Escalading With History: Preservation's Thrilling Ride
As one of the oldest automobile brands in the world (est. 1902), Cadillac has longevity when it comes to its association with celebrity clientele, from Hollywood stars to diplomats, professional athletes and musicians. Their height of cool was in the 1950s and 1960s when they were the pinnacle of status and fashion statements. When you bought a Caddy, you were "in the club." The 1955 pink Cadillac Fleetwood owned by Elvis evokes unforgettable cultural symbolism. In more recent years, the Cadillac Escalade has become an "SUV to the stars." I've had a recent unexpected and amusing encounter with this ride in my pursuit of music history's fallen icons.
It was February 2016 and my twin sister Sheryl and I were in Clear Lake, Iowa for the Surf Ballroom's annual Winter Dance Party. Since 1979, rock and roll fans from around the world have made the pilgrimage to celebrate the lives and legacies of rock and roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper"), who gave their final career performances at the Surf in 1959. We were there as fans, but also as working preservationists with a new research initiative, The Surf Speaks: Voices of a Living History.
Months prior to the event, we met Englishman John Cumberland and his team who were making a documentary called Bopper and Me about his quest to get J.P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper") inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were set to arrive in Florida and drive thousands of miles all over the U.S. filming John as he visited the sites most important to Richardson's life and music. Their final destination was the Winter Dance Party where we would meet.
Along the way, John appeared on local TV shows, gathered signatures from fans for his petition, visited the Richardson family and recorded an original song with a music video at Sugar Hill Studios where "The Bopper" recorded his 1958 hit "Chantilly Lace." Their transport for the journey? An Escalade. But not just any Escalade. Adorned with his signature telephone pose, a coincidental license plate with the letters "JPL," their mission, website and social media icons, the Caddy was christened "The Bopper Mobile." They meant business. Following their cross-country adventures on social media, I anticipated our meeting all the more!
In the months leading up to the Winter Dance Party, we assisted them with information about the Surf, its history surrounding the Winter Dance Party and some contacts. In exchange, they generously offered to film our interview with Bob Hale for The Airplay Channel.
When we met our U.K. friends in Clear Lake, the Winter Dance Party was in full swing. John presented the Surf with a guitar sculpture in Richardson's loving memory and performed his original song on stage. The crew followed John and his sidekick John Young everywhere (you wouldn't believe how many people thought he was Elvis Costello), so Sheryl and I were inevitably captured in their footage! Our photographer friend Dan Borland snapped a photo of Sheryl and I dancing with John and John on the legendary ballroom floor while we were filmed by the crew.
Sheryl and I flew into Mason City (the same regional airport Buddy, Ritchie and Bopper departed from on their short ill-fated flight) so we needed ground transport. A snow storm had delayed our flight from Chicago one whole day, so we had to hit the ground running. We connected with a fantastic local driver, but when the "Bopper Mobile" came on the scene, we were more than ready to climb aboard. I took a photo of it parked in front of the Surf Ballroom as we were about to embark. It turned heads like the scheduled rock and roll headliners. In true paparazzi form, our friend Dan took a photo of us riding in the "Bopper Mobile" on our way to interview Bob Hale. From accidental traffic violations to a stop at the ATM with curious onlookers, it was an adventure devoid of dull moments!
If this story is any indication, my work isn't all archives and academia. I'm not a conventional historian or musicologist. I'm a multi-disciplinarian, a hybrid daughter. In my world, chasing music history and its ever-evolving story of people and place is a thrilling ride, sometimes literally! And it's a ride I aspire to take audiences on regularly through my work. After all, we share the same destination: to celebrate the musical past in the here and now so that it will have a future!
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