Winter Dance Party

Winter Dance Party

When John Mueller decided to create a show he would call “Winter Dance Party” centered around Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (a.k.a., the “Big Bopper”), there was a fine line to walk. Due to the all-too-documented deaths of the trio in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield and all that Don McLean “day the music died” stuff of “American Pie,” Mueller had to come to grips with the maudlin element. Face it. If the three hadn’t died together in one collective instant, there really would be no “Winter Dance Party.” There might be a tribute out there to Buddy Holly and maybe a Ritchie Valens tribute tucked into a “Legends of Rock and Roll” type show, but surely the novelty act of The Big Bopper would have fizzled out years ago with hardly anyone remembering him (do you remember Lonnie Donegan and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor?”…we thought not).

The tragedy linked the trio for all time, and it was really Holly’s music that died. So Mueller had to come up with the tie-in to that fateful night yet keep it all upbeat and embrace a true “party” atmosphere.

He succeeded. Mueller’s “Winter Dance Party” is the only show of its kind endorsed by the Holly, Valens and Richardson estates.

The show features Mueller as Holly, Ray Anthony as Valens, and up until recently, The Big Bopper’s son, Jay P. Richardson, Jr. in the role of his father. Death came calling again when Jay P. Richardson Jr. passed away in August. Enter Linwood Sasser as the new “old” Big Bopper.

“Out of respect, we were somewhat hesitant to continue with the show right away,” Mueller explained to us in a recent phone interview on the death of Richardson Jr. “We talked with his family and they felt he would want us to carry on the legacy of his dad’s music, and luckily Linwood Sasser had been filling in for Jay due to Jay’s illnesses, so he was ready to go.

“Our first big date with Linwood was at the South Point Casino in Vegas. It turns out that was the last place Jay ever played with us, so it was very emotional. We put together a seven-minute memorial video and told the casino we couldn’t ignore his passing given the coincidence of the location and asked about the best way to honor him. We ran about a three or four minute video before the show started and we made an announcement to the audience about the video. They applauded it, dug it, and acknowledged it. It was cathartic for us to have it displayed in the last place he performed. It was helpful and healing for everyone.

“When Jay was healthy, he had the energy Linwood has now. The last couple of years, he’s had so many problems, that while his passing was a huge loss, he’s in a better place because there’s no more suffering.”

So the old chestnut of “the show must go on” held true and Mueller and company hit the road.

“We just got back from Illinois Sunday where we did quite a few shows this year,” he stated. “We’ve had fans come up to us afterward to say they are so sorry about Jay’s passing and that Lin was going a great job continuing on.

So, the “party” continues with all the hits the original trio put together back in the day—from “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby” and “Everyday” to “Chantilly Lace” and “La Bamba.” But Mueller adds, there will be a few surprises added.

“We put in different songs here and there and play certain songs that, say the Bopper would have done during a live show—like the fun song, “The Seekers,” he said. “We like adding a few of the obscure songs that audiences have never heard. The Bopper, like a lot of artists in that time, would do a lot of other people’s songs when they were on tour. I don’t know why artists don’t do that today. An old Buddy Holly set list would have included a lot of Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs, too.

“We also include new banter here and there, jokes, and music to get people excited. That’s the key.”

Another key is the live music. The back-up band is top notch and gives the feeling that you are really at a 1950s concert with all that ’50s sound progression.

“My biggest challenge is getting down Buddy Holly’s way of guitar playing and the sound,” explained Mueller. “He used guitar strings that were as heavy as piano wire. They were thick and round and had a big tone to them because they were so big. I get the heaviest strings I can find to get as close to getting that sound exactly the same. The other thing that’s hard to do is playing his songs live, because all we have to go on are his songs recorded in a studio.”

A little background, please…

•Mueller was the star of the U.S. touring version of the London/Broadway hit musical, “Buddy…the Buddy Holly Story.” When he created “The Winter Dance Party” he became promoter, producer and main star of the show. Many hats to wear but he’s worn them well.

The “Winter Dance Party” has been performed throughout the country, including a stop at the legendary Surf Ballroom in Iowa, 40 years to the day after Holly, Valens and Richardson played the room the day before the day the music died.

•Ray Anthony is a self-taught guitar player, bass player, drummer and songwriter who struck gold when he went the tribute circuit. It wasn’t that he looked like Ritchie Valens but rather he resembled Lou Diamond Phillips, the actor who starred in the 1987 film about Valens, “La Bamba.” This case of art- imitating-life-imitating-art, has seen Anthony star in, or be featured in, such shows as “Legends In Concert” (the original tribute show), “Rock and Roll Heaven,” “Legends of Rock and Roll,” and “Superstars in Concert.”

•Linwood Sasser is not new to Mueller’s “Winter Dance Party.” He was called upon to take up the role of The Big Bopper on occasion since 2008. His other tribute performances include a ten year run with the “Blues Brothers Show” at Universal Studios Florida.

Sasser is also an actor who has done featured film work and national television commercials.



Riverside Resort, Don’s Celebrity Theatre

Wednesday-Sunday, November 20-24. 7 p.m. (See Showtimes for tickets)