We look back at The Big Bopper’s misunderstood and underappreciated musical legacy.
Jiles Perry “Jape” Richardson Jr. (1930 – 1959) is best known for two things: his timeless rock song “Chantilly Lace” and his untimely death. Richardson, aka The Big Bopper, died alongside Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly in a Feb. 3, 1959 plane crash that became known as “The Day the Music Died.” Today he’s remembered as a one-hit wonder, but The Big Bopper was in fact a visionary and gifted songwriter. Here’s a look at The Big Bopper’s misunderstood and underappreciated musical legacy.
Taught to play the guitar and piano by his mother (to the dismay of his oilfield worker father), many of Jape’s early songs reflect the loss of his high-school love, whose parents warned her away from him (even though he was planning to study pre-law at the local university). Fearful of his musical aspirations, they steered her into the arms of a local jewelry store assistant manager, whose prospects appeared to be brighter.
His radio career began soon after Jape saw local radio station KTRM’s owner speak at Lamar College. Career underway, in 1955 he married Adrianne Joy Fryou, nicknamed “Teatsy” because her father said she was no bigger than a tse-tse fly. He credited her with mending his heart, and her influence on him can be heard in Jape’s plaintive country western waltz “Beggar to a King.”
Jape kept his finger on the pulse of the music industry during his 10 years at KTRM, where he eventually created The Big Bopper to distinguish his new rock ’n’ roll persona from all the previous incarnations he’d taken on as a radio announcer (the term “disc jockey” had yet to come into fashion).
A promotion director at Mercury Records gave Jape a chance to record his own music. While the first single flopped, the second (“Chantilly Lace”) would spend more than five months in the Top 40.
Its success propelled him into a performing career, where he hoped to earn enough money to buy a radio station in Colorado in order to support his young family, which now included a daughter, Debbie. Teatsy, who hated Jape being on the road, particularly disliked him going off on the Winter Dance Party Tour in 1959 — she was six months pregnant when she received word of his death.
Devastated by the loss of the husband she adored, the young mother blamed the music industry and avoided any connection with it during the decades after his death. A widow’s heartbreak meant that a huge talent’s musical legacy languished.
Today, only 19 of The Big Bopper’s recordings survive. Although “Chantilly Lace” went gold during his lifetime, Jape had less than $100 in his bank account when he died at age 28 (and never even had a chance to pick up his gold record plaque). The Big Bopper would have three posthumous No. 1 hits, two more than Buddy Holly and three more than Richie Valens during their lifetimes.
Jape’s music has also proven fruitful for other performers. George Jones, an early cohort at KTRM, jumpstarted his own career with Richardson’s song “White Lightnin’” and took it all the way to No. 1. “Running Bear,” penned for Johnny Preston with sound effects provided by Jones and Bopper, topped the charts as well and remains a campfire favorite (just ask any Girl Scout). And although his cover version did not have the longevity of the original, Jerry Lee Lewis’ take on “Chantilly Lace” went to No. 1 more than a decade after Jape’s death. Artists as diverse as Eddie Cochran, Glen Campbell, and The Fall have covered The Big Bopper’s tunes, and he’s a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
In an interview conducted shortly before the crash, The Big Bopper talked about a big change he foresaw in the music business — songs being recorded visually. This wasn’t just idle talk: Jape actually recorded three music videos before his death.
There have been big screen and stage adaptations of the lives of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. But even though he died with them in that frozen Iowa cornfield 50 years ago, Jape hasn’t been given his due — a slight his son hopes will be rectified with planned film and stage projects.
Born three months after The Big Bopper’s death, Jay Perry Richardson (aka “Little Bopper” or “Bopper Jr.”) is his doppelganger, even though he’s now more than 20 years older than his father was when he died. The Bopper’s heart and spirit live on in his son, who performs his father’s songs on the New Winter Dance Party tour.
At the age of 18, before “The Buddy Holly Story” or “La Bamba” debuted, Bopper Jr. phoned Waylon Jennings, then at the height of his popularity, wanting to know more about his father. On that fateful night in 1959, Jennings — a bass player and protégé of Buddy Holly — had given up his seat on the plane to Jape, who was sick and needed to squeeze in a doctor’s visit before the next performance. Jennings helped give the young man a sense of his father’s place in the rock pantheon. Nothing can sum up the loss of this husband, father, son, songwriter, singer, and fan favorite better than the words Jay Perry Richardson wrote shortly after his conversation with Jennings:
“Thru the years past I’ve learned to love a man I’ll never know or see. I just wish I had something more than these second-hand Big Bopper memories. There’s not a night that passes that he doesn’t walk through my dreams and have a talk with me. I just wish I had something more than these second-hand Big Bopper memories. Then my heart could be at rest and my ole mind set free. I just wish I had something more than these second-hand Big Bopper memories.”
Attorney, author, and screenwriter Johnette Duff is currently working with The Big Bopper’s son to develop a film biopic, “The Day the Music Died,” and a stage show, “Chantilly Lace,” to celebrate his famous father’s life and musical legacy. For more information, see www.texasscreenwriter.com, www.bigboppermovie.com, and www.chantillylacethemusical.com. Originally published January 2009.