Few moments in the history of rock 'n' roll have captured the imagination as deeply as the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson.
Bob Hale understands that in a deeply personal way.
The Northwest suburban resident and former Chicago radio personality emceed the Feb. 2, 1959, show at the Surf Ballroom in Iowa that brought together those stars and others. Hale also says he flipped the coin that determined Valens' place on the tiny plane that crashed in a Clear Lake, Iowa, field 52 years ago today, killing the three musicians and pilot Roger Peterson.
Hale isn't the only one who claims to have flipped that fateful coin. Holly's bandmate Tommy Allsup -- whose life was saved when Valens won -- has said he did the toss.
"Tommy has claimed that he tossed the coin, and I have always said the flip was Tommy's idea ... that he asked me if I had a coin because he didn't have one," Hale says. "I flipped, showed it to Tommy after Ritchie called heads ... I am certain Tommy recalls flipping the coin, I am sure that I flipped it."
Who flipped the coin doesn't matter, Hale said, adding that he and Allsup have no issue with one another. What matters, he said, is the men who perished on what would later be dubbed "the day the music died."
"The point here is not who flipped it, but rather a coin flip determined who lived and who died," Hale said.
"History was shaped ... unfortunately, some want to make more of the discrepancy than is necessary ... and have chosen up sides. I find that an insult to the memory of the four young men who died ... the coin flip having nothing to do with the crash itself."
Both Hale and Allsup plan to attend the 2011 Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom today on the 52nd anniversary of the original show.
Certain details of the crash have been disputed, but the basics are clear: The tragedy followed a Feb. 2 evening performance of the Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom.
To avoid a cold bus ride, Holly had chartered a four-seat plane to the next tour stop in Minnesota. Bassist Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on the plane, but he gave his seat to Richardson, who was suffering from the flu. According to Hale and other accounts, the final seat went to Valens over Allsup as a result of the coin flip.
The plane left the Clear Lake Municipal Airport in the early morning hours of Feb. 3. FAA reports indicated that it crashed five miles away, nose-first, and skidded into a fence separating land tracts. The bodies and wreckage were discovered the next morning, hampered by a snow dusting that covered the site. The cause was determined to be pilot error, since Peterson was not certified to fly by instrumentation and went by dead reckoning.
Hale, a radio disc jockey in Iowa at the time, was rocked by news of the crash.
"I received it while on the air the next morning. Because of phone calls and people driving to the station to talk about it, the manager brought in a replacement for me. I began a long string of reports for stations around the country, 25 to 30 called us for comments ... As a 24-year-old guy, and having emceed his first huge stage show, I was in shock all day."
The surrounding mythology and speculation on the crash itself has grown over the years, with some assertions quite far-fetched.
The Mason County Coroner's Inquest Report stated Richardson's body was found 40 feet from the wreckage, on the fence's far side, which later led to the rumor that he had survived the crash and walked to get help before collapsing.
Sevan Garabedian, a Canadian documentary filmmaker, calls that assertion "a sad rumor put to rest several years ago." He and partner Jim McCool are completing a film: "Gotta Travel On: The Winter Dance Party Odyssey," currently in postproduction and tentatively slated for a 2012 release.
The duo has meticulously visited the sites of the 1959 concert tour, filmed interviews with show attendees and musicians, including Hale and Allsup, and also located the only known photos of the Clear Lake show. (Anyone who attended the concerts is asked to share stories with Garabedian at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"The tour itself was spread across the upper Midwest including Illinois stops at Peoria, Spring Valley, Springfield, and Chicago's Aragon Ballroom," said Garabedian. "... After the tragedy, the tour continued with Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vee stepping in. It was professionalism, but also a tribute."
They're wrapping up the project and working on the distribution details.
"We've tracked down unidentified musicians from photographs, visited the relatives of the four victims ... it's been a labor of love, fun, and the response has been reciprocated."
The interviews are exclusive to the film including Frankie Sardo, an opening act on the bill who roomed with Valens on the tour.
Hale's career brought him to Chicago in the spring of 1960. He started WLS' "East of Midnight" show and later made the move to TV. Among other assignments, he hosted WMAQ-TV's "Today in Chicago" show for many years.
But Hale has never forgotten the tragedy of 1959. He says all three of the musicians who died that day were unique, and influential in their own ways.
"Bottom line," Garabedian says, "it's the music that endures beyond the crash, and their influences are still felt in the music industry today."