Last month, I split a piece of apple pie with Buddy Holly at a casino bar and grill in Dubuque, Iowa. It was around 3 p.m. on a Saturday, an hour before the first of two sold-out shows at the Mississippi Moon Room. The Moon Room is a theater buried completely inside the Diamond Jo Casino, with gaming slots even operating next to the seats farthest from the stage. Holly’s most famous peers, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, were there, too. We all dug into the slice, cutting it in fourths and digging out some vanilla ice cream each with our spoons. The trio had been given food vouchers as part of their payment.
Sixty years ago, during a tour called the Winter Dance Party, Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash famously memorialized as “the Day the Music Died.” In Dubuque, however, the Winter Dance Party is still alive. Ritchie Valens is Ray Anthony, a veteran performer of ’50s music in both Las Vegas and Branson, Missouri for decades. The Big Bopper is Linwood Sasser, who, when not in leopard print suits, works as Louie Anderson’s stand-in on FX’s Baskets.
And the man who is Buddy Holly this weekend — and has been for the last 25 years — is John Mueller. Mueller, whose Holly impersonation has been endorsed by Holly’s former band members and his widow, is the consummate tribute artist. He’s performed in every remaining ballroom that Holly played during the original Winter Dance Party, as well as countless casinos, performing arts centers, and theatres across the country.
The three men are fully into their fifties, but sitting across from them, it is strangely difficult to try and guess just how old they are. Mueller has been touring full time with Anthony and several Big Boppers — including the real Big Bopper’s son Jay Perry Richardson — since starting the Winter Dance Party back in 1999. But his first Holly portrayal dates back to 1992 in Los Angeles, when he was cast in an avant-garde rock opera called Be Bop A Lula. The stage production imagines one night in a hotel room in England in 1960, in which Holly contemporary Eddie Cochran narrates a premonition of his early death to rockabilly legend Gene Vincent (Cochran died in a car accident later that year). The two share jokes about Holly's plane crash, and Holly appears later in the night, disguised as the devil.
At the time, Mueller was mostly working small roles as an actor. (Lots of police officers and firemen make up his IMDB page, but also “Brad the Homecoming King” on Ellen’s TV show.) From there, he was cast via VHS tape as Holly in the musical Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story, starring in the production for four years in theaters across the country. After one show in 1997 at Chicago’s Apollo Theater, a chance encounter with a fan gave him the glasses he still wears during his performances. “Some guy came up to me after the show and he said, ‘You need to have these,’” Mueller said. The fan whipped out the same style of vintage Faosa glasses that Buddy Holly wore. “He had bought a pair in 1959 in college, and he gave them to me.” He’s had them ever since, and packs them with his Stratocaster: there isn’t a point in trying to perform without both. “If I lose them, I feel like I’d be screwed. Like I couldn’t do it anymore or something,” he said.
Apart from the glasses, there’s the fact that Mueller eerily already sort of looks like Holly, complete with a brown pompadour and the same sharp jawline. His own embodiment of Holly has gone beyond a mere physical resemblance: Over the years he has reprogrammed his singing voice to sound like Holly’s breathy tenor, even in his own original music.
Back in 2002, Chuck Klosterman wrote that the goal of a tribute act “is not to be somebody; their goal is to be somebody else.” By this standard, in 2019, Mueller has reached the zenith of this art form. His picture is often used on Holly memorabilia, bootleg or otherwise, particularly in Europe, like these T-shirts. Across the internet, his photo slips into videos like this YouTube rip of Holly’s “Oh Boy,” which now has over 5 million views. He even made it into a Paul McCartney concert photo montage at a Buddy Holly Memorial Concert in Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Oh, and he was once accidentally paid via a check made out to “Buddy Holly.”
The Winter Dance Party show in Dubuque was just a few days before BASE Hologram announced plans to run three concurrent Holly hologram tours across the U.S, U.K. and Europe. As we talked, Mueller revealed that he was recently considered as the basis for a similar endeavor. “Last year, USA Hologram brought me into their office because they were considering doing a Buddy Holly hologram,” he said. “How it works is they hire somebody who looks as close as possible to the original person… They would just use my body and superimpose his face and footage that they have from him.”
Mueller is 57 years old, to be exact, and lives in Los Angeles when he’s not on the road. He said the show has “wreaked havoc” on his personal life, imposing concepts that aren’t in Buddy Holly songs, like divorce and mind-numbing travel. But at every show, for an hour and 45 minutes, he sheds it all to become a 22-year-old Texan, forever stuck in time. When he isn’t doing Holly, he also performs as Holly contemporary Carl Perkins in his other production, One Night in Memphis. It’s a tribute to an oft-romanticized night at the iconic Sun Studios during which Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley all wound up together in front of a microphone. That’s what he’d been doing all week, his suitcase in the hotel across the street full of rock n’ roll costumes and “Layrite” brand hair cream.
If he’s double-booked, Mueller sometimes sends out another Carl Perkins in his place. He said that he has One Night in Memphis entirely double cast with backup musicians, a fairly common practice among the most popular tribute shows. That’s something he can’t do for the Winter Dance Party shows, though, at least not for the Holly part. “I don’t have a replacement for myself,” he said, laughing. Holly and Perkins are the only two he does, as his years in the tribute business have exposed him to countless hackneyed performers with a bag of costumes and little else. “I just don’t want to slap on a wig and all of the sudden I’m Elvis Presley or something,” he said.
Mueller has no plans to retire, though it is something that he thinks about. “If my voice started faltering or if I had horrible arthritis or something that would prevent me from doing it, then I would certainly hang it up. You don’t want to be like that punch-drunk fighter that goes back out to fight even though he should have hung it up years ago,” he said. “I guess I’ll kind of let the fans and the people who book us determine whether I go out or not.”
The sold-out 4 p.m. casino crowd at The Mississippi Moon Room was a lot of canes, and a lot of walkers. The mixed drinks were strong in an apparent attempt to get the Baby Boomers to drop some cash into the machines on their way out. It was a nostalgia sale, plain and simple, but we all sort of expected that. The show began with Mueller announcing “put out your Pall Malls, put away your rotary phones, and put away your hula hoops!” Pictures of the three musicians were projected onto a screen behind the band as their tributes played in front of them. Mueller said he used to present himself on stage as if he were Holly and do the act in the whole thing in the first person, but it’s shifted over the years to the explicit third person, allowing him to play more interpreter than complete reincarnation.
Each of the trio of performers truthfully embodied their deceased counterparts, in costume, voice, and movement. They took their turns on stage, trading places after two or three songs each, with Muller acting as emcee and grabbing the most performance time. He had the all important skip-singing cadence of Holly down, and played lively and respectable guitar solos throughout. One man continually yelled “We love you Buddy!” throughout the show, even when he wasn’t on the stage. They threw in Mueller’s own original “Hey, Buddy” and a couple of period-appropriate group numbers, (the Chuck Berry mega-hits “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode”) for good measure, and walked off to a standing ovation.
Afterwards, the trio were drinking at the end of the casino bar where we’d earlier eaten apple pie, trying to blend in with their hair still doo-wopped in place. Everybody wanted to buy them a shot or tell them a story about the people they play in the show — where they were when they first heard their music, or more often where they were when they heard that their plane had crashed.
Mueller said this is common fare, as if sharing their experiences with these three strangers, and him in particular, is somehow part of the show. He’s had decades to practice quietly accepting the delicate praise of being told that he is great at sounding like someone else, existing as he does as a kind of proxy to their own erstwhile memories. “I’ve reached a bigger audience and done more of his music than [Holly] ever had the opportunity to,” he said. “That’s a bittersweet thing for me. I’m honored to be able to do that, but I’m sad that he wasn’t able to fully enjoy his creative genius because of this tragic accident.”
When he lands back home in Los Angeles, he will get what he estimates to be a $50 haircut, plus a tip. It’s a small fee to get to be Buddy Holly, even if just for a little while. Right now, sitting in the casino bar, he had an hour to kill before the second show, still looking like Holly though he had taken off the suit. More fans approached him, with more stories to tell him about the man they think he is. He smiled, like Holly used to, though this time he was wearing his own glasses.