The day the music lives on: OC musician plans Buddy Holly celebration in Newport Beach

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Although musician JP McDermott played in what he describes as a “skinny tie, new wave” band in high school and college, he always felt a connection to the music of Buddy Holly.

“To me, Buddy Holly is like Bach,” McDermott said. “There is something perfect in his writing. They’re not that long but they’re put together perfectly and many people think they’re simple, but there’s a lot of complexity underneath.

McDermott found he wasn’t alone in the new wave genres to feel the connection to songs written by a 22-year-old from Lubbock, Texas.

“When I first started making bands, almost every new wave band had a Buddy Holly song,” McDermott said. “Blondie had one, the Knack had one and Wreckless Eric, he had a nice version of ‘Crying Waiting Hopeing.’ It was in the air.”

In the winter of 1959, Buddy Holly joined Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson, known professionally as Big Bopper, on a 24-day tour of the Midwest known as the Winter Dance Party. Tour bus conditions were less than desirable, and Holly booked a charter plane to ferry her band to the next gig. The rest is rock’n’roll history. Holly, Richardson and Valens perished when the charter plane crashed just after takeoff from Mason City Municipal Airport. The tragic story has been the subject of song and film and was characterized as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

For nearly 20 years, McDermott has honored Holly during the month of February by performing Holly’s catalog. Although the resident of Old Town Orange, who plays guitar and sings, said his tribute debut started even earlier.

“The first was in 1981,” McDermott said.

He was playing a gig with his new wave band and realized it was February 3, the anniversary of the fateful crash.

“I played the four or five Buddy Holly songs I knew at the time, but that sowed the seed,” McDermott said. “I thought one day I had to get it really right.”

Other versions of the show were held on a smaller scale at Anaheim Brewery and Santa Ana’s Beatnik Bandito.

COVID-19 prevented a show last year, but this year McDermott hosted his own Winter Dance Party on Feb. 18 at the Jax Campus in Newport Beach.

“They sort of specialize in roots and Americana-type stuff,” McDermott said. “And I played there once in the fall and I knew it would be a great place to celebrate Buddy Holly.”

Holly left nearly 100 recordings on demo tapes, and only a few of them are terrible, in McDermott’s opinion.

“My favorite song to play on stage is a song that should have been a hit,” McDermott said. “It came out right when Buddy Holly was popular and it’s called ‘Tell Me How,’ and it’s just a great Buddy Holly song.

McDermott has assembled an impressive lineup of rockabilly musicians for the show which will feature 40 Buddy Holly ballads as well as songs from Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.

Big Sandy, singer and bandleader known for his work with his band Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, Carl Sonny Leyland, a purveyor of American piano styles like jazz and boogie woogie, and Lil Sue of the popular country band SoCal Lil Sue and the Cowtippers are among the headliners.

“Carl Sonny Leyland is going to do a Big Bopper song, and I’ll do some Ritchie Valens hits,” McDermott said. “Because you can’t do this without paying homage to Ritchie.”

When McDermott isn’t playing Holly’s songs, he plays his own with his band JP McDermott & Western Bop. Their latest release, a four-song EP titled “Lucky Stars” hits all music streaming platforms on January 28.

Buddy Holly super fan and musician JP McDermott will host the Winter Dance Party at Campus Jax in Newport Beach.

(Kevin Chang / personal photographer)

McDermott hopes people who love Buddy Holly’s songs will experience the thrill of hearing his music live, but he also hopes to reach concertgoers who are less familiar with Holly’s songbook.

“People who don’t know Buddy Holly will come out of there with a whole new appreciation,” McDermott said.

Tickets for Winter Dance Party are available for $15+ at StellarShows.net.

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