Hometown ‘Bopper’ worth more than a mention

Published 8:51 am Monday, February 5, 2018


By Ken Stickney


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He was the other guy.

When rock ‘n’ roll aficionados recall the Day the Music Died — Feb. 3, 1959 — they talk mostly about the deaths of Buddy Holly of Lubbock or Ritchie Valens of California, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers, the guys with the biopics, “The Buddy Holly Story” and “La Bamba.”

They don’t talk much about Jiles Perry Richardson Jr., the “Big Bopper.”

Too bad.

Son of Sabine Pass

Born in Sabine Pass, reared here and in Beaumont, J.P. Richardson may be an afterthought to most modern-day music fans, the third musician who died in the four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza that crashed in the frigid, snowy, early morning darkness shortly after leaving Clear Lake, Iowa, where the three had unknowingly played their final concert.

That crash was immortalized in Don McLean’s 1972 song, “American Pie,” which most fittingly captures the anguish felt by rock ‘n’ roll fans.

Holly, just 22, made a lasting impact on rock ‘n’ roll, a precocious songwriter and stylist who influenced Dylan and the Beatles and was part of the first class of legends inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Richard Steven Valenzuela, just 17, a founder of Chicano rock as Ritchie Valens, recorded for only about a year but followed Holly into the Hall of Fame in 2001. He influenced Los Lobos and Carlos Santana and, like Holly, his reputation was enhanced by recovery of recordings of his early music.

Richardson’s was a different story. He was a hustler and a rabid self-promoter, the high-octane DJ who once spun records on the air for a record-setting five days, two hours and eight minutes in Beaumont, playing 1,821 songs, only breaking for showers during newscasts.

Prolific songwriter

Richardson was not without musical talent, though. He wrote 38 songs, recorded half of them, and his “Chantilly Lace” earned him a gold record.

The original sheet music to that song is displayed at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in downtown Port Arthur, along with a couple of dozen other personal effects that include a photo with Buddy Holly.

Sarah Bellian, museum curator, said none of the three were musical giants on the morning they died but all had enjoyed some success. All had played on “American Bandstand.” Holly, who had opened for Elvis before, had a handful of hits — he was very popular in Britain — Valens, only a kid, just a couple. Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” was fresh off the rock ‘n’ roll charts that fateful day.

The Beaumont Journal’s headline for the crash story was “Big Bopper, 2 other popular singers die in Iowa plane crash.” That might have reflected what Bellian suggested this week: That the three, particularly Holly and Valens, were very young and romanticized in their early deaths, with what Bellian called “a macabre fascination with people gone too soon.” But they were not necessarily household names when they perished in the Iowa farmland.

The Big Bopper, on the other hand, was older than the others, 28, a military veteran, married with a child and one on the way. A local figure of note, he never gained the widespread respect Holly and Valens achieved. But he had a successful, colorful career and made a mark on popular music.

‘Novelty’ songs

Many of his songs were mere “novelties,” Bellian said, some made famous by other artists. George Jones’ cover of Richardson’s “White Lightning” earned him his first No. 1 country hit. Richardson’s Port Arthur friend Johnny Preston covered his “Running Bear,” which reached No. 1. Years later, Sonny James did the same.

Bellian said few fans — perhaps only one — has made the trek to Port Arthur solely to see the Big Bopper museum display and historical locations.

But Richardson, buried in a Beaumont cemetery, is not wholly forgotten. At the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowans on Saturday will mark the 59th anniversary of the ’59 deaths of those three musicians. They’ve done that for 39 years, launching that tradition on the 20th anniversary of the plane crash.

They’ll conclude several days of music, all part of what they call “The Winter Dance Party,” which is named for the ill-fated tour on which Holly, Valens and Richardson were playing when they died.

Brenda Lee and Bobby Rydell, who launched their own successful careers in the ’50s, will entertain. So will Linda Gail Lewis, whose brother Jerry Lee Lewis also famously covered “Chantilly Lace.”

And for one more day in frigid Iowa, the Big Bopper will be remembered.

And the music will live.