Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr. (October 24, 1930 – February 3, 1959), better known as The Big Bopper (but called ‘Jape’ by friends) was a disc jockey who parlayed a big voice and exuberant personality into a career as an early rock and roll star. He is best known for his hit song ‘Chantilly Lace’.
He was born in Sabine Pass, Texas, the oldest son of Jiles Perry, Sr. and Elise (Stalsby) Richardson. His father was an oil field worker and driller. He had two younger brothers, Cecil and James. Within a short time the family moved to Beaumont, Texas. He graduated from Beaumont High School in 1947 and was a member of the ‘Royal Purple’ football team, wearing number 85 as a defensive lineman.
Richardson later studied law at Lamar College, and was a member of the band and chorus. During this time he worked part time at KTRM Radio. On April 18, 1952, Richardson married Adrianne Joy Fryou from Montegut, Louisiana, and by 1955 he had joined the United States Army, where he spent two years as a radar instructor at Fort Bliss. Upon his discharge, he began working at KTRM Radio, where he held down the ‘Dishwashers’ Serenade’ shift from 11am to 12.30pm, Monday through Friday.
One of the sponsors wanted Richardson for a new time slot and suggested a gimmick for the show. Richardson noticed all the college kids doing a dance called The Bop, so he decided to become known as ‘The Big Bopper’. He kicked off a new radio show from 3-6pm and soon The Big Bopper became the station's program director. In May of 1957, Jape Richardson broke the record for continuous on-the-air broadcasting by eight minutes. He went a total of five days, two hours and eight minutes, playing 1,821 records and taking showers during five-minute newscasts. During the marathon, he lost 35 pounds (16 kg). KTRM paid Richardson $746.50 for his overtime and he quickly hit the sack for 20 hours.
Around this time, Richardson – who played guitar – started writing more songs. George Jones later recorded Richardson’s ‘White Lightning’, which became his first #1 country hit in 1959 (#73 on the pop charts). Richardson also wrote ‘Running Bear’ for his friend from Port Arthur, Texas, Johnny Preston. Inspiration for the song came from Richardson’s childhood memory of the Sabine River, where he heard stories about Indian tribes. Jape sang background on ‘Running Bear’ but it wasn't released until September 1959, after his death. Within several months it went to #1.
The man who launched Richardson as a recording artist was Harold ‘Pappy’ Dailey from Houston. Dailey was promotion director for Mercury and Starday Records and signed Richardson to Mercury. Richardson’s first single ‘Beggar To A King’ had a country flavor, but failed to gain any chart action. He soon cut ‘Chantilly Lace’ as ‘The Big Bopper’ for Pappy Dailey’s D label. Mercury bought the recording and released it during the summer of 1958. It reached 16 on the pop charts and spent 22 weeks on the national Top 40.
With the success of ‘Chantilly Lace’, Richardson took some time off from KTRM Radio and joined Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Ritchie Valens, and Dion & the Belmonts for a ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour. On February 2, 1959, Buddy Holly chartered a Beechcraft Bonanza to take him and his new Crickets band (Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings) to Fargo, North Dakota. Richardson came down with the flu and didn’t feel comfortable on the bus, so Waylon gave his plane seat to him. Valens had never flown on a small plane and requested Allsup’s seat. They flipped a coin and Valens called heads and won the toss.
In the early morning of February 3, following a February 2 performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, the small four-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza took off into a blinding snow storm and crashed into Albert Juhl’s cornfield several miles after takeoff at 1.05am. The crash killed Holly, Valens, Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson. This event would become known as “The Day the Music Died”.
At the time of his death, Richardson, 28, left behind his wife Adrianne Joy, four-year-old Debra Joy, and a baby son who was born after his death, Jay P. Richardson. Richardson had been building a recording studio in his home in Beaumont, Texas, before that last tour and was also planning to invest in the ownership of a radio station. In addition, he had written 20 new songs with plans to record by himself and with other artists. Richardson was a well-loved figure who was known to care deeply about his family.
In 1988, Ken Paquette, a Wisconsin fan of the ’50s era, erected a stainless steel monument depicting a steel guitar and a set of three records bearing the names of each of the three performers. It is located on private farmland, about one quarter mile west of the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue, approximately eight miles north of Clear Lake. He also created a similar stainless steel monument to the three musicians near the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin. That memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003.
The Big Bopper is fondly remembered not only for his distinctive singing and songwriting, but also as a humorist who combined the best elements of country, R&B and rock 'n' roll.