Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Link Wray and the Dance Parties of 1958 and 1959
Deejay Alan Freed, the godfather of rock ’n’ roll, is also credited with the invention of rock ‘n roll “package” tours. Those shows, which toured state-to-state, city-to-city, featured a rotating cast of musical stars of the moment who could be shuffled in-and-out of the tour depending on who was charting.
In March 1952, Freed’s “Moondog Coronation Ball” showcased a now largely unremembered line-up of rock and rhythm-and-blues artists, including Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams on his honking sax, The Dominoes, Danny Cobb, Varetta Dillard, and Tiny Grimes’ Rockin’ Highlanders, an African American group whose schtick was performing in kilts.
Billed as “the most terrible ball of them all,” the concert lived up to its slogan. According to the next day’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, an estimated 6,000 psyched-up boppers tried to crowd into the tiny Cleveland Arena all at once. “About 9:30 they stormed the Arena, knocking down four panel doors, brushing police away and storming inside,” reported the Plain Dealer. “Some two hours and 30 policemen later, Captain Zimmerman called it a night.”
Even though the show was supposed to go for another two hours and climax with a “coronation” of the two most popular teenagers at the Ball, the fed-up Zimmerman ordered the crowd to leave. Police stood by as the unhappy teens filed out.
It’s weird how often Dylan’s birth name keeps appearing in the most unlikely places — the tutor of Robert Johnson who was rumored to have learned guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight; a Hell’s Angel who died in a motorcycle accident three weeks before the name “Bob Dylan” would make its first appearance in The New York Times; now a police captain who shut down the first rock ‘n roll concert.
It almost makes you think something is going on.
By 1957, promoter Irvin Feld’s The Biggest Show of Stars was fielding a package of acts touring 28 states and five Canadian provinces. The musical roster included Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, The Drifters, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Laverne Baker, the Everly Brothers, Clyde McPhatter, and The Spaniels.
The last were a a doo-wop group best-known for their 1954 hit, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.” By 1957 The Spaniels best days were mostly over, as you could tell from their name being buried in the left margin of the Biggest Show of Stars promo poster. But the group — in fact, two groups both billing themselves as The Spaniels — would keep working into the 1990s.
Bob Dylan would feature The Spaniels version of the Arlen/Koehler torch song “Stormy Weather” on the very first episode of his “Theme Time Radio Hour” show, noting after spinning the 1958 Vee-Jay disc that:
“The Spaniels, with their lead singer Pookie Hudson, were on that ill-fated tour with Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Link Wray, and a bunch of others… which means probably I saw them. Winter Dance Party, February, 1959. The day the music supposedly died.”
While Bob Dylan might have been at the Winter Dance Party in the Duluth Armory in January 1959, as he’s stated on several occasions, he wouldn’t have seen either The Spaniels or Link Wray during that show. For reasons known only to the prankster, The Spaniels’ Wikipedia entry is regularly edited to include the fiction that the group was part of the 1959 Winter Dance Party tour. That’s probably where the TTRH team, which relied heavily on the internet to mine bits for Bob Dylan’s scripted commentary, stumbled across the factoid. Dylan carefully notes that he “probably” saw the group, maybe ad-libbing off-script while wondering why he didn’t remember seeing them.
Dylan wouldn’t have seen The Spaniels or Link Wray earlier in The Biggest Show of Stars 1957 edition either. While The Spaniels were on the same bill with the Crickets for The Biggest Show of Stars, there’s no record of the tour ever entering Minnesota, and in 1957 Link Wray was still a year away from his first hit, “Rumble.”
Dylan first publicly recounts seeing Buddy Holly — as well as Link Wray — in Robert Shelton’s 1986 biography, “No Direction Home.”
Imagine the excitement when Holly and musician Link Wray appeared at the Duluth Armory. (Dylan visited Wray in 1975, and told him: “Link, I was sitting in the front row when you and Buddy Holly were at Duluth, and you’re as great now as you were then.”)… Only three days after Dylan had seen him, Buddy Holly was dead….
The story has become embedded in Dylan legend, with countless other biographies and articles claiming that Dylan saw Link Wray on Buddy Holly’s last tour — even though five minutes of research on the most well-documented package tour in rock ‘n roll history would show that he didn’t.
A Washington Post article has it that the concert Dylan conflated with the Winter Dance Party was an unnamed 1958 package tour where Bobby Zimmerman had front-row seats to see Wray in Duluth along with Duane Eddy, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. There’s no record of such a tour, but The Spring Dance Party Tour of 1959 did showcase Frankie Avalon and Duane Eddy, as well as having Link Wray on the bill, and toured the Midwest from March through May 1959.
Again, there’s no record of The Spring Dance Party of 1959 visiting Duluth. But since its known itinerary closely parallels that of the earlier Winter tour, with one artist noting that it was “really a continuation of the tour Buddy Holly had been on,” it’s probably a safe bet to make that The Spring Dance Party of 1959 played in Minnesota.
There’s also another possibility. Although Dylan would say in his Nobel Prize lecture that he saw Holly “but once,” maybe that “once” was a different date six months before the Winter Dance Party — July 11 1958, during the Duluth stop of the Midwest Summer Dance Party tour.
The Summer Dance Parties of 1958
It was July 4, 1958 when Buddy Holly and The Crickets opened their Summer Dance Party tour in Angola, Indiana with Holly arriving at the gig in his brand new Lincoln Continental. They played three shows at the Buck Lake Ranch (“the Nashville of the North!”) with Frankie Avalon, who would headline the East Coast edition of the Summer Dance Party just two weeks later.
The nine-day Midwest edition of the Summer Dance Party usually just featured Buddy Holly and The Crickets as the headliners accompanied by Tommy Allsup and his dance band and whatever popular local acts were available that day.
There’s no evidence that Link Wray was on the bill for any of the shows — including the Crickets July 11th show in Duluth. But it’s an interesting coincidence that Link Wray and His Ray Men were definitely on the bill for the East Coast edition of the 1958 Summer Dance Party, which kicked off at Sleepy Hollow Ranch in Pennsylvania the day the Midwest Summer Dance Party ended in Wisconsin on July 13 1958.
From Minnesota to Pennsylvania would have been around a 17-hour straight shot drive on I-80, a brand-new interstate in 1958. It’s an even shorter trip from Wisconsin. Maybe Wray and his Ray Men, riding high on “Rumble,” which was charting hot in the summer of ‘58, and which Bob Dylan would later call, “the best instrumental ever,” were recruited to fill out the bill on some of the Midwest gigs, and then hustled off to Pennsylvania for the East Coast Summer Dance Party tour.
It’s possible, but as I said, there’s no evidence. Documentation on the web about the 1958 Midwest Summer Dance Party is pretty much subsumed by its ill-fated Winter cousin. There’s no posters of the tour I can locate, and only one article with a mention of the 1958 Duluth show, with nothing said about Link Wray as part of the bill.
But it’s nice to think that Bob Dylan actually did see Link Wray and Buddy Holly together one summer night in Duluth in 19 and 58.
Interlude: The Story of “Rumble”
If Bobby Zimmerman did see Link Wray play in 1958, he would have heard the mega-hit of the summer, “Rumble.”
There seems to be a million different stories about the birth of the instrumental, most told by Link Wray himself. The most re-told is about a fight breaking out at a show in Virginia in 1957 and Link providing a soundtrack for the melee as fists, bottles, and furniture flew.
Another version has the band, still in Virginia, but now in early 1958, and they’re working up a variation of The Diamonds’ “The Stroll” live, which eventually evolved into what would become “Rumble.” The impromptu instrumental was a hit with the audience, which demanded four encores before letting the Ray Men leave the stage.
Link’s manager — Milt Grant, who typical of the times, would take co-writing credit for “Rumble” — had him cut a demo of the instrumental, titled by the band as “Oddball,” and shopped it to Cadence Records. According to legend the label’s execs hated the music, but one had a daughter who had just seen West Side Story, loved the 45’s sound and came up with a much better name, “Rumble,” as homage to the Sharks and Jets’ choreographed gang fight. Another story has Phil Everly hearing the instrumental before its release and insisting on “Rumble” as the title.
Whoever named it, “Rumble,” released at the end of March 1958, soon became the first and only instrumental banned from U.S. radio, thanks to its name and power chords that did sound like the soundtrack for a juvie street fight. Even with the ban, or maybe because of it, “Rumble” still succeeded in selling over a million copies and charted to #16.
Wray and His Ray Men would have another hit with another instrumental, “Raw-Hide,” and later the “Rumble”-esque “Jack the Ripper,” but “Rumble” was one-of-a-kind, and defined Link Wray’s career for the rest of his life.
In 1965 Wray would cut what one biographer called “a terrifically strange cover” of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” for Swan Records. He died of heart failure at his home in Copenhagen, on November 5, 2005 at the age of 76. Later that November, Bob Dylan would open four concerts in London with “Rumble.”
“Summer’s almost gone, and winter’s coming on” ~ from “Gotta Travel On,” Buddy Holly’s opening song for the Winter Dance Party Tour
“And I just wanted to say, that one time when I was about 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth, the National Guard Armory, and I was three feet away from him, and he looked at me. And I just have some kind of feeling, that he was, I don’t know how or why, but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.” ~ Bob Dylan accepting a Grammy Award for “Time Out of Mind,” 1998
“He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.” ~Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize Lecture
By the time the show started a little after 8 pm, it was 10 below outdoors, just another cold January night in Duluth and feeling even colder — a windchill of minus 44 — from the wind coming off Lake Superior.
It wasn’t much warmer inside the Armory’s Drill Hall, a 190' by 93' space where the concerts were always held. Most of the tightly-packed crowd of 2,000-odd teens kept their coats on. There wasn’t any seating. There weren’t any seats. So the teen boppers either stood and danced the full two hours of the show or crowded towards the stage.
The show was MC’d by the show’s promoter, Lew Latto, a precocious 19-year-old deejay who had begun his career in radio at age 14. Latto first brought out Frankie Sardo, who performed his one hit, “Fake Out,” a song the tour posters consistently mislabeled as “Take Out.”
After Dion and the Belmonts finished their set with “I Wonder Why,” the Big Bopper took the stage, sporting a Stetson and a three-quarter leopard-skin coat that he referred to as “Melvin.” The song that the kids had come to see J. P. Richardson perform was “Chantilly Lace,” and being no fool the Bopper opened with it, did two other forgettable numbers, and said good night.
While Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the show’s headliners, Ritchie Valens was a close second in popularity among the teen set, propelled by his hits “Come On Let’s Go” “La Bamba” and its B-side, “Donna.” Dressed in a blue satin shirt, black bolero and vaquero pants, Valens rocked the Hall, grinning and shaking hands with Holly as the Crickets came on.
Buddy opened the show with Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On” alone on guitar and followed it up with “Salty Dog Rag,” performed as a duet with bassist Waylon Jennings.
The Crickets were wearing black jackets, gray slacks and ascots. To provide a contrast against the rest of the group, Holly wore a lighter jacket.
The band blasted through their hits, including “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day,” and “It’s So Easy,” as well as a couple of Sonny West covers, “Oh Boy,” and “Rave On.”
By then it was almost 10, and, as they did to close almost every show on the Winter Dance Party tour, the Crickets roared into “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” bringing all the other acts on-stage for an encore of “La Bamba” and finishing with a group performance of “Great Balls of Fire.”
“See you in the Spring,” Holly called out. And then it was over. Seventeen-year-old Bobby Zimmerman walked back to his ride, his best friend’s metallic-blue 1958 Buick.
“Louie,” Bobby Zimmerman said. “Buddy Holly looked right at me.”
“I only know what I saw,” Louie Kemp would write some 60 years later. “And it looked a lot like a torch being passed.”
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