The forgotten legacy of The Big Bopper
Few, if any, rock performers have had a larger impact on the history of country music than J.P. Richardson. Although his own work in the genre consists of just one single, in 1959 a Richardson-penned tune named “White Lightning” became the first number one hit for George Jones. Containing a slight rockabilly feel, the track remains one of Jones’ best and enabled him to take 13 other songs to the top of the country charts into the ’80s. On a more tragic note, Richardson is also responsible for the entire recorded output of another seminal country performer. In February 1959, Richardson agreed to take the place of Buddy Holly’s bass player on an airplane after the bass player complained of the flu. The show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa earlier that evening turned out to be the farewell performances of Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly. But the bass player, Waylon Jennings, went on to achieve immortality as an outlaw, an innovator, and quite possibly the best country artist of his generation.
February 3, 1959 is known as “The Day the Music Died” for good reason. At that time, Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard was temporarily retired, Chuck Berry was behind bars, Jerry Lee Lewis was, for all intents and purposes, blacklisted. As for Bill Haley, well, he was 33 years old that year when rock music was still strictly for the youth market. Eddie Cochran died a year later in a car crash. Ricky Nelson, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, and Dion DiMucci provided bright spots throughout the early ’60s. Yet, for many, the blizzard that killed the three entertainers- who singer-songwriter Don McLean would later refer to to as “The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” in his stunning classic “American Pie”- also killed the initial period of rock and roll.
Buddy Holly is remembered as one of the best and most influential of all the early rock performers, third only to Elvis and Chuck Berry (and possibly Jerry Lee). And rightfully so. Ritchie Valens is remembered as one of the founders of Latin rock and the music that the 17-year-old made in just eight months of recording is still influencing bands to this day . The Big Bopper is remembered, if at all, as the creator and performer of a novelty tune called “Chantilly Lace”. While he was indeed a master of the novelty song and personified more than anybody else the fun spirit of early rock, that is no reason for him not to be taken seriously as a artist.
Texas screenwriter and filmmaker Johnette Duff is hoping, with the help of Jay Perry Richardson (known professionally as the Bopper Jr.) to change that image. In the coming years, the pair hopes to produce a film, entitled The Day the Music Died and a stage musical called Chantilly Lace.
I recently got the opportunity to ask Duff questions about both projects, her own career and the musical legacy of the Big Bopper.
What is your background in film and how do you balance that career with your day job as an attorney?
I have an undergraduate degree in journalism and have been writing since the age of ten. I have published three books and been featured on Today and GMA. I have always been a film buff and took a sabbatical from practicing law in the mid-90s to attend film school at the University of Central Florida (home of the Blair Witch guys). You can view my award-winning screenwriting resume at www.texasscreenwriter.com. Unfortunately, it is not always possible for artists to eat and create at the same time, so it’s a tightrope act on a daily basis!
Which of your previous films are you most proud of?
Up & Down is the first film I have both written and produced and it has variously been described by critics and film festival programmers as a “feel-good movie well-worth the time to see” and “a gem.” You can see info on it at our website www.upanddownthemovie.com.
How did The Day the Music Died come about?
A friend of Bopper, Jr. (the Bopper’s posthumously-born son) called me after finding my screenwriting website. They were seeking a Texas writer. When I met Bopper, Jr., I told him the story was too good not to produce, too – so we are co-producers. I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast, so the voices of the characters are in my head, too.
How involved was the Richardson family in the development of the script?
Extremely involved. It is a true story with a few combined characters and time-compression due to the issue of aging the actors. It is the story of the Big Bopper as seen through the eyes of the son who has spent a lifetime searching for the truth about his dad, his music and his death.
Do you feel that Richardson’s work, as both a songwriter and performer, has been overlooked or forgotten over the years?
Yes. Holly had a wife in the music business. The Valenzuelas were active in keeping Ritchie’s name and music alive. But the Big Bopper’s widow hated the music business for taking away her husband and so the legacy languished for many years.
It’s hard to separate his writing from his recordings. “Running Bear” [a number one hit on the Top 40 charts for Johnny Preston in 1959] was the only song he didn’t also record that has endured. He was gifted in both areas.
Is there any truth to the claim that Richardson invented the term “music video”?
Yes. The interview in the English Disc magazine published shortly before his death still survives. I have copies of it. Our plan is to have the Oxford English Dictionary give him the credit.
In addition to a performer, Richardson was also famous as a radio personality. What is his background in this regard?
He spent ten years as various personas on the radio, riding the tide of the latest hits. He loved Dixieland jazz and Christian music but was steered away from those as not being money-makers. The Big Bopper persona was a radio personality initially- the point was that the listeners not know it was ole’ Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr. playing different roles. Also, his five-day Discathon broke record-playing records when he returned from his Army duty and was looking for a way to announce that he was back!
Will your film focus on just Richardson or will it also equally deal with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens?
It’s the Bopper’s story. The Winter Dance Party [the final tour of the three performers] itself is dealt with in much more detail than the previous films [The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba] but is still only a small part of the story. Buddy is there but primarily in the background. Ritchie’s role is a little bigger, because the Bopper, at 28, took the 17-year-old under his wing and that’s part of the story.
You have also written a musical play based on Richardson’s life called Chantilly Lace. How did it come about?
Primarily because of the enormous success of Mamma Mia! on stage. Re-packaging ABBA hits with a story that does not involve the singer/songwriters was a great idea. However, I realized the Bopper’s songbook is too personal for such an approach. You can’t separate him from his music. Also, a film is much more expensive to produce; when our initial funding fell through, I was looking for a more practical way to get the music back out there. The film is a drama, although certainly not without humor, but it is very true-to-life. The play was a medium where dancing, singing and feeling good was the goal. So they are extremely different, but both true.
When can we look forward to seeing the film and the play?
We were on the road to producing a world premiere of the play here in Houston when Hurricane Ike hit and then the economy tanked. They say it takes seven years from start to finish to produce a film and we are about 2 1/2 years down the road in our development – we still lack crucial funding at this point and are exploring numerous options. Keep checking back to our Facebook fan page for the latest updates on both the film and musical.
Had The Big Bopper survived the plane crash, what direction do you feel his career would have taken in the following years and decades?
He wanted to move to Denver and own a chain of radio stations. He was an incredibly savvy businessman
Can you talk a little about Richardson’s son and his career?
Bopper, Jr. tours in a tribute show – leopard coat and white bucks – and performs his dad’s music to enthusiastic audiences across the country and often hits international venues as well.
Do you feel that the Bopper should join Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
A long, long time ago, I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside the day the music died.
Don McLean, “American Pie” 1971