Bill and Sue-On Hillman: A 50-Year Musical Odyssey  ::  Rock Roots and Influences


Photo taken by Mary Gerber
Buddy Holly on stage at The Surf ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Feb. 2, 1959.
A Canadian filmmaker and Buddy Holly super-fan who’s spent the past six years working on a documentary about the rock ’n’ roll icon’s final concert tour has already rediscovered one stunning piece of music history: the last known photograph of the bespectacled Crickets frontman, shot by a teenage girl in an Iowa dance hall just hours before the singer’s death in a plane crash on “the day the music died” in February 1959.

But Sevan Garabedian, a 37-year-old Montrealer who sells upmarket jewelry in his day job, says he’s now nearing completion of the “labour of love” movie he’s been making since 2007. That’s the year he met a fellow Holly buff at an annual crash-site vigil in rural Iowa and the two decided to collaborate on retelling the story of the fateful Midwest concert tour — the Winter Dance Party — that has come to symbolize the eclipse of pop music’s golden age. “We started talking and said, ‘Let’s do something,’” Garabedian says of his project partner, Jim McCool from Madison, Wisconsin. “We finally decided on a documentary. It was supposed to be a modest thing, but it sort of grew and grew.”

Garabedian is just back in Montreal from this year’s vigil, held overnight on Feb. 2-3 at a farmfield memorial north of Clear Lake, Iowa — site of Holly’s last gig at the Surf Ballroom — and nearby Mason City, where a chartered plane took off that night 54 years ago carrying the 22-year-old Holly, rising teenage star Ritchie Valens and fellow musician J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 24, to their deaths. Pilot Roger Peterson also died in the crash, which occurred in a winter storm as the musicians were heading to Moorhead, Minnesota for their next scheduled concert date.

Holly -- born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas --shot to fame in 1957 with hits such as Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day. He is widely seen as a key figure in the birth of rock ’n’ roll and a major influence on the Beatles and countless other performers. A budding young folksinger, Bob Dylan, attended the Winter Dance Party show in Duluth, Minnesota, on Jan. 31, 1959, and has described Holly’s performance as an enduring inspiration.

On stage with Holly for his last performance was, remarkably, hired-gun guitarist Waylon Jennings, who would go on to a legendary career in country music before he died in 2002. He gave up his seat on the ill-fated plane to the Big Bopper -- who was feeling ill and wanted to be spared the long, cold bus ride to Minnesota -- while Holly bandmate Tommy Allsup “lost” a coin toss to Valens for the other spot on the flight. Holly is said to have joked with Jennings about freezing on the bus trip, while Jennings wisecracked about Holly’s plane crashing.

The deaths of Holly and his fellow performers were poignantly recalled for a later generation of music fans in 1971 with U.S. singer Don McLean’s mega-hit American Pie, in which he remembers reading about the plane crash as a young boy delivering newspapers, and reflects critically on the much-changed music scene of the 1960s. “February made me shiver, with every paper I delivered,” McLean sang. “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.”

Garabedian and McCool, each backed in their film project by silent investors, have conducted years of research and scores of interviews in each of the 11 cities and towns where Holly and a host of other performers — including Dion and the Belmonts — played Winter Dance Party shows before the Clear Lake tragedy. The filmmakers have routinely placed ads in local newspapers seeking memorabilia from the 1959 tour, and in 2008 unearthed the ultimate artifact: a previously unknown photograph of Holly from that final, Surf Ballroom performance.

Other pictures from the tour were known to exist and considered valuable collectors’ items, but never had one emerged from the event in Clear Lake, where a notice posted at the entrance to the Surf had warned against taking photos. Nevertheless, Mary Gerber — a woman in her late 60s by the time Garabedian’s request for historic photographs reached her through a Minnesota newspaper article — had snapped seven shots of Holly and the others on stage that night. The teenaged Gerber hadn’t seen the no-photos sign. Among her pictures was a particularly superb one showing a guitar-picking Holly, in full song and centre stage at the microphone, with Jennings at his guitar in the background.

“She started describing the pictures,” Garabedian says, recounting the phone call from Gerber. “As soon as I saw it, I knew, because at the back were the call letters of the radio station in Mason City – there’s no mistaking it – KRIB. I’m like — wow… That call was something special. A lot of things like that have happened to us. But that was huge.” Gerber’s photos, reproduction of which are now on display at Holly tribute sites in Lubbock and Clear Lake, will feature prominently in the upcoming film, said Garabedian.

“It was our biggest find by far. As you walk into the Surf Ballroom, right away on the wall are those seven pictures. To be part of that history means a lot,” he said, describing himself as “obsessed” with photos of the Winter Dance Party tour and early rock ’n’ roll in general. It’s a fascination that he says took hold when he was still in high school and one of Montreal’s top-40 radio stations changed to an “oldies” format. “I just kept listening to it and I became fascinated by it — the Everly Brothers and Elvis and Buddy Holly,” said Garabedian. “I just became obsessed.”

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Alan Freed ~ Larry Williams ~ DJ Ben Dacosta ~ Buddy


Page 1
Intro | Photos | Clippings
Page 2
Hollywood Star
Page 3
Page 4
Film | Photos
Page 5
Buddy Holly Centre
Page 6
Walk of Fame
Page 1
Hillman Studio Visit
Page 2
Museum Overview
Page 3
Page 4
Petty Bio
Page 5
Page 6
Petty Artists
Page 7
Buddy Holly


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