February 3, 1959 – Jiles Perry “J. P.” Richardson, Jr. aka “the Big Bopper’ was born on October 24, 1930 in Sabine Pass, Texas.
He worked part time at Beaumont, Texas radio station KTRM. He was hired by the station full-time in ’49, so he quit his law studies. Being a disc jockey, singer, and songwriter whose big voice and exuberant personality made him an early rock and roll star.
In March 1955, he was drafted into the United States Army and did his basic training at Fort Ord, California. He spent the rest of his two-year service as a radar instructor at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
Following his discharge as a corporal in March 1957, Richardson returned to KTRM radio, where he held down the “Dishwashers’ Serenade” shift from 11 am to 12:30 pm, Monday through Friday. One of the station’s sponsors wanted Richardson for a new time slot, and suggested an idea for a show. Richardson had seen the college students doing a dance called The Bop, and he decided to call himself “The Big Bopper”. His new radio show ran from 3:00 to 6:00 pm. Richardson soon became the station’s program director.
In May 1957, he broke the record for continuous on-air broadcasting by 8 minutes. From a remote setup in the lobby of the Jefferson Theatre in downtown Beaumont, Richardson performed for a total of five days, two hours, and eight minutes, playing 1,821 records and taking showers during 5-minute newscasts.
Richardson is credited for creating the first music video in 1958, and recorded an early example himself.
Big Bopper, who played guitar, began his musical career as a song writer, George Jones later recorded his “White Lightning”, in 1959 and he also wrote “Running Bear” for his friend Johnny Preston. Big Bopper also sang background on “Running Bear”, but the recording wasn’t released until September 1959, after his death. Within several months it became No.1.
The man who launched Richardson as a recording artist was Harold “Pappy” Daily from Houston. Daily was promotion director for Mercury and Starday Records and signed Richardson to Mercury. Richardson’s first single, “Beggar To A King”, had a country flavor, but failed to gain any chart action. He soon cut “Chantilly Lace” as “The Big Bopper” for Pappy Daily’s D label. Mercury bought the recording and released it in the summer of 1958. It reached #6 on the pop charts and spent 22 weeks in the national Top 40. It also inspired an answer record by Jayne Mansfield titled “That Makes It”. In “Chantilly Lace”, Richardson pretends to have a flirting phone conversation with his girlfriend; the Mansfield record suggests what his girlfriend might have been saying at the other end of the line. Later that year, he scored a second hit, a raucous novelty tune entitled “The Big Bopper’s Wedding”, in which Richardson pretends to be getting cold feet at the altar.
With the success of “Chantilly Lace”, Richardson took time off from KTRM radio and joined Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts for a “Winter Dance Party” tour. On the 11th night of the tour, the musicians played the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly chartered an airplane to fly them to the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota. The musicians had been traveling by bus for over a week, and it had already broken down once. They were tired, they had not been paid yet, and all of their clothes were dirty. With the airplane, Holly could arrive early, do everyone’s laundry, and get some rest.
The 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson had agreed to take the singers to Fargo, North Dakota, where the airport serves the cities of Moorhead and Fargo. A snowstorm was inbound, and the pilot was fatigued from a 17-hour workday, but agreed to fly the trip. The musicians packed up their instruments and finalized the flight arrangements. While Frankie Sardo went to meet the crowd, Buddy Holly went into one of the dressing rooms at the Surf Ballroom where he notified the group that he had chartered a plane to take them to Fargo; however it was a 4-seater so only 3 of them could go. Ritchie flipped a coin with Tommy Allsup and lost. Richardson was suffering from a cold and asked Waylon Jennings to give up his seat on the plane so he could get some rest. Upon hearing about this, Holly jokingly chided Jennings on this decision saying “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up again.” Jennings, in jest, replied back “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” These words would haunt Jennings for the rest of his life.
The three musicians boarded the red and white single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza at the Mason City Airport around 12:30 am on February 3. Snow blew across the runway, but the sky was clear. Peterson received clearance from the control tower, taxied down the runway, and took off. He was never told of two weather advisories that warned of an oncoming blizzard ahead. The plane remained airborne only a few minutes. Peterson likely flew directly into the blizzard, lost visual reference, and accidentally flew down instead of up. The four-passenger plane crashed into a cornfield at over 220 mph, flipping over on itself and tossing the passengers into the air. The bodies of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper were jettisoned from the plane, landed yards from the wreckage, and lay there for ten hours as snowdrifts formed around them. Roger Peterson’s body remained in the wreckage. Because of the weather, no one reached the crash site until later in the morning.
Big Bopper died in that plane crash on 3 February 1959, only 28 years old.