Project Description

Had Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Big Bopper lived, rock ‘n’ roll legends would have done Spring Valley, IL show

DICK VERUCCHI, of Cedar Point, was only a boy on Feb. 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson perished in an Iowa plane crash. Had the rock ‘n’ roll stars lived, they would have played just four days later at the Les-Buzz Ballroom in Spring Valley, which was owned by Verucchi’s father.

SPRING VALLEY — It has now been four-and-a-half decades since “the day the music died.”

And with it went the Illinois Valley’s opportunity to see — and hear — it live and in person.

Tuesday will mark the 45th anniversary of the day — Feb. 3, 1959 — that rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Buddy Holly, 22, and Ritchie Valens, 17, along with novelty artist J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, perished in an Iowa plane crash.

However, if the music hadn’t died that day, Holly and troupe would have performed in Spring Valley just a few days later.

On the Saturday night of Feb. 7, 1959, Spring Valley’s Les-Buzz Ballroom, which stood at U.S. 6 and Illinois 89, was set to host “The Winter Dance Party” — a Midwestern musical tour headlined by the doomed trio.

“A lot of anticipation had built up, because Buddy Holly had been here before, and Ritchie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ drove us crazy,” recalled Cedar Point resident Dick Verucchi, whose father, Arthur “Buzzy” Verucchi, co-owned the Les-Buzz with Dick’s uncle, Lester Dheese. “I had gone around with my dad in his sound truck announcing the coming concert.”

In 1949, Buzzy and Lester had bought the building to operate as a roller rink, but started booking musical acts the following year. And during the early 1950s, the Les-Buzz Ballroom featured swing and jazz greats such as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong.

By the middle of the decade, however, rock ‘n’ roll had emerged, and Verucchi and Dheese rolled with it, booking Fats Domino, Bobby Darin, the Everly Brothers and other rock luminaries, including Buddy Holly.

Holly, known for his hiccup-style of vocalizing, performed with his band, “The Crickets,” on July 5, 1958 at the Les-Buzz, filling the venue to its 1,000 person-capacity with screaming fans from throughout Illinois Valley area.

Dick Verucchi, who was 12 years old during Holly’s 1958 visit, remembered the singer-songwriter as being a polite young star.

“He was changing clothes in the organ room,” Verucchi recalled. “It was real small and triangular. Someone was taking a Coke up to him and I said, ‘Here, I’ll take it to him.’ I handed it to Buddy Holly and he said, ‘Thank you.’

“I’ve always remembered that.”

Seven months after that encounter, Holly was on a swing back through the Midwest — and eventually was headed to Spring Valley — when he, Valens and the Big Bopper boarded a single-engine airplane after performing the night of Feb. 2, 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa — the 11th stop on a 24-city schedule.

The plane was to fly the trio to their next gig in Moorhead, Minn. But, instead, the craft took them and its pilot to their deaths when it crashed soon after take-off at about 1 a.m. the next morning. As a result, the rockers went to rock ‘n’ roll heaven and would become even bigger in death than they had been in life — especially Holly, a man considered a founding father of rock that many musicians hold in even higher regard than Elvis Presley.

Buzzy Verucchi got the bad news about Holly & Co. on the morning of Feb. 3 when he phoned his booking agent and was told about the crash. Dick Verucchi, meanwhile, learned about it when he sat up in bed that morning.

“I was just waking up and my aunt came in and told me, ‘Buddy Holly got killed,’ ” he said. “We were devastated. We couldn’t believe it.

“I was really into rock ‘n’ roll.”

It was too late for Buzzy Verruchi to pull an ad in the La Salle News-Tribune the same day announcing what would have been Holly’s approaching visit.

Despite the tragedy, “The Winter Dance Party” pushed on and fulfilled the remainder of its commitments, including its date in Spring Valley.

Singer and future beach-movie heartthrob Frankie Avalon, who was riding the wave of his then-current hit, “Venus,” filled Holly’s sizable shoes during the four-hour show. He got help from pop balladeer Jimmy Clanton, as well as Dion and the Belmonts.

Verucchi said he remembers Avalon and other performers standing around during a break that night at the Les-Buzz, studying the last photos taken of the Big Bopper. And instead, of wowing ’em in Spring Valley on Feb. 7, Holly ended up being buried that day in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas.

Buzzy and Lester continued promoting rock until they sold the ballroom in April 1961. The building was destroyed by fire during the mid-1960s and the land is now the site of a trucking company.

Although his father and the building are gone, Dick Verucchi is proud of he and his dad’s connection to the birth of rock.

“I love it,” he said. “My dad wanted the best and the biggest right here in little Spring Valley. It was ‘American Bandstand’ on that street corner.

“Some people would talk about him and thought he was evil. They tried to keep the rock ‘n’ roll culture out, but my dad brought it in.”