The day the music lived
Winter Dance Party keeps rock history alive in Green Bay
By Janelle Fisher
City Pages Editor
Just days before the fateful plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P “Big Bopper” Richardson Jr., the three musicians played a concert at Green Bay’s Riverside Ballroom — part of their Winter Dance Party tour.
On Feb. 1, 1959, fans of all ages came from far and wide to see the rock’n‘roll icons perform, not knowing what tragedy would strike just two days later.
Mark Steuer, an avid fan of Buddy Holly and Green Bay’s rock’n‘roll history, said that although many people regard Feb. 3, 1959, as the day the music died, he prefers to look at it from a different perspective.
“In Clear Lake, they talk about the day the music died,” he said. “But in Green Bay, we talk about the day the music lived.”
Steuer said that although Holly’s music career was short-lived, passing away at the young age of 22, his influence in the rock’n‘roll genre was long-lasting.
“He only had a career of about a year and a half, but he wrote over 50 songs,” Steuer said. “And I think the reason I like Buddy Holly so much is he played guitar, he wrote music, he produced a lot of his own music. He kind of invented the rock’n‘roll format with guitar, rhythm, bass and drums.”
Holly’s style, Steuer said, influenced many of the musicians and bands who rose to fame after his passing.
“He was the first to do that,” Steuer said. “The Beatles, the Stones, a lot of bands in England idolized Buddy Holly. He had a tremendous influence on the succeeding generation of bands.”
Aside from his influence in the music industry, Steuer said one of the ways Holly’s legacy and music stay alive is through tribute shows, like the new Winter Dance Party tour — a tribute tour started in 1999, 40 years after the original tour.
Steuer said the first Winter Dance Party tour of tribute shows followed the same path and schedule as the original tour, stopping for concerts at all the same venues as close to the same dates as possible.
Although the tour has changed to accommodate different venues since then, Green Bay’s Riverside Ballroom has hosted a concert every year since it started.
Steuer, who has helped organize several of the concerts over the years, said interest in the shows has generally been high, at one point even higher than the Riverside Ballroom could accommodate.
“This show changed the seating arrangements for the Riverside Ballroom,” he said. “Because one year we’d oversold tickets — that was 1,600 people. And the fire department came and the police came and shut it down.”
In the absence of the original artists, Steuer said a mostly consistent cast of other musicians have filled the roles, dressing the part and performing the classic songs concert-goers know and love.
“John Mueller performs as Buddy Holly,” he said. “Ray Anthony performs as Ritchie Valens and he’s phenomenal. The Big Bopper’s son — Big Bopper Jr. — played for many years, but he passed away a number of years ago.”
The Winter Dance Party tribute show keeps the legacy of Buddy Holly and his music alive in Green Bay, but Steuer said he hopes to see even more homage paid to the area’s rock’n‘roll history in the future.
Steuer said a nonprofit he is a part of, Strike a Chord, hopes to open a music hall of fame/museum and make Green Bay a tourist destination for music fans.
“One of the things I want to do in Green Bay is get a music hall of fame in place,” he said. “So that [Green Bay] would be an international tourist destination for the Winter Dance Party from that time period.”
As an avid fan of Buddy Holly and collector of memorabilia from his era of music history, Steuer said he has all sorts of things he would love for the public to see, in addition to exhibits on other periods of music.
“I’ve got memorabilia, pictures, interviews, articles, all sorts of stuff,” he said. “We’re hoping to have free music instrument rooms for kids. We want to get a recording studio, maybe have a room set up for people that want to be music producers. The museum would basically go from the First Nations and their music, into the French fur trader music of the 16-1700s, to British military music, early American occupation and then chronologically go all the way up to modern time.”
While a music hall of fame/museum is just a dream for now, music fans can help keep local music history alive by attending this year’s Winter Dance Party concert, to be held at the Riverside Ballroom next Friday, Feb. 10.
Details and tickets can be found at winterdanceparty.com/schedule.