Digging up the past

June 26th, 2009 at 6:06 am

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The Big Bopper sings his famous song, “Chantilly Lace,” on “American Bandstand.”

If you read our What’s Up! preview piece on “John Mueller’s Winter Dance Party” today, you’ll notice that we interviewed Jay Richardson, son of the legendary J.P. Richardson, known to rock ’n’ roll fans as The Big Bopper and famous for the song “Chantilly Lace.” He, along with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, died in a plane crash Feb. 3, 1959, while traveling to Fargo, N.D., for a concert at nearby Moorhead, Minn., as part of their ill-fated “Winter Dance Party” tour.

A good part of our conversation, however, had nothing to do with the show in which he’ll perform this Tuesday night at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. The topic was something we weren’t sure we would even bring up as it wasn’t germane to the tribute show to Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper. Frankly, it was kind of macabre. But it made the news during the past couple of years, and the upbeat, friendly Richardson was willing to talk about the subject without much prompting. So we jumped in.

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For years, rock ’n’ roll historians and conspiracy theorists have pondered why the plane crashed that fateful night in an Iowa cornfield. Initial reports were attributed to errors made by a young, inexperienced pilot. One detail has to do with The Big Bopper’s body, which was found significantly farther than anyone else’s after the crash. Could The Big Bopper still have been alive and tried to go for help? Some say he could have. Another one is that the Big Bopper, and others on the plane, may have suffered a gunshot wound. Buddy Holly reportedly always carried a gun when he toured.

Then, two years ago, Jay Richardson had his father’s body exhumed and reburied in a new casket. Why did he do it? And why did he have a medical examiner look at it? And, even bigger news, why did he tell a journalist late last year he would sell the old casket on eBay?

Richardson, who lives in Houston, said he could explain everything.

According to Richardson, he had been approached at least a couple of times by some who wanted to donate money to see an above-ground monument placed at his father’s grave site. The problem: the grave would have to be relocated to a different part of the cemetery where monuments were allowed, and his mother wasn’t willing to go through the process of reburying her husband.

“She said, ‘When I’m dead and buried, I don’t give a s*** what you do,’” he said. “Clean that up what you will, but that was Mom.”

After she died 5 1/2 years ago, he was approached again about plans to exhume his father and place a monument at his grave. This time, he could move forward, and since his father was going to be exhumed anyway, he thought he would have a medical examiner look at the body for historical purposes, especially since a lot of questions had been raised through the years.

A Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, acting coroner at the scene of the crash reported that Richardson died of multiple injuries. However, Richardson said that the fact that he was an “acting” coroner had always bothered him.

“It’s worse than being a coroner — if you’re just acting like one,” he said.

Richardson said he contacted Dr. Bill Bass, founder of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, who agreed to do an autopsy. The younger Richardson was present when they cracked open the casket. He said the doctor prepared him for what to expect: bones and no cloth.

“I opened the casket and my father was totally preserved,” he said. “The flat top was standing up. A crease was still in his pants. It was remarkable. Even though it was a body, when you get down to it, it was my father.”

The doctor’s conclusion mirrored the coroner’s: The Big Bopper sustained too many injuries to be able to run away from the plane to get help. There were no indications of bullet wounds.

However, a new saga began.

The doctor told Richardson that though the casket was in good shape, it couldn’t be resealed. The Batesville Casket Co., which produced the casket The Big Bopper was originally buried in, agreed to donate a new one provided they could inspect the old one — a rare opportunity.

“They wanted to see how their casket held up 48 years underground,” he said.

With a new casket, Richardson decided he wanted another funeral for him so he and his children could pay homage.

And so they did.

His children — The Big Bopper’s grandchildren — were pallbearers. It was tastefully done, Richardson said, with the casket closed. It was then buried in an area of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Beaumont, Texas, where a historical marker resides next to it.

Which begged the question, what do you do with a used casket that contained one of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll who died in one of the most recognized tragedies in history?

The news spiraled out of control after being interviewed by a local journalist, who asked him what he planned to do with it.

“I said, ‘I’ve considered a lot of things,’” he said. “Crushing it up — crushing it up in a car crusher and having it dumped out in the ocean. Put four wheels on it and a steering wheel and entering it in a derby. You know, just off-the-cuff stuff. I said, ‘I’ve never thought about it.’ When you do this, there isn’t a book for dummies on what to do with a used casket.”

After the interview was over, the reporter followed up with an e-mail question: Would he consider selling it on eBay?

Richardson said he e-mailed him back with one word: “Yes.”

“Well, that’s what made the papers,” he said.

The news was picked up from various outlets from the Chicago Tribune to Fox News.

It never went on eBay.

And now, more than six months later, where is the casket? On display at the Texas Musicians Museum in Hillsboro, Texas, he said.

Still, Richardson said he doesn’t regret exhuming his father, especially since it enabled him to have a second funeral for his father — one where he could be present.

“It was the most moving experience of my life,” he said. “People tried to turn it into something that it wasn’t.”

  • Rita DuBois

    My uncle was married to Debra Joy Richardson and they had two son’s, Dwight and Wayne, who are my cousins. We have been out of touch for many years and I was wondering if you were in contact with them. I know Debbie was ill for many years and my grandmother took care of the boys when they were young. Any information you can share.

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