LANCASTER, CA – Even though he had been in a hospital since the middle of February, Carl Bunch’s death is still a “shock” for his family, friends and fans.
The former drummer who suffered the most during the infamous Winter Dance Party Tour of 1959 died on Saturday from what his wife Dorothy describes as “complications from diabetes.”
Fans and close friends are offering tributes on Facebook to Bunch, 71, who was tapped to back Buddy Holly and other performers on the Tour.
Bob Hale was the Master of Ceremonies at the WDP stop in Clear Lake, Iowa on February second. In a posting on his Facebook page, Hale called Bunch “A gentle person; a kind person; a talented person and a smiling person. Kathy (Hale’s wife) and I are honored to have spent time with Carl and his wife. From making music to making people smile, Carl was a success. He used well the talents God gave him. And we are honored to know him and his wife. Carl Bunch and Buddy Holly – together again!”
Long time friend Randy Steele offered these words in an email after learning about Bunch’s death from one of his former band mates, “Carl was always a gentleman who never made himself a bigger part of the 1959 Winter Dance Party story than he was. Carl had suffered many health issues over the past few years but he was a believer of GOD’s word and now finds himself “healed” from all things and reunited with many family members and Buddy Holly in Heaven! He will be missed, may he forever rest in peace.”
The Big Spring, Texas native started drumming as a teenager and began playing with a group called Ronnie Smith and the Poor Boys.
In a posting on his Facebook page former band member Richard Porter called Bunch his best friend of 55 years, “It is an extraordinarily tough blow since our bass player, Bob Hardwick, died suddenly two years ago. Please keep his family in your prayers.”
Former Holly guitarist Tommy Allsup also posted this tribute to Bunch on his Facebook page, “Carl was one of the sweetest, kindest gentlemen I ever had the privilege of knowing. And we sure had some fun, memorable times together! A man of decency, integrity and a great sense of humor…a rare combination to say the least. May God bless his soul and may he rest in everlasting peace with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
In late 1958, Allsup helped recruit Bunch and bass player Waylon Jennings as Buddy Holly put together a band for what was billed as the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour.
It turned out to be a haphazard collection of show dates in several places in the upper Midwest in January and February of 1959.
Most involved long rides through bitterly cold conditions on buses with little or no heat, that were prone to breaking down.
Following their show in Duluth, Minnesota on January 31st, the troupe’s bus broke down in Northwest Wisconsin as they made their way to a date in Appleton.
During an interview at his Lancaster, California home in September of last year, Bunch recalled that the bus just froze up and stopped. It was late at night and they waited for hours before successfully flagging down a passing motorist for help.
In the time before the group was rescued, Bunch had to relieve himself. He described walking off the bus and into waist-deep snow.
He dusted himself off after getting back on board, but despite his best attempts to stay warm, Bunch ended up with frostbite on his feet. He was checked into a local hospital.
Bunch recalled how at one point during his stay he was visited by the tour’s headliners Buddy Holly, J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson and Ritchie Valens. It was a vivid memory for him. They told me everything “was going to be alright,” said Bunch. He learned later in a phone conversation with his mother while at the hospital that it wasn’t possible the trio could have visited him and they were dead.
His treatment forced him to miss a couple of tour dates. One of them was the now legendary show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa that was followed by a small plane crash that claimed the lives of Holly, Richardson, Valens and pilot Roger Peterson in the early morning hours of February 3rd, 1959.
In the true spirit of ensuring the show must go on, fellow performers Carlo Mastrangelo (Dion & The Belmonts), Valens and Holly had taken turns filling in for Bunch during his absence and recovery.
Bunch said that Allsup called him at the hospital and told him his fellow performers desperately needed him as they dealt with their sorrow and the demands of the tour following the crash.
“Most of the memories (of the tour) are good,” said Bunch, “That’s because I learned how to take a joke.”
Holly nicknamed Bunch “Goose” because of how he carried himself and after the percussionist accidently forgot his tailored outfit following a show on an early date in the tour.
Allsup said that incident prompted Holly to double check to make sure nothing was left behind before leaving after other show dates. The guitarist recalls how Holly sent him back into the Surf from a waiting station wagon following their February second performance to do a last minute walk through.
Allsup said his return gave Valens an opportunity to ask him once again if he would give up his seat on a small plane that Holly had chartered to fly to Fargo, North Dakota. Allsup maintains he settled the issue with a coin flip he lost and that is how Valens ultimately ended up on the fateful flight.
Following the tour, Bunch returned to Texas, joined the U.S. Army in 1959 and after his discharge he eventually wound up playing drums with the Bob Osburn band.
He moved to Nashville, where he backed Roy Orbison and Hank Williams Junior.
Dorothy Bunch recalls going with her mother to a show in the New York City area. Her mom was a popular disc jockey at a Country Music radio station. Dorothy Bunch said her mother pointed out Carl who was playing drums in the band; she predicted that her daughter would marry him.
The couple eventually settled in Southern California.
Even after he left the music business, Bunch wasn’t far away from entertainment. During a stint as a chauffer he recalled driving famed film director Peter Bogdanovich to an Academy Awards presentation.
He also drew a line on mischief. Bunch said on one occasion members of Sly and the Family Stone were playing with a handgun and passing it around in the back of his limousine. After he warned them to stop and they ignored him, Bunch said he parked the car in the Hollywood area, ordered them out, locked the limo and walked away.
Bunch became an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He operated a ministry and worked as a substance abuse counselor with a doctorate in Clinical Psychotheology.
He paid his final visit to Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom in 2009 to join the 50th anniversary events surrounding Holly, Richardson and Valens’ final show.
In recent years he had battled diabetes and was nearly blind.
Dorothy Bunch said her husband entered a hospital on Valentine’s Day to have his gall bladder removed.
He never fully recovered and she said Carl “didn’t have many good days over the past month.”
“On Friday he had a real good day, got out of bed and walked down the hall with the physical therapist,” said Bunch. But he died the next day at around 5:30 p.m. “of complications from diabetes.”
Dorothy Bunch said that one of the last things Carl did was lead a young man to the Lord. “Even though he knew he was dying, he was positive and at peace.”
Along with his wife, Bunch is survived his daughters Susan and Corrina, and his son James.
The details of a memorial service are still being worked out, but it is scheduled for this coming Sunday, at around 3 p.m. at the West Foursquare Church – Willow Springs Christian Fellowship in Rosamond, California.
Dorothy Bunch said that everyone is welcome to attend.
During his final interview last fall, Bunch proudly showed off his Ovation acoustic guitar he used in a music therapy program for hospital patients.
It was actually a replacement for another guitar that was stolen out of Bunch’s car while he worked at a hospital in Fountain Valley.
Bunch did not have the funds to buy another one, but when patients learned about his loss, they got together and raised enough money to buy him the Ovation.
“Everybody loved Carl,” said Dorothy Bunch.