Ooh, my head!
By ANDREW MCGINN
After 60 years, countless news stories, a few books, a couple of Hollywood biopics, an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” and that eight-minute Don McLean song about “the day the music died,” we surely know all there is to know about the tragic deaths of Charles Hardin Holley, Richard Valenzuela and Jiles P. Richardson.
Sorry. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, respectively.
Of all the rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage sites — in Memphis, Cleveland, Detroit, L.A., New York and across the pond in Liverpool, England — an Iowa cornfield is still the unlikeliest.
Five miles northwest of Mason City’s municipal airport is where the Beech Bonanza, tail number N3794N, came to rest in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1959 — 60 years ago Sunday — as a heap of twisted metal against a barbed wire fence.
Three of rock ‘n’ roll’s brightest stars were dead on impact, a fine dusting of snow drifting over their bodies by the time authorities found the crash site eight hours later.
At ages 28 (the Bopper), 22 (Buddy) and 17 (Ritchie), they were the first big-time rockers to be plucked before their time from the mortal plane. Even after six decades, their deaths still resonate, most likely because they weren’t self-inflicted at the hands of indulgence and addiction like so many to follow.
The crash — and their tour of the Upper Midwest in the deepest, darkest days of winter aboard a bus with a faulty heater, leading Holly to charter a plane after appearing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake on Feb. 2 — has been researched, analyzed and scrutinized ever since.
The thing is, just when we think we know everything there is to know about Buddy, Ritchie and the Bopper, another new revelation finds light, suggesting that history is never fully written.
As editor of the Jefferson newspaper, I fully admit that the Jefferson newspaper would be the last place anyone would look for a story that could challenge the accepted facts of rock ‘n’ roll.
But there it is in the pages of the Jefferson Bee of May 12, 1959.
I could hardly believe what I was reading — a story suggesting that Ritchie Valens didn’t actually write one of his signature songs, “Donna,” one of the all-time great ballads of rock ‘n’ roll.
Released in October 1958 by Del-Fi Records, its flipside was a little tune called “La Bamba.”
Rather, the story asserted, “Donna” was written by the husband of a Jefferson gal, Donna Kay Wherry, and then somehow passed to Valens, who just happened to also have a girl named Donna.
What a crazy story, I thought at first.
Totally loco, right?
But is it any crazier than the theory that some kind of midair tussle, not pilot error, caused their plane to plummet?
The recovery of a gun from the crash site, and the fact that the Bopper’s body was found much farther from the others, seemed to indicate that not everything was as the Civil Aeronautics Board had led us to believe.
The Bopper’s son — the now-late Big Bopper Jr. — took the theory so seriously that he had his dad’s body exhumed in 2007.
The ensuing examination put the rumor to rest: Like the others, the Bopper likely died immediately from massive fractures.
And the gun belonged to Holly, a Texas boy through and through.
The crash returned to the news just a few years ago when the National Transportation Safety Board said it was reviewing a petition to reopen the investigation based on new evidence that might clear the pilot, 21-year-old Roger Peterson, of error. Peterson was also killed.
The NTSB, whose investigations are never closed, ultimately declined to do so.
The official cause of the crash remains that Peterson didn’t have the experience to fly by instruments.
I didn’t originally put much stock in the Bee’s story about “Donna” when I found it.
But I also figured it wouldn’t hurt to look into it when and if I ever got some time, especially given the continued interest in Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly.
I mean, it’s not like I was exhuming my dad.
It’s hard to say how many people around here went through life believing that “Donna” was secretly a Jefferson girl all along, but there’s no denying the matter-of-fact way it was reported three months after Valens’ death.
One of the personal effects with Valens’ body was a silver chain bracelet with DONNA on it.
The author of the story, columnist Mary Kay Kidder, was as credible as they came despite a column name — “Diary of a Housewife” — that suggests she wrote about whatever she managed to overhear at Safeway.
Kidder, who passed away in 2015 at age 98, started working as a journalist during World War II. A Drake University journalism grad, she came to Jefferson in 1948 to serve as news editor at the Bee and Herald.
She eventually chose to stay home, writing her “Diary of a Housewife” column from 1951 to 1968.
Her May 12, 1959, column centered on a round-robin letter making its way around town from a former resident, Katherine Wherry.
Husband Don Wherry, a 1925 graduate of Churdan High School, was a nephew of Jefferson’s Percy Gray, a guy credited with the first electric water heater.
Gray’s company, Thermogray, made electric water heaters, and Wherry had gone to work for his uncle before serving as a Seabee during World War II.
After the war, the Wherrys — the family by then included a daughter, Donna Kay — relocated to the West Coast, where Don Wherry embarked on a 21-year career as an electronics engineer at Point Mugu, the place where the Navy developed guided missiles and drones.
Donna Kay would come of age under the California sun.
Married in 1958, her husband, James “Andy” Anderson, was something of a budding poet/songwriter, Kidder wrote, who penned the song we would all come to know as Ritchie Valens’ “Donna.”
As Katherine Wherry explained in her letter, not all of Anderson’s words were used, and he received no money or credit.
Even so, Kidder wrote, “it must have been a thrill for him to see his words become so popular. And it certainly must have been a thrill for his Donna to know that poetic lines of a number one popular song were written originally for her.”
When Katherine Wherry originally wrote to friends back home, Kidder reported, the song was still new, leaving her to doubt it would ever become a hit.
“But on this score,” Kidder wrote, “she was wrong.”
And that was it. For 60 years, nothing more was ever said about “Donna” or Ritchie Valens in a Jefferson newspaper.
At that time, rock ‘n’ roll was still little more than a “craze” — a fad — for kids by kids.
Entry to the final show ever given by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper — in Clear Lake on Feb. 2, 1959, as part of the Winter Dance Party tour — was restricted to ages 12 to 21.
Today, many shows are 21 and up.
And despite being top stars, they were playing National Guard armories and ballrooms in places like Fort Dodge, where the Laramar Ballroom hosted the Winter Dance Party on Jan. 30.
Admission was $1.50.
Surely, if the weather was good, there were Greene County kids in attendance that night.
The tour’s forgotten fourth headliner — and the only one who made it to the Feb. 3 gig in Moorhead, Minn. — was Dion.
At the time, had Kidder gotten the story wrong, it’s possible it wasn’t even worth a retraction.
At just 17, Valens had only released two singles before his death, on one of umpteen small, independent record labels operating throughout the country.
From beginning to end, his career lasted all of eight months.
No one would have predicted that we’d still be talking about him.
But here we are, 60 years later, and I’m legitimately attempting to verify the identity of “Donna,” long understood to be Donna Ludwig, the girl Valens pined for at San Fernando High School.
What gave me pause was an interview that Del-Fi Records owner Bob Keane, who has since passed away, gave to Rolling Stone in 2004, in which he said, “The thing with Ritchie was that he had these little ideas like, ‘I had a girl/Donna was her name.’ That’s all he had. I had to write the song for him.”
Valens had raw talent, Keane seemed to indicate, but he wasn’t yet the consummate artist.
After Valens’ death, Donna Ludwig became an instant celebrity. Even Elvis came calling, but on their one and only date, according to legend, all the King did was ask questions about Ritchie — namely, whether he wrote his own songs and could read music.
“He just had little riffs and stuff,” Keane said in 2004, “he couldn’t put a song together, and he couldn’t write a bridge.”
Now couple that with the fact that the Wherrys were living in Camarillo, Calif., a city in Ventura County situated just 41 miles from Keane’s office in Hollywood.
Just a few more miles and you’ll hit Valens’ native Pacoima.
Keane famously had an open-door policy in which anyone could walk in and audition for him.
Is it possible, I began to wonder, that Donna Kay’s husband, Andy Anderson, once paid a visit to Bob Keane at Del-Fi and tried to sell him on a song or two, only for Keane to turn around and give it to Valens, who was in need of help fleshing out a song he wanted to sing about a girl who also just happened to be named Donna?
Isn’t the music industry — and rock ‘n’ roll in particular — built on stories like that?
I started to salivate at the possibility.
In no way does it diminish Valens’ legacy as the first Latino rock star, if true.
But credit needs to go where credit is due.
I managed to track down Donna Kay herself, now 81 and living in Indio, Calif.
I was just sure she was going to confirm what I was beginning to fantasize — that, yes, Ritchie Valens may have been picturing a certain Donna whenever he sang the song, but the words were originally meant for her.
“He didn’t even know how to buy groceries,” Wherry said of her ex, Andy, “let alone write a song.”
“He didn’t say anything until that song came out,” Wherry said. “Yeah, you’re so talented, you idiot.
“Well,” she continued, “I never told him that. I was a good wife. But I can say what I want to now.”
The marriage only lasted until 1960.
“I was 21 when I married the ass,” Wherry explained matter-of-factly.
Andy, she said, was a sailor who later worked at a gas station.
So how in the world did Donna Kay’s mom, Katherine, come to believe he wrote the song?
“Mom may have written what he professed to do,” Wherry said. “He had no talent. He had no ambition.”
“I’m sorry your story went down the toilet after talking to me,” she added.
Actually, no apology needed — it provided another excuse to write about “the day the music died,” whose trio of fallen stars will live forever if we let them.
Did you witness history in Fort Dodge, Davenport or Clear Lake?
Sevan Garabedian and Jim McCool, producers of the documentary series “The Winter Dance Party Tapes,” are searching for anyone who may have attended any of the three Winter Dance Party tour dates in Iowa (Davenport, Fort Dodge and Clear Lake) before the Feb. 3, 1959, crash that claimed the lives of headliners Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
They also are offering a reward for any photos from the venues.
Garabedian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 514-931-6959.