His family moved to Beaumont when he was very young. At Beaumont High School he sang in the school choir as well as played on the football team. He graduated from Beaumont High School in 1947 and enrolled at Lamar College. While still a teenager Richardson began working as a disc jockey at KTRM radio in Beaumont, and he soon left college to work full-time. He eventually became program director while still working as a disc jockey. His colorful on-air personality (a stark contrast to the naturally shy Richardson) made him a very popular disc jockey in the Golden Triangle area.
Richardson was influenced early by country singers but soon moved into the realm of rock-and-roll. In 1958 he traveled to Houston's Gold Star Studios to record songs for Pappy Daily's D Records. Richardson recorded his novelty song, Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor, as the A-side of a single that he hoped would capitalize on the popularity of other novelty songs that had recently been released. For the B-side he recorded Chantilly Lace, which he reportedly penned as an afterthought in the backseat of the car while driving to the session. At the recording session, he also reportedly formally adopted his nickname "The Big Bopper" as his musical persona.
Unexpectedly, the record's B-side, Chantilly Lace, quickly gained the attention of radio programmers and listening audiences, and Daily released it on his D label and subsequently leased it to Mercury Records for national distribution. Chantilly Lace became very successful and would eventually go gold and multi-platinum as an early hit in rock-and-roll history. It was by far the most famous record on Daily's D label. Songs from the Gold Star sessions comprised Richardson's only album, Chantilly Lace.
He followed with Little Red Riding Hood and Big Bopper's Wedding, which were also hits but not of the same caliber as Chantilly Lace. Richardson's song, White Lightning became the first Number 1 hit for George Jones in 1959. Later that year, his song Running Bear became a Number 1 hit for fellow Texan Johnny Preston.
The Bopper wrote about thirty-eight songs during his life and recorded twenty-one of them. Most of his recordings were classified as novelty songs that did not have lasting popularity. His appeal was largely in his flamboyant stage performances. He wore checkered jackets and zoot suits and used a prop phone during Chantilly Lace to talk to his girl. In 1958 he also made a pioneering video for the hit song and later coined the term "music video" for the production. In order to maintain his showman image, he did not wear his wedding ring in public and generally kept his marriage to Adrianne "Teetsie" Fryou (married on April 18, 1952 ), a secret from his fans. The couple had two children.
With his newfound fame, Richardson resigned his position as disc jockey at KTRM in Beaumont in order to perform full-time by November 1958. In this capacity, he appeared on the top pop shows of the day and was booked on the "Winter Dance Party" tour with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. On February 2, 1959, Richardson, Holly, and Valens played a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. They were scheduled to play in North Dakota the next day. After the show Holly and Valens chartered a plane so that they could rest before their bands arrived. Richardson, who had the flu, was supposed to take the bus, but at the last minute switched places with Holly's band member, Waylon Jennings. The plane went down just after takeoff at about 1:00 A.M. in Mason County, Iowa, killing the pilot and all three musicians. Richardson was survived by his wife and a daughter and son. He was buried in Beaumont Cemetery.
In the late 1980s the Port Arthur Historical Society commissioned sculptor Donald Clark to create a memorial to the musicians. The piece was initially displayed at a Fabulous Thunderbirds benefit concert on February 3, 1989, thirty years after the crash. The Big Bopper is an inductee in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and is honored in the Music Hall of Fame at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur. In 2004 he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. The following year the Texas Historical Commission erected a marker in his honor. His body was reburied next to his wife in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont in 2007. In 2008 he was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame.
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Forest Lawn Memorial Park