Rock 'n' roll's most macabre historical artifact will go on the block when the family of the late 1950s pop star J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson auctions his casket on eBay sometime in the next few weeks - almost 50 years after "the day the music died."
The Big Bopper's 16-gauge steel casket was exhumed last year from his original grave at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont so it could be moved to a more visible location with a life-sized statue and historic marker. The disinterment also offered forensic experts a chance - with his family's blessing - to examine the pop singer's unautopsied remains after his death in rock 'n' roll's first great tragedy.
On Feb. 3, 1959, Richardson died at age 28 in the crash of a small plane in a field near Clear Lake, Iowa, that also killed 1950s rock stars Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and sent a shock wave around the world. The accident has since been immortalized as "the day the music died."
Richardson was buried a few days later in his Beaumont hometown with great fanfare, including tributes from Elvis Presley and others.
Jay Richardson, the Bopper's son, plans to sell the empty casket on eBay to raise money for a musical show about his father and to keep the Bopper's memory alive. Born three months after the crash, Jay, who lives in Katy, never met his father in life - but saw him for the first time at his exhumation.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful to bring Dad back to life?" Jay, 49, said recently from Canada, where he was touring with a tribute act to his father, Holly and Valens.
"I have no personal use for the casket," he said. "When you get down to it, it is just a metal box. More important is what this particular metal box represents.
"In another 200 years, will people care about rock 'n' roll?" Jay asks. "Who knows? But why would I want to destroy it? Even though it was Dad's resting place for 48 years, it's also a unique opportunity to learn more about the early years of rock 'n' roll."
The exhumed casket is in surprisingly good condition after 48 years in the muddy gumbo of Southeast Texas (shown at right). It bears minor rust spots and a white lime stain showing where several inches of water once leaked into the surrounding vault, but there was no evidence water had ever seeped into the casket itself.
Inside, forensic examiners found the Big Bopper's well-preserved corpse, dressed in a black suit and a blue-and-gray striped tie. He wore socks, but no shoes. Most remarkably, his thick brown hair was still perfectly coiffed in his familiar, 1950s flat-top.
After the 2007 autopsy found he died of crash-related injuries, the Big Bopper was reburied in a sleek new casket donated by the Batesville Casket Co., which made the original. Since late last year, the old casket has been on public display at the Texas Musicians Museum in Hillsboro, Texas.
Tom Kreason, the museum's founder and a rock historian who has developed collections for the legendary Sun Records Museum in Memphis and the Hard Rock Cafe, admits the casket is macabre but says it is a "priceless" artifact of a historic moment in music.
"We gave it a name. We called it 'the day the music died' and there's no title bestowed on any other tragic days since," Kreason said. "No one knew, then, what was being created. This (casket) is very symbolic of how we lost three incredible artists, but it's also a statement about what we've lost with many other artists, too."
The Big Bopper died right as he was hitting the big time. The happy-go-lucky Texas deejay in a leopard-skin jacket would sell a million records but never see a dime from his greatest hit, "Chantilly Lace," a two-minute 1959 novelty song that is both innocent and suggestive.
Richardson, who also wrote the George Jones hit, "White Lightning," was toying with an idea he had for a new kind of jukebox that would play short films of musicians playing their hits. He called them "music videos."
Kreason approached some auction houses about selling the casket, but "they all seemed confused," so he decided to reach for a wider audience on eBay, an Internet site without borders. The Texas Musicians Museum will receive an undisclosed share of the sale, he said.
How much could a used celebrity casket bring on the open market? A handful of memorabilia dealers shied away from guessing, largely because a used celebrity casket has never been offered for sale and morbid curiosity could quickly decompose into open protest.
In the past year, hundreds of visitors have seen the Big Bopper's casket at Kreason's museum, where it's displayed much as it appeared in a 1959 funeral home photo (shown at upper left), along with a reproduction of a guitar-shaped wreath sent by Elvis Presley. Nobody has complained about the grim exhibit, but both Kreason and Richardson expect some protests when it hits eBay.
"Certainly there'll be some distaste, but I think this is a piece of history that is very special," Kreason said. "Even if it doesn't sell, we've made a point about the historical value of J.P. Richardson. No matter what happens, he wins, historically."