The Day the Music Died: Part 2 – The Big Bopper

02 Feb
J.P. Richardson

J.P. Richardson

“Hellllllooooo, Baaaabbbeeee!………………….”

Consider J.P. Richardson, the DJ/Singer/Songwriter from Beaumont, TX the man who brought you such songs as Luckenbach, TX,  Amanda, Mamma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys and Suspicious Minds.  You can thank The Big Bopper for the legendary Outlaws album. 

On a frigid night in February, J.P. Richardson — The Big Bopper — simply couldn’t face another night on the cold, drafty bus that served as transportation for the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour.  Suffering with the flu, Richardson was desperate to avoid another long ride in freezing tempatures, sleeping upright on hard seats.  When he learned that Buddy Holly was chartering a small plane to get to the next stop for him and his band, The Crickets, he approached the bass player and asked if he would mind giving up his seat so that The Bopper could get some rest and try to recover.  The young, affable 22 year old Waylon Jennings agreed.

Buddy Holly ribbed his bandmate about giving up the seat.  “I hope your ole’ bus freezes up again”.  Jennings sarcastically snapped back, “Well, I hope your damn plane crashes.”  Jenning was riddled with guilt for trading places with The Big Bopper and was very reluctant to ever discuss his role in “the day the music died”.

1958, The Big Bopper, traveled extensively on tour, promoting his music.  His new single, Chantilly Lace, had recently caught on when fate coupled him with new sensation, Ritchie Valens; rock and roll stalwart, Buddy Holly; and mega-popular, Dion & The Belmonts for the Winter Dance Party tour in early 1959.

  Chantilly Lace, The Big Bopper

The Big Bopper was big and bold.  After an army stint, J.P. Richardson returned to his hometown of Beaumont, TX and eventually ended up as a DJ at KRTM.  In 1957, he broke the record for continuous on-air broadcasting — 5 days, 2 hours, and 8 minutes.  Shortly thereafter, he adopted the name The Big Bopper, originated from watching college students in Beaumont doing the dance, The Bop.  His first foray into performing and recording was the old-time Country Beggar to a King, but it struggled to gain any traction on the charts:

  Beggar to a King, The Big Bopper

He quickly recovered with Chantilly Lace and took the show on the road to capitalize.  His goal was to make as much money as he could to build a recording studio in Beaumont where he could make music and produce other acts.  He was also working on a new concept that he called a “music video”.  His live shows were part skit, part song and he was wildly popular.

Back at home in Texas, his wife was pregnant with their second child, a son who would be born two months after his death.  J.P. Richardson, Jr. now performs as his father and oddly, “met” his father for the first time in 2007 when he had The Big Bopper’s body exhumed to rule out foul play.  (It was.)

Perhaps The Big Bopper’s most lasting legacy is the three songs he wrote that were #1 hits for other artists.  White Lightnin’ was recorded by George Jones in 1959 and ended up at the top of the Country charts. 

  White Lightnin’, George Jones

Richardson not only wrote Running Bear, but provided back up vocals on the Johnny Preston hit that was released in September 1959.  It hit #1 on the Country charts shortly thereafter.

  Running Bear, Johnny Preston

Finally, Jerry Lee Lewis re-leased Chantilly Lace, scoring a #1 Country hit in 1972.

  Chantilly Lace, “The Killah”

Much like Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson was an “evoluntionary”.  He was perfecting a successful songwriting formula, experimenting with new facets of music via film performances, and was aspiring to produce other acts.  At 28, The Big Bopper was pushing the “norms” of the music business and had nowhere to go but up.  

The plane crash threw his body 40 ft. from the wreckage and he suffered severe trauma, dying on impact.


6 responses to “The Day the Music Died: Part 2 – The Big Bopper

  1. shrewspeaks

    February 2, 2009 at 6:50 am

    I never knew the Big Bopper wrote Running Bear. I love that song…so beautifully 50’s. I have made it my business through the years to find covers of this song…

    Tom Jones
    The Guess Who
    and no one can deny the brilliance of The Stiff Little Fingers version

  2. shrewspeaks

    February 2, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Oh man…I commented on Running Bear and lost the whole thing.

    Running Bear has been one of those songs that just follows me. I found the Johnny Preston version while in High School on a CBS 101.1 compilation album. It was so quirky, so quitessential 50’s that I just had to love it.

    A few years later, a colllege roommate was playing a live tap of Stiff Little Fingers. Now, I just am not a SLF and the whole process was just pitiful until I heard it…Umga chuka, Umga chuka….I yelled Omg god Running Bear and scared my room mate half to death as I pogo’d screaming the lyrics at the top of my lungs.

    I have since learned that the Guess Who also covered Running Bear with a very traditional take on their 1972 album Rockin’.

  3. Sally

    February 2, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Well this was an absolute education for me. I knew nothing about Richardson with the exception of Chantilly Lace and the fact that he was on the plane with Valens and Holly. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what other songs he had written. At first I had no memory that Waylon Jennings should have been on the plane, but as I have sat and thought about it I think I must have known about it once upon a time and had just as quickly forgotten it. Another documented case of my contracting CRS (as many overly scheduled mothers can claim!) 🙂
    This was totally fascinating for me to read. Thanks Music Maven!

  4. huckleberryfriend

    February 2, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Never was a fan of the Big Bopper. I remember going to a dive in Lafayette in the mid 60’s, and Running Bear was on the Marque. I guess that means I saw Johnny Preston. No big deal because I thought Running Bear was a silly song.

    Didn’t know that he had written those great songs on the Outlaws album.

  5. colette

    February 5, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Lots of good research and thoughtful stuff in these sets, MM!

    I adore Buddy Holly. I’m too young (thank God) to have gotten into his music as a kid, but it is so beautiful to me now. What an innovator! Hard to imagine the more lyrical side of rock’n roll without him.

    My favorite cut here tho is Jerry Lee Lewis — the Killa! guy is loony tunes, but what a brilliant performer.

    Also have to share this! Incredible vintage film clip of Elvis in Lubbock, Texas backstage with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and yes Buddy Holly. Might be the first film ever taken of the adult Elvis, and honey he is a sight for sore eyes:

  6. Theo

    December 10, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Great site. Could finally listen to some of the songs I was looking for. Maybe also a Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly part?


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