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The rickety old bus pulled out of the Duluth Armory late on Saturday, Jan. 31, 1959, and headed across St. Louis Bay into the frigid Wisconsin night.

On board were some exhausted, stinky rock 'n' rollers and their harried manager. The Winter Dance Party tour had just finished its ninth gig in as many days and was headed east for Appleton and Green Bay, for shows 10 and 11 on Sunday.

But as the temperature plunged to around 30 below and the wind howled, fate intervened. The southbound bus creaked to a stop as it struggled up an incline on Hwy. 51 about 10 miles south of Hurley.

Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Waylon Jennings, Dion and the others were stranded on a remote highway in the northern Wisconsin forest. They huddled under blankets and burned newspapers to try to stay warm. Buddy's drummer was nursing painful frostbitten feet.

It was the night the music almost died.

As Holly fans from around the world converge on Iowa's Surf Ballroom to remember his death in a plane crash 50 years ago and celebrate his music, the little-known story of the Wisconsin bus breakdown and the rest of the grueling tour is worth telling to understand why Holly chartered the airplane at Mason City.

One of the nation's most famous rock stars, Holly had reluctantly signed onto the midwinter Midwest tour because he needed the money. But after 11 days of touring, he was tired -- tired of the endless miles on frozen buses, tired of performing in dirty clothes, tired of bickering with his manager in Clovis, N.M., and tired of sleeping sitting up on hard seats.

By all accounts, the rockers gave a rousing performance in Clear Lake on Feb. 2, 1959. But rather than get on that cold bus again to travel 365 miles to Moorhead, Holly, J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) and Valens got on a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza that crashed into a cornfield just after takeoff. All three and pilot Roger Peterson were killed.

The story of "The Day the Music Died" is legend -- made more famous by Don McLean's '70s song "American Pie." Not so well known is what some call the "Tour from Hell."

Brutally cold

The midwinter tour was particularly difficult for Texans Holly and his reconstituted Crickets, and for Valens, a Southern California boy who hadn't packed a winter coat.

"It was so cold on the bus that we'd have to wear all our clothes, coats and everything. ... I couldn't believe how cold it was," wrote Waylon Jennings, who played bass for Holly on the tour. The original Crickets were back in Texas.

General Artists Corp. had organized the tour with no thought to geographic sanity.

"They didn't care," says Holly historian Bill Griggs. "It was like they threw darts at a map. . ... The tour from hell -- that's what they named it -- and it's not a bad name."

Griggs, who long ago moved to Holly's home town of Lubbock, Texas, from Connecticut, estimates they had used five different buses before driving into Clear Lake -- "reconditioned school buses, not good enough for school kids."

The tour started in Milwaukee on Friday, Jan. 23, 1959. It then zig-zagged during the next 11 days from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Minnesota.

There were no roadies to help set up and pack up, and only icy two-lane highways to get from town to town.

Montevideo magic

At the Tuesday night, Jan. 27 dance at the Fiesta Ballroom in Montevideo in western Minnesota, young fans excitedly crowded the stage. All the shows were drawing large, enthusiastic crowds.

Bob Bunn, who played with a local band called the "Rockin' Rebels," wanted Holly to sign his guitar. So after the show, Bunn drove to Montevideo's Highway Cafe, where the singers had gone to grab something to eat. Bunn greeted Holly, who seemed in a hurry as he left the cafe.

"Is it always this damn cold in Minnesota?" Holly asked.

"No," Bunn replied. "It gets a lot colder." The next day, the tour headed to the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul.

In the 50 years since that magical night at the Fiesta, Bunn, now 71 and a retired farmer, has had a chance to ponder what his idol went through on the geographically challenged tour. "It wasn't planned worth a darn, and it killed a lot of good people."

Bob's big moment

On Saturday, Jan. 31, the tour made its second-longest haul -- 368 miles from Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Duluth.

Bob Dylan, then a young high schooler from Hibbing named Robert Zimmerman, has told the story of making eye contact with Holly.

"He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I'll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand," Dylan told the Rolling Stone in 1984.

The Duluth show ran until about 11 p.m. The balky bus had been kept in the Armory basement to stay warm. Tour members packed up and headed into the brutally cold Wisconsin night.

Tommy Allsup, the Crickets' lead guitarist who will be in Clear Lake at the big 50th anniversary bash on Feb. 2, has vivid memories of that next unscheduled stop on Hwy. 51.

"We had started up this incline, it was snowing real bad, and the bus just started going slower and slower, and the lights got dimmer and dimmer, and all of a sudden the bus stopped," Allsup recalls.

"The driver said, 'The bus is frozen,' ... It was so cold, and we were just sitting there right in the middle of the road. Everybody started thinking we were about to freeze to death."

Dion's Belmonts started lighting newspapers to generate warmth. Holly's drummer Carl Bunch was in pain and having difficulty moving his legs. Allsup looked at his feet; they had turned brown.

At that moment, they saw headlights in the distance. "It seemed like it took forever to get to us."

A sheriff's deputy, who had been alerted by a passing trucker, sized up the dire situation and got four cars to take the musicians to Hurley. He also got Bunch to the hospital in nearby Ironwood, Mich., where the drummer would learn two days later about the plane crash.

The Iron County Miner carried a short item on the rescue -- published three days after the crash -- calling the stranded entourage an orchestra. "The men were lightly dressed and suffered from extreme cold of 35 below zero that morning with no heat in the bus while they waited for someone to come along."

There are few people in Hurley still alive who remember that night. One is Gene Calvetti, now 85, who towed the bus to his dad's garage. He recalls arriving at the scene to find the guys "complaining about the cold and scared of bears." He also remembers that the bus engine "was shot."

The singers ended up at the Club Carnival in Hurley to get something to eat. Some went to a hotel in Ironwood to get a short night's rest. The next day, they headed to Green Bay by train and Greyhound bus; the Appleton show was canceled.

Monday, Feb. 2 was supposed to be an off-day. But at the last minute, tour organizers booked Clear Lake. So it was back on the bus for the 355-mile trip.

Life on the bus: Cold not only discomfort

"We tried to hang our wrinkled suits in the aisle, and after a while, it got kind of ripe in there. We smelled like goats," Jennings wrote.

Allsup puts it another way: "We were running out of white shirts and underwear."

But the awful conditions also sparked camaraderie, story telling and lots of jamming.

Dion described in his autobiography how he and Holly huddled under blankets.

"Through the dark hours while we waited for something to happen, we would tell each other stories. Him, about Lubbock. Me, about the Bronx. I could always get a laugh out of him -- soft and low like his drawl ..."

John Mueller, who plays Buddy Holly in a traveling road show called "Winter Dance Party," has rare insight into what the '50s performers endured. In 1999, Mueller and the other musicians tried to replicate '59 tour. It was the 40th anniversary of the plane crash, and he wanted to honor the '59 tour by going back to the original cities and original venues.

"By the time we got to Clear Lake, I had lost my voice, I had lost about 10 to 15 pounds, I was just physically exhausted, as was everybody in the group. The grueling nature of the tour, following the exact geographic routing, it really hit me in the head why they chartered the plane," said Mueller, whose group traveled in warm, comfortable minivans.

Griggs, who has dedicated his life to Holly's music and story, thinks the Wisconsin bus breakdown was the last straw.

"Buddy had his mind made up then. He thought, 'I don't want to go another 400 miles on this bus.' "

Indeed, even the Civil Aeronautics Board mentioned the tour conditions in its report on the investigation and cause of the crash. "Because of bus trouble, which had plagued the group, these three decided to go to Moorhead ahead of the others."The coin toss

As many a Holly aficionado knows, Allsup and Jennings were supposed to be on the plane. But they gave up their seats to Valens and the Bopper, who was sick. Allsup lost out to Valens in a last-minute coin toss.

When Buddy learned that Waylon's seat had gone to the Bopper, he told his bass player with a grin, "Well, I hope your damned bus freezes up again."

"Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes," responded Jennings, who was haunted for years by that exchange.

Holly headed for the plane, and the bus headed for Moorhead.

Holly buffs also know that 15-year-old Robert Velline of Fargo, and his band -- named at the last minute the Shadows -- filled in at the Moorhead Armory show the next night.

Velline became Bobby Vee, who now lives near St. Cloud. At 65, he is still touring the country and once again is part of this year's Clear Lake show.

"I shamelessly do a tribute to Holly in just about every show that I do. He was my Elvis, as much as I loved Elvis, Buddy was the guy who spoke to me."

Pamela Huey • 612-673-4470