John Mueller, who plays Buddy Holly in the "Winter Dance Party" coming to the Fox Saturday evening, was performing in Kansas City several years ago when Niki Sullivan, one of Holly’s original band members in the Crickets, took Mueller aside.

“He told me I was a reincarnation of Buddy. He also said that he had never met anybody in his life who was as laser-focused as Holly,” Mueller said. “It was as if he knew he wasn’t going to be around very long.”

Texas-born Charles Hardin Holley was 22 when he died on Feb. 3, 1959, in a plane crash that also claimed the lives of performers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. In a career that lasted about 18 months, the newly dubbed Buddy Holly —Buddy was a childhood name and Decca Records misspelled his last name on his first recording contract so he decided to keep it — had recorded more than 50 original songs and landed seven singles on the national charts. (That output was new for rock 'n' roll and Holly was credited with paving the way for four-piece bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones).

“There was something so honest about him,” said Mueller, who has been performing as Holly for the last 20 years. “He was a gentleman. I read an interview with Springsteen who said that before shows, he plays a Buddy Holly song backstage because it keeps him grounded.”

Mueller grew up in Wichita, Kan., listening to Holly, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and was smitten from the beginning.

Mueller moved to L.A. and started as an actor, making appearances on the E! Entertainment network, "Ellen," "Lois and Clark" and"Brisco County Jr.," and he was recently in the film "Bloodline." However Buddy Holly and rock 'n' roll were his passion.

Mueller first appeared as Buddy Holly in "Be Bop A Lula" in Hollywood. He won a Drama Desk Award and critical acclaim for his portrayal in the theatrical production of "Buddy .. the Buddy Holly Story" at Kansas City's American Heartland Theatre and then garnered rave reviews playing in San Diego, Chicago, Toronto and Miami.

"John Mueller is living proof that Buddy Holly's legacy lives on," wrote a critic for The Chicago Sun-Times. "His lovingly detailed portrayal rings as clearly as a chord from a Fender Stratocaster."

“We started in 1999 in Green Bay in front of a thousand people trying to recreate the Winter Dance Party that was Buddy Holly’s, Ritchie Valens’ and the Big Bopper's final tour,” Mueller said.

Mueller doesn’t do an impersonation (“we don’t want to be cheesy”) but rather an interpretation, He plays Holly's songs on a reissued 1957 Fender Stratocaster — the exact year and make of Holly’s guitar and uses the same heavy flatwound guitar strings that Holly used.

“I feel honored to have made a living playing his music,” said Mueller, who plays between 75 and 100 shows a year. “Next year will be the 60th anniversary of Holly’s original tour.”

The show includes two hours of hit songs like "That'll Be The Day," "Peggy Sue," "Oh, Boy," "Rave On," "La Bamba" and "Chantilly Lace." Linwood Sasser plays the Big Bopper while Ray Anthony performs as Ritchie Valens. The band also includes Grammy award winner Mike Acosta on saxophone.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.

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