by Robert Seoane



“I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.” American Pie (1971) – Don McLean

Buddy was tired of taking the tour bus every single night since the Winter Tour Dance Party tour began on January 23rd, 1959. He had been on the road for two weeks of the three week trek through the Midwest and he and his Crickets, Tommy Allsup (guitar) and Waylon Jennings (bass) had been wearing the same clothes for a week. Their schedule included long bus trips where they slept on the luggage racks. To add more misery to a miserable set-up, their tour bus had already broken down more than once in the middle of nowhere and in the dead of winter. Members of the crew were catching each other’s flus and Cricket drummer Carl Bunch had been hospitalized with frostbitten feet. Having had no time or place to do their laundry in a week, Holly had had enough and decided to charter a plane to his next destination so he can have time to take care of his personal issues and get some much needed comfortable sleep.



On February 2nd, they played in the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Manager of the ballroom Carroll Anderson called Jerry Dwyer’s Flight Service for Buddy that evening and chartered a three-passenger Beech Bonanza N 3794N plane to share with his remaining two Crickets, Waylon and Tommy, to take them to their next destination, Moorhead, Minnesota. Along with headliners Buddy Holly & The Crickets on the tour, there was seventeen year old Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, otherwise known as The Big Bopper, and Dion & The Belmonts. There is a dispute as to whether Dion was supposed to have been on that plane instead of Tommy Allsup, but as some witnesses remember it, both Tommy and Waylon were the ones who gave up their seats to Ritchie and The Big Bopper.

It seems that all four of them except for Dion were equally interested to get to their destination fast. Dion felt the plane fare was too expensive to merit the trip. As legend has it, Crickets manager Bob Hale was called upon to flip one of the ill-fated coins for Tommy and Ritchie. Ritchie called “heads” and won the toss. J.P. won his coin toss with Waylon.

Many, including Waylon Jennings himself, have confirmed that he did indeed utter a prophetic but bad joke to Buddy Holly. When Buddy found out that Waylon had given his seat on the plane to Richardson,. He jokingly tells Waylon “I hope your ol’ bus freezes up!”. Waylon jocularly responded “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes!” Jennings has been quoted as never having forgotten what he had said and living with the guilt of his words resting heavily on his conscience the rest of his life.

“Man, there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t wish I could take back that comment. The next day when I got the news at Fargo, I went nuts. I cried. I yelled. And I began to drink. Drugs helped along the way. Of course, I realized years later I was killing myself, so I quit. I don’t know, maybe deep inside I was so damned guilty, I was trying to kill myself.” Reportedly what Waylon Jennings said to Tommy Allsup, according to Allsup.



Buddy had moved into the Brevoort Apartments at 111 Fifth Avenue in New York City, just north of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village with his bride of just a few months, Maria Elena. He had just undergone the break-up from his original Crickets’ band members, although he felt they would get back together after all the royalty issues are settled among them. Holly was looking forward to a productive 1959. He had just set up a recording and publishing company called Prism, in which he planned to discover and produce new talent. Along with his steady stream of his own songwriting, he planned to develop new artists from his home state in West Texas where he grew up. Currently based in New York, his future plans had him opening a recording studio and office complexes in his hometown of Lubbock.

Holly had purchased an Ampex tape recorder and microphone from Norman Petty towards the end of 1958 and he spent his time writing and recording new songs before his tour. From December 1958 through January 1959, Holly recorded demos of his songs and covers of other songs, specifically Mickey & Silvia’s “Love Is Strange”, Little Richard’s “Slippin’ & Slidin’” and The Coasters’ “Smokey Joe’s Café” as well as six of his own compositions. Two of his own compositions stand out as his last classics.


Ever since Buddy had written “Peggy Sue” in 1957, a number of artists like Bobby Darin with “Splish Splash” and Frankie Avalon in his “DeDe Dinah”, adopted the young character Holly had created in song and included her in their own tunes, giving “Peggy Sue” legitimacy among the icons of the Fifties. Buddy must have figured by then that if anyone can write another song about Peggy Sue, he could, so he wrote one of the first sequels in Rock ‘n’ Roll music.

“You recall a girl that’s been in nearly every song, this is what I heard, of course the story could be wrong, she’s the one, I’ve been told, now she’s wearing a band of gold, Peggy Sue got married not long ago.” Peggy Sue Got Married – Buddy Holly

Maybe Holly thought that if he married her off, nobody would include her in their songs again. For the most part, he was right.

One other song he recorded in his apartment that was posthumously released as the B-Side to “Peggy Sue Got Married” is “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’”. All six of the songs recorded in his apartment were handed over to Jerry Hansen after Holly’s death. Hansen hired additional musicians and the Ray Charles Singers as backup vocalists to augment the recordings. In “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’”, Hansen added the guitar licks echoing each word of the title after Holly sings it. Besides the original, bare bones version of this song, there exists another version produced in 1964 by Norman Petty along with the other six songs. For unexplained reasons, even though these two songs were released as a single, neither of them entered the Billboard Pop or Country charts.



Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson and Richard Valenzuela arrived at the Mason City Municipal Airport in Mason City, Iowa during the first hour of the new day on February 3, 1959. They were driven there by Surf Ballroom manager Caroll Anderson from Clear Lake where they had played earlier that evening. The three musicians were looking forward to getting to Fargo, North Dakota, the closest airport to their next gig in Moorehead, Minnesota, with enough time to take care of their personal hygiene and get some rest.

Twenty-one year old Roger Peterson was the contracted pilot through Dwyer Flying Service to fly the musicians to Fargo. Before the three had arrived, Peterson had gone to the Air Traffic Communications Station (ATCS) with Hubert Dwyer, owner of the flight service and a pilot himself, to view the current weather through the path Peterson would fly. The weather report indicated a ceiling of up to 5000 feet or better and visibilty of up to 10 miles. Knowing that weather patterns can change quickly, Peterson would contact ATCS in thirty minute intervals to inquire about the weather as he prepared for his flight. The next time he checked, at midnight, the ceiling had dropped to 4500 feet but visibility was still greater than 10 miles. Light snow had begun to fall in Minneapolis.

The aircraft Peterson was flying that morning was a Beech Bonanza, model 35, S/N-1019. This particular Bonanza aircraft contained a Sperry 53 Attitude Gyro, a device that offered a pictorial display of an artificial horizon. Peterson however, had learned to fly in aircraft carrying a more conventional type of artificial horizon that differed greatly in use from the Sperry Gyro in the Bonanza. Peterson also was certificated to fly during clear weather only, when he can clearly see the horizon without obstruction by cloudy or other inclement weather because he was not trained to read the plane’s instrument panel during conditions of zero visibility. Zero visibilty can confuse the untrained pilot as to which way is up or down because there is no visible horizon to use as reference. It can cause spatial disorientation which can lead to vertigo. Once the pilot attempts to correct the craft, trying to judge the horizon for themselves, the craft can stall and go into a tailspin. John Kennedy Jr. died similarly in 1998. He was also certified to only fly in clear weather.

Peterson radioed ATCS again to inquire about the current weather as he was taxiing the plane onto the end of Runway 17 for take-off. He was informed that the ceiling had lowered to 3000 feet and visibilty had gone from ten to six miles. At no time however, was he ever informed of two important flash warnings that had come up when he was at the ATCS office an hour before. The responsibility of the ATCS communicators is to give pilot all available weather information once they receive it themselves, but not to advise. Despite Pilot Peterson’s careful persistence in his need to be informed of weather conditions, none of the communicators recalled having given Peterson this important information. Dwyer, who had accompanied Peterson confirmed that they were never given information indicating instrument flying weather would be encountered en route. The first flash warning Peterson was not aware of was reporting an enormous weather system with a 100 mile wide band of snow rapidly entering Minnesota and South Dakota, limiting visibilty to below two miles. The second unread warning indicated ceilings below 1000 feet over the eastern half of Kansas. Not having received this vital information led Pilot Peterson to underestimate the adverse weather conditions and made the decision to proceed with the flight.

The plane took off at 12:55AM. It made a 180 degree turn to the left and rose to 800 feet, heading in a northwesterly direction. Five minutes later and five miles away from the airport. Hubert Dwyer, owner of the the plane Peterson was flying, witnessed the taillights of the plane begin to descend and then disappear. Pilot Peterson had not radioed his flight plan as he had said he would and there was no response when Dwyer attempted to radio the plane. He decided to board his Cessna once the day dawned and weather improved to search the area where he saw the plane descend.

Peterson had piloted the Beech Bonanza into an area of complete darkness due to an absence of ground lights over the long swath of empty land under them and with no visible horizon. The following scenario was pieced together by members of the Civil Aeronautics Board who investigated the accident. High wind gusts and sudden snow must have taken Peterson by surprise as the small plane was getting buffeted back and forth. The instrument indicators fluctuate wildly due to turbulence, making it impossible to maintain control of the plane by trying to make sense of them, so Peterson attempted to read the Sperry Attitude Gyro and due to his unfamiliarity with it, caused the plane to fly in the opposite direction he intended. His spatial disorientation contributed in causing him to descend when he thought he was flying the plane upwards.

An examination of the wreckage allowed authorities to come to the following conclusion: Peterson was flying at a high rate of speed when he went into a steep turn with the nose of the craft in a low attitude. Moments later, the right wing tip of the craft clipped the ground, causing the plane to tumble and demolish. All three passengers were hurled from the plane. Holly, Richardson, Valens and Peterson, who was trapped inside the cockpit, were all killed instantly. All three passengers suffered similar trauma that caused their death. They all suffered multiple fractures in their limbs and gross trauma to the brain. According to Ritchie Valens’ death certificate, his head became “badly crushed and deformed” due to the crash. Jiles P. Richardson’s certificate described the Big Bopper’s head “badly mangled and misshapen”. Buddy Holly ‘s death certificate was equally graphic in its description of his violent death.

“The skull was split medially in the forehead and this extended into the vertex region. Approximately half the brain tissue was absent. There was bleeding from both ears, and the face showed multiple lacerations. The consistency of the chest was soft due to extensive crushing injury to the bony structure. The left forearm was fractured 1/3 the way up from the wrist and the right elbow was fractured. Both thighs and legs showed multiple factures. There was a small laceration of the scrotum.” – Buddy Holly’s death certificate

Dwyer discovered the wreckage of the Bonanza after he took his Cessna 180 out once the sun rose on February 3rd, 1959. He spotted the demolished aircraft six miles northwest of the originating airport in a cornfield. He immediately contacted authorities. Deputy Bill McGill was dispatched to the site.

“Parts were scattered over a distance of 540 feet, at the end of which the main wreckage was found lying against a barbed wire fence. The three passengers were thrown clear of the wreckage, the pilot was found in the cockpit. The two front seat safety belts and the middle ones of the rear seat were torn free from their attach points.” -The Civil Aeronautics Board’s accident report of the event.

Carroll Anderson was informed of what had happened and immediately went to the scene where he identified the bodies. Ritchie Valens was still in his dark overcoat and suit, Richardson was wearing the same red checked flannel shirt and light blue cotton pants that Anderson had last seen him in. Buddy Holly was still wearing his yellow jacket but it was torn completely up the back seam. Their bodies were mangled and buried in the snow, where they had been there for eight hours.

February 3, 1959 is memorialized as “The Day The Music Died” due to a song called “American Pie”, written by Don McLean and released in late 1971. The song is an eight minute depiction of the history of rock ‘n’ roll from the day Buddy, J.P. and Ritchie died to then present day. The song will forever be identified with the first rock ‘n’ roll casualty.

Many more tragedies will follow over the years, but this first initial, tragic loss was a shock to the happy, innocent life of the insulated American teenager of the 1950s. They were growing up during a time when the draft was not yet reality. America was not at war, so death was a distant, alien concept to a high school teen. But the infamous plane crash reminded them all in a clear way of mortality. Not just of their heroes’ but of their own as well. The events of February 3rd, 1959 was a chilling precursor to the assassinations and war casualties to come once the Sixties dawned. But in the still fairly innocent days of 1959, teenagers in America mourned not just for their heroes, but unwittingly for the end of rock ‘n’ roll. No other artists in early 1959 came close to the promise that was Buddy Holly. He was pointing the future and when he died, it felt like rock ‘n’ roll itself had gone with him.
Meanwhile, a rock ‘n’ roll resurgence was in its infancy and simmering across the pond. At that time of great loss, nobody yet considered the influence Holly’s music would have on the young adolescents who would come of age during the Sixties and cement rock ‘n roll as a permanent and lasting fixture of American culture.



Some controversy surrounds Dion DiMucci’s explanation of the events of February 2nd, 1959 in that he suggests in his autobiography that he tossed a coin for one of the seats in the doomed plane. There is a consensus however, that Dion was indeed offered a seat but declined it because he felt that the $36 cost of the ticket (equivalent to $291 in 2014 dollars) was a little too much, comparing it to the fact that the amount was the same his parents paid in rent for their apartment when Dion was a child.

Dion and his Belmonts wound up in the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour because of their recent spate of hit singles. Originally from the Bronx, Dion recruited his old pals from the neighborhood, Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano and Angelo D’Aleo. They used to gather together on Crotona Avenue and 187th Street to sing the nights away. Inevitably, they decided to formally become a group and named themselves after a local thoroughfare, Belmont Avenue. Once they put together a set of songs they felt good about, Dion & The Belmonts would then spend their time rehearsing them under the Sixth Avenue subway D station before they finally took the train into Manhattan to pitch their music to the recording studios there.

“We`d grab a couple of seats and start banging out time on the floor. Trains had the greatest bass sound in the world. So did the back seats of Checker cabs, underneath the El, or on the roof of a building, next to the pigeon coops.” -Dion DiMucci

Their first single. “I Wonder Why”, made it up to Number 22 on the U.S. charts. Soon, they were being asked by Dick Clark to appear on his “American Bandstand”. Their act consisted of snapping their fingers to the time of the music and literally were the first to introduce the finger snap to rock ‘n’ roll choreography.


“I Wonder Why” is hardcore doo-wop. Released in early 1958, it represented the direction rock ‘n’ roll was veering towards after being left rudderless by Elvis’ drafting into the Army. The song is essentially a montage of vocal doo-wop phrasings invented by the group among themselves.

“I’d give ’em sounds. I’d give ’em parts and stuff. That’s what ‘I Wonder Why’ was about. We kind of invented this percussive rhythmic sound. If you listen to that song, everybody was doing something different. There’s four guys, one guy was doing bass, I was singing lead, one guy’s going ‘ooh wah ooh’, and another guy’s doing tenor. It was totally amazing. When I listen to it today, often times I think, ‘Man, those kids are talented.” – Dion DiMucci

After the release of two more singles that made it into the Top Forty that same year, the mediocre “No One Knows” and the maudlin “Don’t Pity Me”, they were offered the Winter Dance Party Tour in February. The tragedy of his co-stars did not stop the tour. The Crickets went on through the tour with Waylon Jennings taking over Holly’s vocals. Additional acts were added to fill the vacuum, including Bobby Vee, an up and coming teen idol who would enjoy a handful of Top Ten hits in the early years of the Sixties. According to Dion, Bob Dylan was the then-unknown keyboard player.

“Vee’s keyboard player was a young kid named Zimmerman from Hibbing, just across the state line in Minnesota.” –Dion DiMucci

This is very plausible because Dylan was from that region of the United States and had actually seen Buddy Holly play as a teen. Dylan recalled the moment during his 1998 acceptance speech at the Grammys for winning the Album of the Year trophy for “Time Out Of Mind”.

“When I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play in the Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him, and he looked at me… and uh, I just have some kind of feeling that he was uh, I don’t know how or why but he was with us all the time when we were making this record in some kind of way.” –Bob Dylan


Despite the catastrophic events that made the Winter Dance Tour Party of 1959 a macabre memory in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, the tour actually proved beneficial to Dion & The Belmonts. Right after the tour and one month after the deaths of Holly and his co-stars, Dion & The Belmonts landed their first Top Ten hit with “A Teenager In Love”.

It was back to thinking about the really important things in the life of a teenager with the release of this song and a good way to forget about the tragedy of that cold February day.

“If you want to make me cry, that won’t be so hard to do. If you should say goodbye, I could go on loving you, each night I ask the stars up above, why must I be a teenager in love?” – A Teenager In Love – Dion & The Belmonts

“A Teenager In Love” is written by Doc Pomus, the rock ‘n’ roll songwriter who got his start when he sent Lieber & Stoller his composition and they turned it into a hit for the Coasters called “Youngblood”. “ATIL” is a doo-wop song filled with teenage angst, accompanied by a great melody and sung sweetly by Dion DiMucci. It rose to Number Five on the Billboard Pop chart in May of 1959 and placed Dion & The Belmonts inside the teenage radar, quickly making the doo-wop group the next new heartthrobs. They were reaching the heights they had been hoping for, but events had already taken place that would lead to their ultimate break-up.

Dion DiMucci had gotten himself hooked on heroin at 14 years of age. Living on the streets of the Bronx much of the time as a teenager, he made it a habit to hang out on the corner and work on his swagger. Soon, he joined a tough gang, the Fordham Baldies.

“They weren’t too impressed by my singing. If you could wipe the street with five guys, that impressed them.” –Dion DiMucci on the Fordham Baldies

His introduction into hard drugs began with alcohol, mostly wine spritzers and a syrupy gin and Bosco mixture. By 13 he was smoking marijuana. The following year he jumped from weed to snorting heroin, then skin-popping and finally mainlining. “Instant courage”, he called it. At the rate he was going, it’s no surprise that he almost died of an overdose at age 16.

“We were on a roof, shooting up, and I OD’d. Everybody else split but this one junkie, who carried me down and took me to some girl’s house, where they filled my drawers with ice cubes—to wake me up. Then they shot me up with salt to counteract the heroin, and he walked me around the park for a couple of hours. I don’t know why. With junkies, one guy passes out, it’s ‘Let’s get outta here before we get caught.’ But this guy, who I stay in touch with, saved my life.” – Dion DiMucci

His rise to fame only exacerbated his addiction and soon, just as they were finding success in the Top Ten, Dion was at odds with the members of the Belmonts.


Dion’s no-shows and not being able to function at times caused a strain on the group. By the time their follow up single to “ATIL” was released, he was in the hospital detoxifying.

Released in late 1959, “Where Or When” was a remake of an old 1937 composition written by Rodgers and Hart for the musical “Babes In Arms”. Despite it really being just another mundane tune, it reached Number Three in the Billboard Pop chart in January of 1960 and is the group’s biggest charted hit, albeit not a very memorable one. By then however, Dion had made up his mind to split up with the Belmonts.

This wasn’t so much due to his heroin addiction as it was to the fact that he was tired of singing doo-wop. Dion wanted to pursue a more rock ‘n’ roll sound, but the Belmonts wanted to remain a doo-wop group.

“They wanted to get into their harmony thing, and I wanted to rock and roll. The label wanted me doing standards. I got bored with it quickly. I said, I can’t do this. I gotta play my guitar. So we split up…” Dion DiMucci

By October of 1960, Dion broke from his old neighborhood group and embarked on an unsure solo career, still beset by the monkey on his back. But the early Sixties would prove fruitful for Dion DiMucci, releasing a few rock ‘n’ roll classics in 1961, “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer”.

He made a comeback again in 1968 with “Abraham, Martin and John”, a song mourning the recent assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

By the Seventies, Dion DiMucci was finally able to kick his drug habit. As of the writing of this in January 2015, Dion is alive and well, having released his last album in 2012 called “Tank Full Of Blues”. He also pursues prison ministry and reaches out to men who are recovering from addiction. He is 75 years old.



Doo wop was all the rage as 1959 dawned, replacing the rock ‘n’ roll introduced by Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the like. One of the many doo-wop groups popping up everywhere were the Crests. Formed by bass vocalist J.T. Carter, the Crests are only the second interracial group of the rock ‘n’ roll era. The first were The Del-Vikings who released “Come Go With Me” in 1957. The Del Vikings were comprised of three African Americans and two whites who were all army buddies. The Crests consisted of three black members, Carter, Talmadge Gough and Patricia Vandross; Puerto Rican Harold Torres and, as lead vocalist, Italian-American Johnny Mastrangelo, better known by his stage name, Johnny Maestro. Fifteen year old Patricia Vandross, the only female member of the group, is the older sister of Eighties R&B singer/songwriter Luther Vandross and was the first to leave the group in 1958, just before they recorded their biggest and only hit. Her mother forced her to quit because she was underage and did not allow her to tour with older men.

Although they released a dozen singles over six years, The Crests were a one-hit wonder. In fact, only a handful of doo-wop groups released a respectable amount of hit singles and managed to last several years, one of the select few being Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons and Little Anthony & The Imperials, primarily because they both dropped the doo-wop. Part of the reason for its quick demise starting at the dawn of the Sixties, the doo-wop genre never did have one unifying star like rock ‘n’ roll had in Elvis and subsequently the Beatles, which may explain why doo-wop faded away by the mid-Sixties and became forever entwined with Fifties nostalgia.


“Happy birthday, happy birthday baby… oh, I love you so… Sixteen candles make a lovely light, but not as bright as your eyes tonight…” Sixteen Candles –The Crests

J.T. Carter chose Johnny Maestro as the lead vocalist of his group because of his sweet, distinctive vocal. “Sixteen Candles” begins with a birthday greeting, backed by a sustained note and a doo wop backgound vocal faintly underneath. Soon, it launches into a romantic Fifties birthday love song to the target age and sex of the rock ‘n’ roll market. Add a nice melody and a voice that drips romance and you’ve got yourself a hit. “Sixteen Candles” went up to Number Two in the Billboard Pop chart in the early part of 1959. Its legacy was further cemented when it was showcased fourteen years later in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”.

The title of the song would achieve colloquial success in the lexicon of American culture when it was used as the title of a teen Eighties comedy hit directed by John Hughes.

After a string of single releases that fluctuated wildly between the Top Twenty and the Top One Hundred, Johnny Maestro quit the Crests in favor of a solo career. At one point, Johnny stole his former group’s name, forming his own group and calling themselves Johnny Maestro & The Crests. They managed to record eight singles under that name with various record companies. Each one of them failed to chart. Johnny Maestro would be destined to fade into obscurity except for one brief, shining moment when he hit Number Three in Billboard’s Pop chart with “Worst That Could Happen” in 1969 as Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge. By then, although the Crests were still together, Hough and Torres would leave the group, having managed to replace Maestro with various lead singers over the years.

J.T. Carter found two new members and continued singing as the Crests until 1978, but reformed it two years later after an exhaustive search of over two hundred and fifty singers to become the new Crests. The group continued touring and playing from 1980 well into the Nineties, when Carter finally sold the name to Tommy Mara, Carter’s lead vocalist at the time, who continues the group without Carter.

As of the writing of this in January 2015, all the members of the Crests are deceased except for J.T. Carter.




The fact that Motown even existed is owed to the fact that Berry Gordy’s parents wanted to have many children. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, one of the most influential record labels in 20th century pop history, is the seventh of nine children born to Berry and Bertha Gordy. If the Gordy’s had stopped at six children, we may never had been exposed to the music of the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to name just a few.

His family lineage connects him to a President. Jimmy Carter’s mother’s full maiden name was Bessie Lillian Gordy. She was related to plantation owner James Thomas Gordy who had a boy with his female slave, Esther Johnson. They named the boy Berry. That boy was Berry Gordy Jr.’s grandfather.

Berry Gordy lived a middle class life in Detroit growing up in the Thirties. His father, Berry Gordy II, was a plastering contractor and his mother worked as an insurance agent. Berry always had an interest in music since he was a child. Although he barely played any instruments except piano and a little clarinet, he did manage to write a song called “Berry’s Boogie” that won in a local Detroit talent contest. He was the only Gordy who didn’t pursue a serious career, dropping out of high school to become a boxer. He wasn’t a bad one either. From 1948 to 1951, he fought fifteen bouts and won twelve. He was drafted into the Army three years into his middling boxing career.

Gordy returned to Detroit from Korea in 1953 with a rekindled interest in his first love, music. He had saved up money from his military pay and was soon married. He used that money and invested in opening a record store he called the Three-D Record Mart, filling its inventory with his own personal favorite jazz greats, particularly Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton and Thelonious Monk. His customers, or lack thereof, did not share his taste in music however and his store soon folded. From there, he worked on the Ford Motor Company’s assembly line to make ends meet. His stint there proved valuable.

“I would see the cars come in one door a bare metal frame and go out another door a brand-new car. Everybody was buying new cars—black people, white people, you know, Jews, gentiles. I got the idea to do my music business and have it like an assembly line, where artists would come in one door an unknown kid off the street and go out another door a big star. We had a charm school and a production room, and we had classes, and we had producers, and we had writers.” – Berry Gordy, Jr.

He started writing songs in his spare time. He became friend’s with one of his sisters’ boyfriend, Roquel ‘Billy’ Davis who also wrote music. Together, they wrote “Reet Petite” Gordy’s first composition, although it’s understood that the song was mostly Davis’ contribution. Davis knew Jackie Wilson, a singer who just had left Billy Ward And His Dominoes for a solo career.



Along with James Brown and Sam Cooke, Jack Leroy “Jackie” Wilson was instrumental in helping transition the Rhythm & Blues sound into Fifties soul music. His smooth voice and his dynamic dance moves pre-dated Michael Jackson and rivaled James Brown’s. His performance was usually subdued, but marked with instances of incredible athleticism, where he would jump from one level of the stage to a lower one during a critical point of a song and land with his legs spread wide apart on the floor, only to spring back up to the swooning cheers of his audience.

His voice matched his smooth dance moves; a sweet, thick vocal that sounded coated in maple syrup, with the ability to reach highs during those precise moments where his songs demanded the emotional intensity of a well placed wail. Considered a master showman, he became known as “Mr. Excitement”.

Like Gordy, Wilson was born and raised in Detroit and loved music since childhood, singing in gospel choirs. As a teenager, he sang in churches with the Ever Ready Gospel Choir. He wasn’t particularly religious, having also joined a neighborhood gang called the Shakers and often getting in trouble with the law. He just liked to sing.

By age fifteen, Jackie had dropped out of high school, having been held in the Lansing Corrections system already twice before. Also like Gordy, he learned boxing and performed in the Detroit amateur circuit when he was sixteen and his mother forced him to quit. By the time he was 17 he was married, supposedly courtesy of a “shotgun” style demand from the father of the girl he got pregnant. Having settled down, he focused on music. His first job in his new career was singing solo in Detroit’s “Lee’s Sensation” club. Soon, he formed a group called the Falcons with his cousin Levi Stubbs, who later became the lead baritone singer for Motown’s Four Tops.

Wilson’s career trajectory led him through several different groups until he was called to join Billy Ward and His Dominoes in 1953 as lead singer, a group he stayed with for the next four years. He replaced the very popular Clyde McPhatter who went on to form the Drifters. Wilson almost didn’t get chosen to join the group because of his initial cocky attitude about his talents.



Billy Ward was more of a manager than a band member, although he played organ in some of their recordings. He was a vocal coach and part-time arranger on Broadway when he formed the Dominoes out of his music students in 1950. Ward made Clyde McPhatter his lead vocalist. They recorded several singles and McPhatter became a popular figure in the R&B circuit. Ironically, the only song that charted in the Billboard Pop Chart, up to Number 17, was sung not by McPhatter but by Bill Brown, primarily because Brown’s bass voice fit the song’s theme better than McPhatter’s tenor. “Sixty Minute Man”, released in 1951, was about sexual prowess. It shocked white audiences, and it’s considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll song.

“There’ll be 15 minutes of kissing, then you’ll holler ‘please don’t stop’, there’ll be 15 minutes of teasing and 15 minutes of squeezing and 15 minutes of blowing my top.” Sixty Minute Man – Billy Ward and His Dominoes

Ward’s attention focused on Wilson after the release of his first solo single, “Danny Boy”, in 1952 for Dizzy Gillespie’s Dee Gee label. The single was released under Jackie’s nickname, Sonny Wilson. Ward was impressed with Wilson’s incredible vocal range and distinctive style. He contacted him once McPhatter announced his intention to leave to form his Drifters.

It was Billy Ward who dropped Wilson’s nickname, Sonny, and billed him as Jackie Wilson. Over the span of the next four years, from 1953 to 1957, they would record around two dozen songs and release them as singles. Most of them consistently made it to Billboard’s R&B chart’s Top Ten but they never cracked the Pop chart except in 1956 when the opposite occurred; they cracked the Top Twenty Pop chart but not the R&B chart. Their popularity had waned since the departure of McPhatter. It wasn’t until three years of touring and promoting that they made it into the Top Twenty of the Billboard Pop chart.


Although the title of this song makes the tune sound a bit too pious for some people’s secular tastes, it certainly proves that Jackie Wilson has some set of pipes. “St. Therese of the Roses”, a prayer to a certain St. Therese for a happy marriage from a man about to marry, was a popular song in the summer of 1956 and sung by Wilson with his usual passion and intense delivery. It reached Number 13 in the Billboard Pop chart but didn’t enter the R&B chart, as it wasn’t really much of an R&B song.

This song would be one of the last Wilson would record with Billy Ward and his Dominoes. The subsequent singles, “Stardust”, written in 1929 by Hoagy Carmichael, and “Deep Purple”, written in 1933 by pianist Peter DeRose, were two slow burners both released to equal success as “St. Therese…” in 1957. Despite the records continued modest success, the songs being selected to record sounded dated and some of them didn’t have Wilson as lead.

Jakie Wilson left Billy Ward and his Dominoes that same year and embarked on a solo career, contacting his cousin Stubbs, who together landed a gig singing in Detroit’s Flame Show Bar again where he re-connected with his former manager before his stint with the Dominoes. Al Green (not the soul singer of the Seventies) managed to secure a deal for Wilson with Decca Records’ subsidiary Brunswick label. The night before the contract was to be signed, Green died of a sudden heart attack.


Jackie Wilson came across “Reet Petite” after Berry Gordy’s songwriting partner, Billy Davis, went to Brunswick to sell them the song. It soon became Wilson’s first recording for the label and instantly established a faster, hipper style than during his time with the Dominoes. A bouncy, fun song that echoes Elvis vocals, particularly “Teddy Bear”, it was released in 1957 and, although it cracked the Top Ten at Number Six in the UK, it only managed to climb up to Number 52 in Billboard’s Pop chart. It didn’t make a mark in the US R&B chart.

Wilson’s parallels with Elvis didn’t end with just that one song. Elvis was already a big admirer of Jackie Wilson, even before he knew who Wilson was.

“I heard this guy in Las Vegas – Billy Ward and his Dominoes. There’s a guy out there who’s doin’ a take-off of me; ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. He tried so hard, till he got much better, boy; much better than that record of mine.” – Elvis recorded during the Million Dollar Quartet Sessions 12/1956

Elvis and Jackie ultimately met, became great friends and formed a mutual admiration society.

“A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis” – Jackie Wilson

During a press conference, Elvis was asked how he felt about the fact that Jackie Wilson was being called the black Elvis.

“I guess that makes me the white Jackie Wilson.” Elvis replied.

Songwriter Berry Gordy was elated at the success of his song “Reet Petite” with the popular Jackie Wilson. Wilson paid a visit to Gordy’s home during the height of the single’s success to peruse the rest of Gordy’s song catalog of compositions.

“Since he was already a star the song’s success wasn’t as big a deal to him as it was to me. Jackie really liked me but he just wanted to hear the new song and get out. He always made up his mind fast. Too fast for me. He had hastily rejected some of our other songs almost before we got started, so I had to nail him quickly… ‘Gimme that paper,’ he said, grabbing the lyric sheet off the piano. ‘I got it, I got it!’ Circling his pointed finger at me, ‘Play, play’ he said… Jackie Wilson was the epitome of natural greatness. Unfortunately for some he set the standard I would be looking for in artists forever. I heard him sing many, many times and never a bad note. A bad song maybe, but never a bad note. Watching this man perform ‘To Be Loved’ was always a thrill.” – Berry Gordy, Jr.


“To Be Loved” was Wilson’s second solo single. This song managed to crack the Billboard R&B Top Ten to Number 7 and make it to Number 22 in the national Pop chart, one notch above its UK peak at Number 23. It’s a traditional ballad that really goes nowhere melodically but it does showcase Wilson’s strong tenor.


“Lonely Teardrops” was the composition that put Jackie Wilson over the top, and well it should because it’s a dynamite song. Delivered with his usual dynamic intensity and produced with a hiccupy beat that drove the song’s infectious melody, it was his first Billboard Number One in the R&B chart and his first song to enter the Billboard Pop Top Ten, at Number Seven. The lyrics of the song were inconsequential, like so many other rock ‘n’ roll songs that had already come before. It was the delivery of the performer that made the song’s words ring, and Jackie Wilson savored every syllable, delivering the tune in a voice that achieves aural ecstasy.

“My heart Is cryin’,cryin’… lonely teardrops… my pillows never dry off, lonely teardrops… come home, come home… just say you will, say you will…” – Lonely Teardrops

Its popularity landed him spots on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show, furthering his fame the second America caught a glimpse of his dancing ability. In both performances, his moves are mostly reserved. But he has moments where he displays his virtuosity such as complete spin-arounds that were mimicked identically by one Michael Jackson in later decades and leg splits that look effortless as he gets all the way down to the ground only to spring back up like a released coil.

Written by Berry Gordy, his sister Gwendolyn and Gordy’s songwriting partner Roquel “Billy” Davis, “Reet Petite” would be one of the last songs written by that songwriting partnership. Gordy and Davis terminated their relationship with Wilson and the Brunswick label due to a royalty dispute. David would go on to be a successful songwriter at Chess Records. Berry Gordy would use the money he had made selling his songs to Brunswick, along with $800 he borrowed from his family, and started his first record label. When thinking of a name for his label, he thought of his hometown of Detroit, where the label would be based, and recalled that his city’s nickname was the Motor City because it was the cradle of America’s automotive giants. He decided to shorten it, taking the similar phrase “Motor Town” and mashing it together to form a new word, one that would soon become synonymous with the best and finest R&B music of the Sixties: Motown.


Jackie Wilson had four singles in Billboard’s Pop chart in 1959, a few of them Berry Gordy compositions. “That’s Why (I Love You So)” followed the same vein as its predecessor, “Lonely Teardrops”. It was another really good rock ‘n’ roll song with a bouncy beat and Jackie Wilson’s voice blending into the happy clamor. The song climbed all the way up to Number 13. It would prove to be his highest charting hit of the year.


Another Berry Gordy and Billy Davis composition, “I’ll Be Satisfied” continued the rock ‘n’ roll trek Wilson was carving out for himself since “Lonely Teardrops”. It’s a very danceable tune and truly a lost gem among the flood of competing music that, by the summer of 1959, had multiplied many times over since rock ‘n’ roll’s first official appearance just four years earlier. “I’ll Be Satisfied” just made it into the Top Twenty at Number 20 in the Spring of 1959.


Although Wilson’s next single, “You’d Better Know It”, barely made it into Billboard’s Top Forty at Number 34 in the fall of 1959, it became his second Number One in Billboard’s R&B chart. The song follows the same can’t miss style that he had been outputting all year. Despite its lackluster performance in the Pop chart, the song was used in “Go Johnny Go”, one of the several rock ‘n’ roll movies with Alan Freed, who had helmed most of these rock ‘n’ roll film revues since 1956.


His last single of 1959, “Talk That Talk”, is a song along the same vein as his previous releases, except that the melody is unexceptional. The public agreed because it was his lowest charted single of his career, reaching only up to Number 37 in the Billboard Pop chart. As the Sixties dawned however, Jackie Wilson would continue to chart and have five more Top Ten singles between 1960 and 1967 with memorable hits that included “Baby Workout” (1964) and “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher” (1967), remade a decade later in 1977 by Rita Coolidge.

His career during that time would be one of touring to make a living. He appeared in Dick Clark’s “Good Ol’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue” on September 29, 1975. During the middle of singing the line “my heart is crying…” from “Lonely Teardrops”, Jackie Wilson collapsed onstage and went into cardiac arrest. He slipped into a coma due to lack of brain to his oxygen by the time he had arrived at the hospital. He remained in the coma except for a brief recovery for a few days in 1976 until his death on January 21, 1984.



Seventeen year old William Robinson, Jr. walked into Brunswick Records with his group the Miracles one day in 1957 to audition. He called himself Smokey because his uncle nicknamed him “Smokey Joe” as a kid. In his presence during the audition was twenty-seven year old songwriter Berry Gordy, who was making a name for himself writing hits for Jackie Wilson at Brunswick. It was during this meeting that the foundation for Motown Records would be built from.

Gordy was impressed with Smokey’s voice and they became friends. Berry told him of his idea; creating a music factory much like the auto factory he used to work in, where artists would come in totally unpolished and, after all types of classes from songwriting to table manners, come out a pop star. Smokey encouraged his friend Berry to fulfill his ambition and start his own record label, and in just a few years, Smokey would become Berry Gordy’s business partner in the running of Motown, besides being the record label’s head songwriter.

During that same time that Berry Gordy was establishing Motown, his ex-songwriting partner, Billy Davis, along with his sisters Anna and Gwen, had started a label of their own, Anna Records, and asked Berry to run it. But Gordy wanted his own label. On January 12, 1959, Berry Gordy took the money he had saved up from selling his songs to Jackie Wilson, borrowed an additional $800 from his family, and founded Tamla Records, incorporating as Motown Record Corporation. The reason Gordy had more than one record label under the Motown umbrella was a brilliant marketing maneuver.

“I told Smokey one day, ‘I can’t understand. I’ve got five hits there, and they’re only going to play one.’ And so he says, ‘I know, but what are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess I have to get more labels. They’ll never know they are from the same company.’ So we had several labels. We had Motown. We had Gordy. We had VIP. We had Tamla. We had different labels, because I found that disc jockeys only wanted to play one record from one company.”– Berry Gordy

The name Tamla supposedly came from the song “Tammy” by Debbie Reynolds, showcased in the 1957 film “Tammy & The Bachelor”, although God only knows why Berry Gordy would even be interested in naming his record company after a song as corny and un-Motown-like as “Tammy”, but as the story goes, Gordy discovered that there already was a Tammy Records so he made a minor adjustment to the name. It’s funny to note, as an aside, that Tammy’s “bachelor” is the future Frank Drebin of the ”Naked Gun” series, a very young Leslie Nielsen

As soon as Gordy founded his record label, he purchased property for his talent factory. He chose the last place anyone would ever find a record company: in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. Gordy purchased two adjacent properties on 2648 West Grand Boulevard and connected the two-story homes together where he and his family would use the second story as their living quarters. It was a non-descript location for a place that would soon be churning out several of the most memorable songs of all time, except for a boast that Berry Gordy insisted on displaying to the world. On top of the main house’s blue awning, he placed a sign that read “Hitsville U.S.A.” The sign proved prophetic. Motown soon became ground zero for burgeoning Detroit musical artists looking to fulfill their dreams by singing to ours.


The first single Gordy released through Tamla Records was “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson, an entertainer Gordy heard performing at a carnival in Detroit. Since Tamla only distributed locally, Motown’s first several singles were leased to national labels so they can distribute them nationally. “Come To Me’ was a local hit throughout the Midwest when Tamla distributed it in their region in May 1959. Gordy then leased the song to United Artists. By early 1960, the song made it into Billboard’s Pop chart to Number 30 and cracked the R&B Top Ten at Number Six.

“Come To Me” is a bouncy pop song similar in style to Jackie Wilson’s songs and laced with the seeds of the Motown sound; a background baritone that The Temptations and the Four Tops would be known for, a female trio doing Marvelettes-like vocals and backing Marv Johnson’s tenor; a tenor close in sound with Smokey Robinson’s smooth vocals.

As soon as Motown opened its doors, fledgling artists, some good; some not, paid the label a visit. One of them was a 19 year old Norman Whitfield who frequented 2648 West Grand Boulevard for a chance to work there. Berry Gordy recognized something in the young man and hired him to work in the quality control department. From there, Norman Whitfield’s career would skyrocket, starting with collaborations writing lyrics with Barrett Strong to pioneering the “psychedelic soul” sound of 1969-1971 with Temptations’ classics such as “Cloud Nine”, “Psychedelic Shack”, “I Can’t Get Next To You” and “Ball Of Confusion”, culminating in his 1972 masterpiece “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”.

Berry Gordy hit the floor running as soon as he incorporated his music factory. He produced and released a few dozen singles in 1959 by artists he discovered as he searched the clubs of Detroit for talent. That year, his roster of artists besides Marv Johnson was comprised of Wade Jones, Eddie Holland, Barrett Strong, The Swinging Tigers, Ron & Bill, The Satintones, Nick & The Jaguars, Eugene Remus and the Miracles.

Motown’s inaugural year was encouraging in that some of the songs produced and released through his labels managed to receive national airplay. By the end of 1959, Berry Gordy would start making inroads into the national Pop and R&B charts. In just a few short years, he would be sharing Top Ten domination with only a few other record labels for the rest of the Sixties.



Twenty year old Edward “Eddie” Holland, Jr. met Berry Gordy in 1958. Holland had inspirations to be a pop singer, but destiny would chart another direction for him. By 1962, Eddie along with his brother Brian and fellow musical composer Lamont Dozier, would start to write, produce and arrange many of Motown’s biggest hits. Holland, Dozier, Holland would be as ubiquitous in the Sixties pop charts songwriter listings as Lennon/McCartney, King/Goffin, Mann/Weil and Lieber & Stoller.

Gordy helped Eddie Holand establish his career as a musical artist by writing and producing Holland’s first single, “You”. Although it was only a minor local hit, they followed it up with one of Motown’s first single releases, “Merry Go Round”. But Holland wouldn’t break into the national charts until 1961 with “Jamie”.

His transition to behind the scenes may have partly been due to a supposed case of stage fright when it came to performing, so Berry Gordy made him lyricist for other developing Motown artists and teamed him up with his brother Brian, who had also been a Motown staff songwriter and had written his own hit for the Marvellettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961.

The Beatles cover “Please Mr. Postman” in their second UK album release “With the Beatles”. In the US, “PMP” is released in “The Beatles’ Second Album”. This would not be the only song the Beatles would cover that originate from Motown.

Lamont Dozier had been writing songs for Anna Records, Berry’s sister’s label, when he joined the Holland brothers. Together, Holland/Dozier/Holland penned scores of songs for Motown, including 25 Number one Pop Hit singles like “Heat Wave” for Martha and The Vandellas, “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved By You)” for Marvin Gaye, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me” for the Supremes along with many more of their hits, “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’”, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and “It’s The Same Old Song” for the Four Tops, among many more.



Despite having released an unsuccessful debut single in April 1959 called “Let’s Rock”, Barrett Strong would ultimately become the first Motown artist to enter the Billboard charts with his subsequent release in August of that same year, the classic “Money (That’s What I Want)”. This was the only hit Strong ever had as a solo singer. He would continue in Motown however, and go on to writing the lyrics of many classic Temptations songs.

“Money” was released via Gordy’s Tamla label and licensed to his sister’s Anna Records in 1960. It was distributed nationally by the Chicago based Chess Records. It reached Number Two on Billboard’s R&B Sides chart and Number 23 in the Hot 100.

“Money” has gone on to be one of the most classic rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, having been recorded by various legendary rock groups and artists including the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors and Joe Cocker. Its frank lyrics, eschewing love for money as to what the singer really wants over anything else, is the typical sardonic attitude the rebellious side of rock ‘n’ roll embraced. “Money” was a direct thumbing of all the love songs ever written and as a result, was one of the handful of songs during 1959 that still carried the torch of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit that had been all but extinguished since Buddy Holly died.

The best things in life are free, but you can keep ’em for the birds and bees, now give me money, (that’s what I want) that’s what I want…money don’t get everything it’s true, what it don’t get I can’t use, well, now give me money, (that’s what I want), a lotta money, (that’s what I want)…” Money (that’s What I Want) – Barrett Strong

The Beatles chose “Money” to include in their November 1963 second album release “With The Beatles”. It was first released in the US in “The Beatles’ Second Album” in the spring of 1964 at the height of Beatlemania. The Beatles’ “Money” stereo recordings are competitive to the Motown arrangement in Barrett Strong’s version. George Martin’s stereo production separates the instruments into distinct components, helmed by Ringo’s steady rhythm and including the vocals, where the Motown stereo production of Strong’s version tends to sound more monaural, like one cluster of instruments mixed together with Strong leading the way. The Beatles’ piano particularly is more distinct, sharper and more present than in Strong’s opening. Strong’s delivery of the song is powerful and melodic, but The Beatles have the upper hand in this case. The recording of their vocals and their presence in the song is more distinct. The group delivers the song with muscle as George and Paul stubbornly carry on the repetitively hypnotic background vocal: “that’s what I want”, while John gives it his all throughout, sprinkling it with heartfelt screams and ending it in a melodic cacophony of John’s fierce lead over Paul and George’s incessant vocals and Ringo’s rock steady beat.

“Money” was a particular Beatle favorite. George discovered it one day while perusing through Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s NEMS record store. The Beatles subsequently played it during their unsuccessful audition for Decca on January 1, 1962, and also recorded it six times in 1963 during their BBC radio show before committing it to tape for official release.



None of the other groups’ and artists’ singles Motown had released in 1959 ever amounted to anything long-lasting as performers on the Billboard charts except for the Miracles.

Gordy agreed to help young Smokey Robinson hone his songwriting skills after they first met during the Miracles’ audition at Brunswick in 1957. Gordy co-wrote and produced the Miracles’ first recording, “Got A Job”, an answer song to the Silhouettes “Get A Job”. Gordy leased it to End Records. It was a regional hit, but enough to convince Smokey to put his electrical engineering studies on definite hold.

Gordy continued co-writing and recording Smokey and his Miracles for Motown. The Miracles released three singles in 1959. “Bad Girl”, a laid back doo-wop groove of a record that Gordy leased to the Chess label for national distribution, became the first single to enter Billboard’s Pop chart for the Miracles, at Number 93.

Smokey would soon be writing what would become Motown’s first national Number One, “Shop Around”, but that wouldn’t happen until the dawn of the new decade the following year.

At this point, still at the very beginning of their brilliant careers, Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were poised to carve a permanent niche into the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll, producing and releasing beloved classics like “You Really Got A Hold On Me”, which was the second Smokey Robinson song The Beatles would perfectly sing and record, “The Tracks Of My Tears”, “I Second That Emotion” and “The Tears Of A Clown” to name a few. These songs have not only endured but have also profoundly influenced scores of other artists since their release and even up to the Present Day in 2015. No doubt these songs created and released by Motown during their stay at 2648 West Grand Boulevard from 1959 to 1972 will be listened to and enjoyed for many years to come.



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