Original publish date: February 17, 2017
Leap years generally go unnoticed by everyone except those who were born on one. Leap years are recognized every four years in the month of February by tacking an extra day onto the end. To most, leap years are just another event in a month of neglected holidays. After all, when is the last day you celebrated Ground hog day? Or President’s day? To make matters worse, leap years land on Presidential election years which tend to shrink the calendar as it is. Nobody ever remembers leap years. However, one event from a leap year 37 years ago (this week) struck a chord from beyond Rock ‘n Roll eternity.
On February 29, 1980, a pair of glasses were found in a filing cabinet of the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s office in Mason City, Iowa. The glasses had a peculiar government issued appearance that looked oddly out of place for the Disco Era discovery. Today that style could be spotted in every office, college campus or corner coffee shop. The glasses were found in a manila envelope marked simply, “Charles Hardin Holley received April 7, 1959”. Along with the glasses, four dice, a cigarette lighter and a watch belonging to one Jiles Perry Richardson were also in the envelope. The lenses of the glasses were missing but the watch still ran pretty well.
The relics had been resting in sweet repose for nearly twenty-one years. They had been found at the scene of the February 3, 1959 plane crash that took the life of pop stars Richie Valens, the Big Bopper J.P. Richardson, Buddy Holly and pilot Roger Peterson. The charter plane’s wreckage was strewn across nearly 300 yards of snow-covered cornfields. The death certificate issued by the Cerro Gordo County Coroner noted the clothing Holly was wearing, the presence of a leather suitcase near his body and the following personal effects: Cash $193.00 less $11.65 coroner’s fees – $181.35, 2 Cuff links: silver 1/2 in. balls having jeweled band, Top portion of ball point pen. Notably missing from the list were Holly’s signature eyeglasses. Officially, the crash was caused by a combination of inclement weather and pilot error. To fans, it would forever be remembered as the day the music died.
The wristwatch and cigarette lighter belonged to Richardson and the horn rimmed glasses belonged to Buddy Holly. It is widely believed that the envelope had remained undiscovered because nobody recognized the innocuous plain sounding name Charles Hardin Holley written on the outside. The envelope was found while some records were being moved. Officials speculated that the leftover items had been found by a farmer two months later after the snow melted. The coroner’s office collected (and then misplaced) them in the process of moving to a new county courthouse.
The Big Bopper’s watch was inscribed with a legend for a 1957 disc-a-thon, an important milestone in his life. In May 1957, at the Jefferson Theatre in Beaumont Texas broadcasting from radio station KTRM, the Big Bopper beat the record for continuous broadcasting that had been set by a DJ in El Paso just months before. The disc-a-thon was a popular radio station gimmick where DJ’s would stay on air continuously playing records to the point of exhaustion. Kids would rush to the station, crowding the studio and parking lots, to see how long their local DJ could last.
Richardson had been awake for a little over 3 days before he began to show signs of severe sleep deprivation. Several breaks were taken to refresh JP. Cold Towels, Hot Coffee mixed with adrenaline were used to keep him awake. The record was broken at 122 hours and 8 minutes (a little over 5 days) during which the Big Bopper stayed on air and awake the entire time. At the tail end of the sleepless marathon, Richardson began to hallucinate. Exhausted, he was carried from the studio in an ambulance. Later, he recalled one hallucination that foretold his own death. Afterwards, he told a friend, “the other side wasn’t that bad.”
Buddy’s glasses had been thrown clear of the plane wreckage and buried in the snow. Those glasses were special, they were Buddy Holly’s trademark. The focal point of a carefully crafted look. They became the single item most remembered by his fans. However, they weren’t his first choice. The Texas-born singer had 20/800 vision and couldn’t read the top line of the eye chart as a boy. At first he performed spec-less, thinking glasses would hurt his image. According to Texas Monthly, that changed after an early show where he dropped his guitar pick and had to crawl around on stage searching for it. At first, Holly asked his Lubbock, Texas, optometrist, Dr. J. Davis Armistead to be fitted with contact lenses. Buddy was a patient of his since junior high after being referred by the school nurse, and remained his patient until his untimely death at the age of 22.
It was early 1956, and Holly was going to an audition in Tennessee. The contact lenses back then were thick and bulky and had to be floated over the cornea and sclera with saline solution, which would cloud up and needed to be frequently replaced. Holly was unable to wear his contacts for more than an hour or two at a time, so Buddy watched and waited offstage until just before his time to go on, he then ran to the bathroom and inserted the contacts. The judges called an unexpected break and by the time they returned, Buddy couldn’t see the audience. Ditching the contacts, he went home and switched back to a understated plastic and metal framed pair of eyeglasses, chosen precisely to blend in rather than stand out.
Before his June 2014 death, Dr. Armistead recalled. “Buddy was trying to wear the least conspicuous frames he could find. Personally, I was not happy with the frame styles we had been using. I did not think they contributed anything to a distinct personality that a performer needs.” Armistead was watching Phil Silvers play Sergeant Bilko on television one night when he realized what skillful use Silvers made of the black-rimmed glasses to define Bilko’s character. He thought that a heavier-rimmed pair would be perfect for Holly’s narrow face. While on vacation in Mexico City, Armistead found a pair of heavy plastic frames that he felt were perfect for Buddy. Made by a Mexican company named Faiosa, the frames featured angular, slightly up swept top corners that looked like tail fins on a 57 Chevy. He brought back two pairs, one black and one demi-amber, and fitted them with Holly’s prescription lenses. Holly chose the black pair. “Those heavy black frames achieved exactly what we wanted—they became a distinct part of him.”
Holly was rough on his glasses, breaking several pairs. He became a regular visitor to Armistead’s office in search of a new pair. “He always had a gang with him when he came by the clinic,” Armistead told a reporter in 2008. “I always knew when he was out front because I could hear them beating the time (to a song) on the corner table in the waiting room.” If Armistead could not get the Faiosa frames, he supplied Holly with similar Sidewinder or Freeway frames, made by an American company called Shuron. Much to the delight of bespectacled nerds everywhere, Holly managed to make wearing thick-framed glasses cool.
When Holly and his wife, the former María Elena Santiago, moved to New York in the summer of 1958, Buddy started buying his glasses from Courmettes and Gaul, a Manhattan optometry office that was able to obtain the Mexican frames for him. Those were the glasses that he was wearing when he was killed on that snowy February night in 1959.
When that envelope was discovered, Holly’s parents claimed the glasses, as did his widow, and on March 20, 1981, a judge awarded the eyeglasses to María Elena in the same Mason City courthouse where they were discovered. According to the book “The Day the Music Died…” by Larry Lehmer, the Cerro Gordo Sheriff’s office ignored a Holly fanatic from Delaware who offered his entire life savings ($502.37) for the glasses. Maria kept them until October 1998, when she sold them to Civic Lubbock, the nonprofit cultural organization that created the Buddy Holly Center. The price was $80,000. Today the glasses, visibly scarred from the plane crash, are on exhibit at the center, in a case near Holly’s Fender Strato-caster guitar. Other pieces in the collection include Buddy’s stage clothing, letters, photos, and a book containing handwritten song lyrics.
Buddy Holly’s thick black frames were rock ’n roll’s first great fashion statement and they became almost as iconic and influential as his music itself. Until Buddy came along, people wearing eyeglasses suffered a certain stigma in the fifties. Buddy Holly paved the way for Roy Orbison to perform wearing distinctive eye-wear (the very same style as Buddy’s). Another notable influence was on Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Both were huge fans of Holly, claiming it was him who inspired them to play, sing and write their own songs. They called their band The Beatles as a nod to Holly’s band The Crickets. In a 1986 interview, McCartney remarked that before Buddy rock stars couldn’t wear glasses on stage, and that seeing him perform in his thick black frames made them want to start a band too. John Lennon was extremely nearsighted, and surely Buddy had influenced John’s signature round spectacles. One thing is certain: Buddy Holly’s black frames spoke to a generation and that leap year discovery in a dusty filing cabinet 37 years ago this week gave the world one last look at a rock ‘n roll legend thru a storied pair of glasses.