Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder: The Big Bopper

The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” is one of the most famous and entertaining party time recordings of early rock ‘n’ roll. (That’s Dick Clark introducing him in the above clip, by the way) Though it’s equal parts novelty record and toe-tapping sing-a-long, there is nothing square about “Chantilly Lace,” even to 21st century ears. The fast-patter rhyming chorus and booming voice he employs would garner admiration from many modern purveyors of hip hop.

Though most of us know how his story ends, how many can name the other hit records he helped to create?

The man who became famous as The Big Bopper was born in Texas in 1930 as J. P. Richardson. He started his career as an on-air radio performer, where he took on his nickname as a derivative of the popular dance craze “the bop,” which he had witnessed students doing. He had a habit of making a splash, breaking the record for consecutive time on a continuous radio broadcast at 5 days, 2 hours, and 8 minutes.

Just his second single as a recording artist (and his first as “The Big Bopper”), “Chantilly Lace” caught on with popular music stations and audiences across the country, quickly rising up the charts, peaking at #6 in August of 1958 and staying on the charts for a total of 22 weeks.

But this was not the end of chart success for either The Big Bopper or for J. P. Richardson. Just a few months after “Chantilly Lace” peaked, a second song meant to capitalize on its success was released with his name not only on the label, but in the title.

“Big Bopper’s Wedding” was a pretty obvious cash-in on the popularity of his first single, and its sudden and cynical ending probably alienated some of the teenyboppers who just wanted something fun to dance to. As a result, it spent just one week on the top40 chart, at #38 in December of 1958.

Just a couple of months later, The Big Bopper found himself on a tour of 24 gigs in the American midwest with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Dion & the Belmonts. With Holly in a dispute with his typical backing band “The Crickets,” he had brought along different musicians to support him on stage, including guitarists Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, and drummer Carl Bunch. The tour was named the “Winter Dance Party” and the frigid temperatures had wreaked havoc for the musicians. Their bus had faulty heating, resulting not only in uncomfortable traveling conditions, but in rampant flu and severe frostbite for drummer Bunch. With their hired drummer gone, Holly, Valens, and Dion Dimucci each took turns filling in on the skins. After just two more dates, Holly decided to book a flight on a single-engine plane from Mason City, Iowa to their next gig in upstate Minnesota in hopes of his group catching its breath and getting its laundry done (trust someone who has done his share of live performance, it is no fun going on stage in clothes that haven’t been washed for several days. You sweat hard under those lights.)

The plane had been intended for Holly and his backing band, but through a series of negotiations, the flight’s passenger list had been turned over almost completely. Ritchie Valens (of “La Bamba” fame) had always been afraid of flying, but ended up winning a seat on the plane through a coin flip with Tommy Allsup. Meanwhile, with The Big Bopper ailing from the flu, Waylon Jennings decided to give up his seat to the famous singer and join the rest of the guys on a school bus they had hired to take them to Moorhead, Minnesota.

Buddy Holly decided to give his friend Waylon Jennings a hard time on parting, telling him “I hope your damned bus freezes up” with a smile. Waylon retorted “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” It was a careless remark he would regret for the rest of his life.

Early in the morning of February 3rd, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, and their tired 21 year-old pilot Roger Peterson perished just minutes after takeoff. It is generally assumed that the crash had been, in part, the result of poor visibility because the plane was judged to have flown into the ground at about 170 miles per hour. Richardson’s son (who took to calling himself “Big Bopper Jr”) had his body exhumed and an autopsy done in 2007 which proved that he had died on the impact of the crash.

Just 2 months after The Big Bopper’s death, George Jones hit #1 on the country charts with a recording credited as written by J.P. Richardson. The song had been recorded only several days after the fateful plane accident which had killed its writer and Jones’s friend. As a result, Jones arrived drunk to the recording session, and it took about 80 attempts for him to complete his vocals, leaving the session bassist with terribly blistered fingers.

Four months later, Johnny Preston hit #1 on the pop charts for 3 weeks with a song written by The Big Bopper. It was another novelty record based on a Romeo & Juliet relationship between two American Indians with a tragic but romantic ending. The song had been recorded in 1958, with The Big Bopper singing backup, but it was not released until six months after his death.

Probably most famously, singer-songwriter Don McLean released his most recognizable song, “American Pie” in 1970, which was a ballad inspired by the deaths of Holly, Valens, and Richardson. The song gave the event the title “The Day the Music Died,” and it has since been known by this name. It was #1 on the pop music charts for a full month and has become one of the most iconic and loved songs of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

Okay, so that last one didn’t have a credit to The Big Bopper at all, but how could I possibly leave it out of this discussion? J.P. Richardson AKA The Big Bopper has a big place in the history of pop music, and it involves more than his one big hit or the manner of his death.

More Nope, Not a One Hit Wonder

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Posted on March 23, 2014, in Music, Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Wow. This is powerful and I didn’t think it was in your lineup of pop culture. Interesting that among the tragic storylines you highlight the Big Bopper… it all breaks my heart, that I maintain doesn’t exist, a little more… because maybe the tragedies of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens have received more attention. Regardless, all of their true passions and true love ways, do live for eternity…


    • We do tend to focus more on late 70s to present around here, probably because those are the years we can actually remember. The 80s and 90s appear to be our wheelhouse when you look at what gets clicked on.
      But in order to really understand those years, I contend that there has to be a small lifeline back at least as far as the depression.
      This series will most definitely have a huge amount of entries from those decades of our young adulthood, but there are some that stood out for me when I considered them that predate my birth, but are very meaningful nonetheless.


      • Speaking only for myself, I remember the 80s and 90s pretty clearly. The 70s are hazy since I was born in 1970. So, that’s a factor. Also, finding pictures and clips or even stories is easier for more recent decades. The further you go back, the harder it is to find documentation of the behind-the-scenes stuff. Finally, as Daffy pointed out, the 80’s/90’s stuff tends to be the most popular. I believe in giving readers what they want. And they seem to want more from that time frame.


  2. Yep. Please understand, there is no criticism there, of what you guys choose to include, or not include. Just every once in a while something catches my attention, that I didn’t expect to be there, and really with the range of good content you have, there is MUCH to capture different readers’ attention. This time, it not only caught my attention, I was motivated to answer with a Buddy Holly song. You’ve never seen me do that!


    • and I loved it!
      I’ve got a lot more of these planned and some of them will reach back past what we typically cover.
      It’s one of the great things about having no financial stake in how the site does. I’m free to cover what my heart tells me to. 🙂


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