Sunday, February 3, 2019

J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) - Hellooo Baby - You Know What I Like!

Sixty years to the day since "The Day The Music Died", the plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa in the wee hours of the morning of February 3rd, 1959 that killed three touring rock musicians (Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, along with local pilot Roger Peterson), one of the more tragic days in rock history.  There will be tons of write ups and remembrances commemorating this day, so I suppose I'm jumping on that bandwagon...

You might not recall this, but in the first (1964-65) season of the TV show Gilligan's Island, the characters The Professor (played by Russell Johnson) and Mary Ann (played by Dawn Wells) weren't referenced by name in the song in the opening credits - it used to go: "...the millionaire, and his wife; the movie star... and the rest - are here on Gilligan's Isle!":

At the time, Johnson and Wells were considered "second-billed co-stars", and not worthy of full acknowledgement in the credits. But as their characters became more popular as the initial season wore on, the star of the series, Bob Denver (who played Gilligan) insisted they also be specifically included in the theme song for the next season. When the studio initially balked at this request, claiming that rerecording the song would be too expensive, Denver (to his credit) threatened to quit the Top 20 show unless it was done, and the studio caved to his demand...

I mention this seemingly unrelated fact regarding Gilligan because to me for many years, I regarded the third entertainment victim of this plane crash, J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), as "the rest" - a sort-of hokey, low-level, small-time comedy act and incidental passenger, whose subsequent immortality was due to his involvement in the same tragedy that snuffed out two of rock's brightest leading lights. The Bopper's "hit", "Chantilly Lace", always seemed to me to be a minor novelty song, nowhere near the level of tonality and sophistication of the tunes that Holly and Valens were putting out at that time.

Then a couple of years ago, I did a little research - "Chantilly Lace" was released on D Records in the spring of 1958, and had such early success that Mercury Records purchased the recording and re-released it under its own label that summer. The song was in the Top 40 for five months, peaking at #6 on Billboard (#4 on Cash Box charts, which measured jukebox plays), and by some measures was the third-most played song of 1958. So it wasn't a fluke or "flash in the pan" after all...

That's when I started taking The Bopper a little more seriously, and started to look a little more in-depth into his life and career.

Jiles P. Richardson (J.P., or "Jape" to his friends) was born in East Texas in 1930, and grew up in Beaumont. He originally set his sights on becoming a lawyer, and after his high school graduation in 1947, attended Lamar College (now Lamar University) there in town, majoring in prelaw. For pocket money while in college, he began working part-time at a local radio station. The station owners quickly recognized the teenager's on-air talent, and gave him a series of advancements and promotions. By 1949, Richardson had quit school and was a full-time employee of the station, supervising all of the station's announcers.

In the spring of 1955, Richardson was drafted, and spent two years in the Army as a radar instructor in El Paso. After his military discharge, he returned to the radio station in 1957. Soon after his return, he began hosting an afternoon show featuring rock and pop dance hits. He recalled seeing local college students doing a new dance called The Bop... thus, "The Big Bopper Show" was born, with Richardson assuming that moniker from then on.

In addition to being a broadcast personality, Richardson was also a guitarist, and began penning his own songs while he was in the Army. His music came to the attention of local country music producer Harold "Pappy" Daily (owner of Texas labels Starday and D Records, and
an A&R rep for Mercury Records), who signed him to Mercury in mid-1957. Richardson's first record, the country-flavored single "Beggar To A King" b/w "Crazy Blues" (credited to "Jape Richardson & The Japetts"), was released that October to little to no notice (however, the song would be rerecorded after his death by Hank Snow, making it to #5 on the Country charts in 1961).

As I noted above, Richardson's follow-up song, "Chantilly Lace", was a huge hit. As part of the promotion for that song, The Bopper arranged for a performance to be filmed at a Texas supper club in mid-1958; segments of this performance are provided in the clip below:

As primitive and rudimentary as it is, this performance is now credited as the first ever music video... and it was not a haphazard, poorly-considered action. The Bopper fully believed that video was the wave of the future for rock, and in late 1958, he was actually preparing to start production on music videos for TV and was making plans for the design of a special video jukebox to play them on. So the guy was a futurist, entrepreneur and innovator as well! What's more, he's even credited with coining the term "music video" in a 1959 interview with Disc, a British music magazine, published just days before his death.

Richardson's songwriting prowess proved its worth a couple more times in 1958 with hits for other artists, the first of which was "Treasure Of Love", a #6 Country hit that fall for up-and-coming country star George Jones. It also including "Running Bear", written for his friend Johnny Preston. Recorded in 1958 with Richardson's backing vocals, the song was not released until late 1959, but still made it to #1 on the US Hot 100 for three weeks in January 1960.

Along with his dreams of starting a video recording/production business, Richardson was increasingly interested in acquiring his own radio station there in Texas.  But despite the success of the tunes provided to his friends, and his own follow-up to "Chantilly Lace", the novelty hit "The Big Bopper's Wedding" b/w "Little Red Riding Hood" (released in November 1958), Richardson's financial resources for these plans were limited. So in December 1958, he agreed to take part in the "Winter Dance Party" rock 'n' roll package tour of towns and cities in the upper Midwest, scheduled to begin in late January 1959 (the tour headliner, Buddy Holly, also signed on for financial reasons - he had split from his previous band, The Crickets, that prior November, and the group's manager Norman Petty was withholding Holly's royalty payments; for all intents and purposes, Buddy Holly was broke by the beginning of 1959, and needed to go out on the road to earn some income).

The Winter Dance Party tour began on January 23rd, 1959 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and soon devolved into a nightmare of logistical and weather-related challenges - including a poorly mapped-out tour schedule (the distance between some daily venues would be as much as 400 miles, zig-zagging all over the region - in some cases passing through cities and towns the tour had played just a few days earlier...), subzero temperatures and waist-deep snow, inadequate transportation (unreliable, poorly heated - or in some cases unheated - school buses), and no support crew (the artists had to load, set up and break down their own equipment). By mid-tour, half of the performers, including Valens and Richardson, had come down with colds and the flu, and Buddy Holly's drummer Carl Bunch had to be hospitalized for frostbitten feet incurred on another long frigid bus journey.

By the time the tour arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa for the February 2nd gig (after a 350+ mile journey from Green Bay, Wisconsin), Holly had pretty much had it. Knowing that the next stop on the tour was Moorhead, Minnesota, another 350+ mile journey almost due north on a badly-heated bus into even colder weather, Holly decided to charter a plane that night to fly himself and his remaining backing band (Tommy Allsup on guitar and Waylon Jennings on bass) to their next destination. There, they could get some rest, wash some clothes, and wait for the rest of the tour participants to arrive. He felt they needed the break; the next gig after Moorhead was scheduled for the very next day (February 4th) in Sioux City, Iowa, another 300+ mile journey.

Hearing about the charter flight that night during the show, a deathly ill Richardson pleaded with Jennings for his plane seat, and Jennings acquiesced. Valens was intensely afraid of planes and flying due to a tragic incident two years earlier, the
January 1957 midair collision between a Douglas DC-7 and a U.S. Air Force fighter jet over Pacoima, California, with debris from the crippled planes landing in Valens' junior high playground just as recess was ending. Seventy-four people on the ground were injured and three killed, including friends of Valens (he was at his grandfather's funeral that day, and wasn't at the school). But even with his fears, he too was too ill and miserable to face another long, cold overnight bus ride. So, following The Big Bopper's lead, Valens asked Allsup for his place on the charter flight that night. Allsup wasn't as willing as Jennings to lose his place on the plane, so instead he and Valens decided to flip a coin for it - Ritchie "won".

After the show, Holly, Valens and Richardson were driven over to the nearby Mason City Municipal Airport, where they boarded the Beechcraft Bonanza piloted by Peterson and took off in overcast weather and light snow just before 1 a.m. on February 3rd. The aircraft crashed at high speed just minutes later, less than six miles from the airport. Everyone on board was killed instantly. The wreckage wasn't found until later that morning, shortly after sunrise.

After identification and autopsy, The Bopper's body was returned to Texas, where he was buried the following week at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Beaumont. J. P. Richardson was only 28 years old when he died.

But he left behind one final legacy; in the week immediately after The Big Bopper's death, his friend George Jones reentered the studio to record a song written earlier that winter and provided to him by Richardson just before he left for the Midwest. Understandably distraught due to the death of his lifelong friend, Jones arrived at the studio drunk, and continued drinking throughout the session. All in all, it took eighty takes to finally get the song on vinyl. Released later that month, the single "White Lightning" b/w "Long Time To Forget" became a smash hit, reaching #1 Country by April 1959, the first of thirteen chart-topping hits by Jones during his subsequent 60-year career in music.

The Iowa plane crash was one of a series of events and incidents in the late '50s/early '60s that, in my opinion, threw American rock 'n' roll out of whack. These include Little Richard renouncing secular music and turning to religion after a harrowing incident during a tour in Australia in late 1957; Elvis Presley getting drafted into the Army in March 1958 for a two-year hitch; the uproar in mid-1958 surrounding the revelation that Jerry Lee Lewis had married his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown; Chuck Berry's arrest in late 1959 and subsequent conviction and jailing over an alleged Mann Act violation; and Eddie Cochran's fatal road accident while on tour in England in early 1960 (a crash that also seriously injured rockabilly legend Gene Vincent, and possibly shortened his career). By the end of that decade, most if not all of the biggest names, pioneers and innovators in rock music had been sidelined - leaving a huge, sucking vacuum that was initially filled in the late '50s/early '60s by bland, "safe" crooners with tenuous connections to rock 'n' roll - Tommy Sands, Fabian, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Ricky Nelson and the like - the so-called "Teen Idol" era. "The Day The Music Died" was the day rock 'n' roll lost its heart, its soul... and indeed, its balls. And it wouldn't regain that spirit of independence and innovation for many years to follow, until the emergence of new rock innovators from California (The Beach Boys) and England (The Beatles and many others) in the early 1960s.

The long-term impact to the music industry stemming from this February 1959 plane crash should no longer be evaluated according to the legacies and unfulfilled potentials of only Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Far from being a one-hit wonder or comedy rocker, Jiles P. Richardson, through his music and his far-ahead-of-their-time ideas about the future presentation and promotion of rock artists, had just as much talent and unrealized potential as his two lost plane mates. I no longer consider him to be an incidental victim in a larger tragedy, but as a equal to Holly and Valens; to me, The Big Bopper is no longer "the rest", but truly one of the "three stars" lost, and fully deserving of the decades of sorrow and heartfelt tribute associated with his loss on that terrible day.

Compared to Ritchie Valens and the uber-prolific Buddy Holly, Richardson released only a small number of recordings during his lifetime. While both Holly and Valens have had several expansive box sets of their work released over the years (including one provided here last year), The Big Bopper has rarely received that sort of recognition - only a incomplete compilation of his tunes (Hellooo Baby! The Best of The Big Bopper 1954-1959) released by Rhino Records in 1989.

This situation was rectified back in 2010, with the release of the album provided here. This disc includes every known song and song version (LP or rare single-only version) recorded by Richardson in his lifetime, along with an additional eight cuts featuring tributes and answer songs to some of the singer's most beloved tunes. As far as Big Bopper releases are concerned, it gets no more complete than here.

So here for your listening pleasure on the anniversary of one of the most tragic days in music history, I proudly present you with Hellooo Baby - You Know What I Like!, the definitive Big Bopper compilation, released by German label Bear Family Records on June 1st, 2010. Enjoy, and as always, let me know if I know what you like!

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