for labels to control, and girl groups with interchangeable members cut out a lot of risk. Bobby Vee even became part of this machine, as a teen idol he was known for the saccharine sound of Take Good Care Of My Baby.

Then the Beatles arrived fully formed, and that was that. Although they loved and owed a great debt to the fifties Rock & Roll that they wore on their sleeves (The name “Beatles” was even a play on Buddy Holly and the Crickets), it was clear that they were the new thing, and very quickly took their idols’ influences in other directions. What we call Rock & Roll moved on and became a different entity entirely.

There’s many ways to look at it and all are valid, but it would seem that the Vintage Rock era ended very neatly by 1960, with so many practitioners of the craft subtracted from the scene, and punctuated by that awful loss in the second month of 1959. Losing Eddie Cochran in 1960 at 21 years of age would drive the last nail, with a timing that would seem too on the nose, were it a fictional story. The heyday handful of years preceding became a moment frozen in amber, and artists who came after who played in that style would often do so adhering to a set of rules that the men who made them did not intend to.

Nostalgia took over. When Sha-Na-Na performed at Woodstock, it had only been 10 years since the era they were evoking (some might say parodying) had ended, but they might as well have been dressed in medieval costumes and performed lute music for how much the world had changed after the turbulence of the sixties. Not just musically, but in every way imaginable. The rebelliousness of early Rock & Roll felt positively quaint at this point, and the sense of nostalgia for a “simpler time” was immense as the 70’s rolled in over a punch drunk populace. American Graffiti led to Happy Days, where the actors playing the characters generally didn’t even bother to get haircuts to reflect the 50’s. Sha Na Na got their own variety show, and the early rockers who were still alive and able went on “Remember When” tours. Ricky Nelson commented on the tenor of the reception he received from these times in the song Garden Party, after he took the stage with long hair and had the nerve to try new material out for an audience that didn’t want anything but the Ozzy And Harriet kid. He finally stated plainly in the tune that “if memories were all I sang, I would rather drive a truck.” Although the original sound evolved, the original artists were expected to perform their dated greatest hits like human jukeboxes.

Out of this environment came 1979’s film, The Buddy Holly Story. It was a hit, and a DJ in Iowa decided to start an annual tribute show at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, the venue that hosted the fateful last show. It has run every year since, featuring a record show, sock hop, poodle skirt contests, and live music from acts that are sometimes only tangentially associated- this year, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas played. Bobby Vee used to be a fixture, until a few years ago when Alzheimer’s set in. Probably a bit of a head scratcher for many, the show is sort of Mecca spot for fans and devotees. People come from all over the earth to be a part of the event. In a very real way, the Surf Ballroom has survived because three men died. It has become a a historic sight, kept preserved and unchanged where so many similar spots have been unceremoniously demolished. Tellingly, most of the other venues on that tour no longer stand.

Many more young fatalities would add to the narrative. Valens was 17, Holly was 22, and Big Bopper was a comparative old man at 28 at the time of their deaths, but the age of 27 emerged as a common one for others. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mia Zapata, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and many other stars of music, art, and screen would lose their lives at that age. “The 27 Club” became the name, a moniker made by those who study and consider such things.

The question always lingers about any creative person who dies young. What would they have done, had circumstance not intervened? Would Buddy Holly have in turn been influenced by the performers who came after, those who had been influenced by him? Would he have continued to make vital music? Would he have invented something altogether new? Maybe not. Maybe he would’ve just been another one for the nostalgia tour circuit.

Even so, it would’ve been nice to have him around.