The day the music lives: O.C. musician plans Buddy Holly celebration in Newport Beach

Buddy Holly super fan and musician J.P. McDermott will host Winter Dance Party at Campus Jax in Newport Beach.
Buddy Holly super fan and musician J.P. McDermott will host Winter Dance Party, at Campus Jax in Newport Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

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

“To me, Buddy Holly is like Bach,” said McDermott. “There is something sort of perfect about his songwriting. They are not that long but they are perfectly put together and a lot of people think they are simple, but there is a lot of complexity underneath.”

McDermott discovered he wasn’t the only one from the new wave genres who felt the connection to songs written by a 22-year-old from Lubbock, Texas.

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

In the winter of 1959, Buddy Holly joined Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known professionally as the Big Bopper, on a 24-day tour of the Midwest known as Winter Dance Party. The tour bus conditions were less than desirable, and Holly booked a charter plane to fly his band to the next gig. The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history. Holly, Richardson and Valens perished when the charter plane crashed just after take off from Mason City Municipal Airport. The tragic story has been the subject of songs and films 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 catalogue. Though the Old Town Orange resident, who plays the guitar and sings, said the beginnings of his tribute began even earlier.

“The first one was back in 1981,” McDermott said.

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

“I played the four or five Buddy Holly songs I knew at the time, but that planted the seed,” said McDermott. “I thought some day I have really got to do this right.”

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

COVID-19 prevented a show last year, but this year McDermott has organized his own Winter Dance Party on Feb. 18 at Newport Beach’s Campus Jax.

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

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

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

McDermott has gathered an impressive lineup of rockabilly musicians for the show that will feature 40 Buddy Holly ballads along with songs from Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.

Big Sandy, singer and band leader 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 popular SoCal country band Lil Sue and the Cowtippers are among the headliners.

“Carl Sonny Leyland is going to do a Big Bopper song, and I will be doing a couple Ritchie Valens hits,” said McDermott. “Because you can’t do this without paying tribute to Ritchie.”

When McDermott isn’t playing Holly’s songs, he is playing his own with his band J.P. McDermott & Western Bop. Their latest release, a four-song EP called “Lucky Stars” comes out on all music-streaming platforms on Jan. 28.

Buddy Holly super fan and musician J.P. McDermott will host Winter Dance Party at Campus Jax.
Buddy Holly super fan and musician J.P. McDermott will host Winter Dance Party at Campus Jax in Newport Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

McDermott hopes people who love Buddy Holly’s songs will feel the thrill of hearing his music live, but he is also hoping to reach concert-goers who are less familiar with Holly’s songbook.

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

Tickets for Winter Dance Party are available for $15 and up at

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