MASON CITY — Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts claims he gave up his seat to Ritchie Valens on the night Valens, Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson died in a plane crash north of Clear Lake.
“I was 19 when I lost three friends in a plane crash ... I want to set the record straight,” said DiMucci during a recorded interview aired at the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Luncheon Saturday at the Best Western Hotel in Clear Lake.
Guitarist Tommy Allsup has often claimed that he lost a coin toss for the seat to Valens.
All were at the Surf Ballroom for the show on Feb. 2, 1959.
DiMucci is the only featured star from the original tour who has never returned to the Surf for the Winter Dance Party celebrations.
He has rarely spoken of that last night at the Surf, or of Holly who, he said, had become a good friend.
“I was a kid from the Bronx; he was a kid from Lubbock,” Texas, who both loved rock and roll.
Too many stories have been circulated about the last night at the Surf that are not true, he said.
“That’s not history, that’s not the story and that’s an injustice,” he said.
The 2009 film features an interview with DiMucci by Dave Marsh and the Rock Hall’s vice president of education and public programs, Lauren Onkey.
The tour came from Holly’s need to raise cash for music he wanted to produce in New York. Holly, an expectant father, was in the midst of a rift with Clovis, N.M., music producer Norm Petty and with Holly’s band, the Crickets.
The Crickets called Holly on the road, DiMucci said, to tell Holly they did not want another set of musicians — Allsup, Waylon Jennings and Carl Bunch — to play under their name.
DiMucci said the tour bus — plagued with breakdowns — came to the Surf late, just a few hours before the show. He said several on the tour made phone calls — “J.P. to his family; Buddy was talking to (his wife) Maria Elena ... he said, ‘I adore you; I miss you.’ ”
DiMucci said the show “was great” and full of energy. But Holly — who was also on his way to being a pilot, having taken flying lessons in New York — was determined to charter a plane to their next stop in Moorhead, Minn.
When Frankie Sardo came back on stage to perform, Holly, Valens, Richardson and DiMucci huddled backstage to talk about who would fly instead of ride the bus to Moorhead.
Holly said, “We’re the ones making the money” as headliners, and should fly, DiMucci said.
But besides Holly there was room for only two others on the plane. DiMucci said he won the coin toss over Valens, but finally gave up his seat after balking at the $36 price.
“I won the toss ... but $36 was a deciding factor,” he said. “That was a lot of money in those days. I said to Ritchie, ‘You take it.’ He said, ‘Thanks.’ ”
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He recalled Valens saying he hoped “the plane had a better heater than the bus.”
Holly turned to DiMucci and said, “Take care of my guitar.”
The bus made its way to Moorhead and pulled in front of the Comstock Hotel the next day.
He remembered overhearing tour manager Sam Geller’s conversation with desk personnel and hearing the phrase, “They died in the plane.”
“I’m dumfounded; I am in shock,” he recalled, as he walked back out to the bus, got on and sat down.
“I’m sitting there with Buddy’s guitar” and spies the Bopper’s hat sitting nearby and one of Ritchie Valen’s vests hanging on a hangar. The sudden departure of his good friends was surreal, he said.
“It was like the rug was ripped out from under me.”
He said he sang some of Buddy’s songs during the show that evening and the tour went on. Bobby Vee joined the group and later, Frankie Avalon.
DiMucci said after the crash no one had contacted Holly’s, Valens’ or Richardson’s families and he feared they heard about the deaths on the radio.
The ultimate insult came as the group prepared to leave Moorhead and realized the theater manager wanted to deduct $450 from the $600 payment since three of the stars “did not show up,” said DiMucci with a shake of his head.
The incident had a humorous side, however. DiMucci recounted how one of the Belmonts, fascinated with the handgun Holly carried with him on the tour, decided days earlier to purchase his own German Luger during a stop in Iowa.
So, when the theater manager tried to lower the payment, the Luger came out.
“He made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” DiMucci said with a laugh.
DiMucci said many of the musicians took cars or trains to return to their homes. DiMucci took a plane, he said, although he had second thoughts about taking to the air so soon after the crash.
“They did not have grief counseling in those days,” he said, adding he spent time drinking too much and doing drugs. “But over the years, I’ve come to terms with it.”
Talking about Holly today “puts my heart to rest,” he said, adding that Feb. 3, 1959, “was not the day the music died; it lives” thanks to the talents of a trio of rock and roll stars.
“Wherever you are, Buddy, Ritchie ... J.P., I hope to do you proud. I still love you.”