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March 17 1999
March 12 1999
Mueller, his music brings Buddy Holly back to us
"Buddy Holly.. Not Fade Away"
conceived by John Mueller, at Cabaret Oldtown
By Diane Lewis
March 17, 1999

Former Wichitan John Mueller is back in town with a new take on Buddy Holly.  This time, it's "Buddy Holly... Not Fade Away." 

This is a show conceived by Mueller, as was the previous one ("Buddy Holly Live... Almost"). But this time around it's shorter and snappier. The night I saw the show, it was also a whole lot louder. 

"Buddy Holly" is a tribute to Holly, a musician who died young and, in a lesser sense, to two other young musicians who perished with him -- Ritchie Valens and J.R. Richardson, also known as the Big Bopper. The three men and their pilot died in a lightplane crash following a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959. 

But mostly it is a tribute to the music of Holly, whose records, concerts and television appearances helped define early rock 'n' roll. Expect to hear such favorites as "Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll," "Not Fade Away," "Blue Days, Black Nights," "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Well, Alright" and others. I say "expect to hear" because Mueller was still tweaking the show last week.

Tweaked or not, Mueller has been called flawless in his performance as Holly.  He is. I was high on the show a year ago, but this tighter version is even stronger. There is less biography, but the high points are there: the formation of his band, the Crickets; the Decca recording contract that went nowhere; the band's work with Norman Petty at his recording studio in Albuquerque; their appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show"; and Holly's brief marriage that helped break up the band.

But mostly, there's the great music in just enough context to time-travel back 40 years. 

Mueller isn't just Holly the singer, he's also Holly the guitarist. The fine band for the show includes Ken Kretzchmar on guitar, Steve Hatfield on drums, Sean Fanning on bass and Kevin Moore on saxophone. 

Kyle Vespestad as Valens and Ronda Kingwood as Laverne Baker are reprising their roles in the show. Happily, this time around each has more time in front of the mike. Added for Valens is the song "Donna," (his record of it was No. 1 at the time). The awesome Kingwood joins Mueller for "Slippin' & Slidin'." 

J.R. Hurst and Monte Wheeler are job-sharing the role of the Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace"). Wheeler, padded almost beyond recognition, plays the portly performer with restraint -- so far. These types of roles tend to get campy in an extended run.

"Hey, Buddy," a ballad Mueller wrote using many of the titles of Holly's hits, closes the show on a somber note. Not to worry, this band can restore the high energy in the shake of a leg.

Rave on.

Diane Lewis writes about theater, arts and entertainment. She can be reached at 268-6249 and at

Just like Buddy Holly
The Cabaret Oldtown show is a re-creation
of the music of the legend and a few friends.
By Diane Lewis
March 12, 1999
A year ago, former Wichitan John Mueller rolled into town with his rockin'  musical tribute to the late Buddy Holly. 

For six weeks, "Buddy Holly.. Live Almost" played to sold-out crowds at Cabaret Oldtown.

Mueller's back in town as Buddy Holly, and his newly tweaked "Buddy Holly...Not Fade Away" opened Thursday at Cabaret Oldtown.

Mueller is even more in tune with Holly -- the legendary singer and guitarist who died in a plane crash in 1959 -- than he was last year. 

He and a group of performers re-created the Winter Dance Party tour that ended with Holly's death, along with those of Ritchie ("La Bamba") Valens and J.R. ("Chantilly Lace") Richardson (the Big Bopper), near Clear Lake, Iowa.  The deaths of the three young performers and their pilot on Feb. 3, 1959, was immortalized as "the day the music died." 

Forty years later, Mueller and the others crisscrossed the Upper Midwest, as had Holly, Valens and Richardson for their final 11 shows before the ill-fated plane crash.

The experience left Mueller still "rockin'," he said in a telephone call from Los Angeles.

Two Wichitans joined Mueller on the tour -- singer/sax player Kevin Moore and sound engineer Jeff Priddle. Both are back at the Cabaret for the show. 

The tour started Jan. 23 and ended Feb. 3 in Clear Lake. Where possible, the Dance Party played the same ballrooms --"those that were still remaining," Mueller said.

"That got a little eerie," Mueller said. "Ernie (Valens, Ritchie's cousin) broke down at the end of the show in Milwaukee. It was bittersweet, of course, but it was pretty neat that we were in the same place." 

Toward the end of the 11-show tour, Mueller said, he came to understand why Holly had chartered a plane 40 years ago. 

Even in 15-passenger club vans which Mueller said were "pretty warm and cozy," the hours were long and the trip was grueling. 

Holly and his group were in "broken-down buses that had no heaters. I just can't imagine the hardships they went through on top of the traveling." 

The penultimate night on the tour, Mueller said, was amazing.

"We pulled into Green Bay. The mayor gave us the keys to the city. It was a Monday night and we had over 1,100 people there at the Riverside Ballroom." 

That was the original ballroom where the first tour played. But that wasn't the capper, Mueller said. 

"There were two ladies named the Bender twins who got their pictures taken with Buddy, Bopper and Ritchie backstage 40 years when they played there.  And they were there the same night I was," Mueller said. "I met them. I got my picture taken with them. We brought them out on stage and they danced to one of the songs." 

Mueller met a number of people throughout the tour who had seen and heard Holly and the others 40 years earlier. "They were thrilled to see what we were doing.

"It was really inspiring. The whole trip was just amazing." 

Mueller paused and said flatly, "It was just exhausting as heck." He also lost his voice on the final day.

Just what the band of contemporary musicians and technicians had done didn't really hit Mueller until he was back in California. 

"Nobody else has ever done that," he said in amazement. "Nobody's been crazy enough to try to retrace the exact steps and do concerts." 

For nearly four years, Mueller has been playing the nerdy-looking rock 'n' roll icon. First he starred in the British musical "Buddy.. The Buddy Holly Story" in Kansas City, San Diego and Chicago. During his run in the latter, the Chicago Tribune said "John Mueller is living proof that Buddy Holly's legacy will live on."

"Buddy," however, has a cast of 35, so Mueller decided to write his own smaller show about Holly and his music and his band, the Crickets. With a smaller cast it would be more attractive to producers. That was the show he brought to Cabaret Oldtown a year ago. 

In addition to Mueller, the revamped show includes singers Ronda Kingwood (Laverne Baker), Kyle Vespestad (Valens), J.R. Hurst and Monte Wheeler taking turns as the Big Bopper, and musicians Steve Hatfield, drums; Kevin Moore, sax; Sean Fanning, bass; and Ken Kretzchmar, guitar.

Both versions of Mueller's show recount Holly's short life and his rise to popularity, interspersed with his music. The second act is the final concert when he shares the stage with the Big Bopper and Valens.

One of the things that's new with the current show is the addition of "Donna," which is sung by the Valens character. "It was the number one song at the time," Mueller noted.

Holly was only 22 when he died. Because Holly's career was so short-lived, no one expected his music to still be drawing fans years later.

But it does.

They still keep coming to hear "Peggy Sue," "That'll Be the Day," "It's So Easy" and, of course, "Not Fade Away." 

Mueller's tribute to Holly and his music continued earlier this year with the addition of his original song "Hey, Buddy" on his album from Day Old Records, "A Boy's Got to Do What a Boy's Got to Do." The words of the song include the titles of many of Holly's signature songs.

Diane Lewis writes about theater, arts and entertainment. She can be reached at 268-6249 and at

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