- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009


It’s been 50 years since a single-engine plane crashed into a snow-covered Iowa field, instantly killing three men whose names would become enshrined in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

The passing decades haven’t diminished fascination with that night on Feb. 2, 1959, when 22-year-old Buddy Holly, 28-year-old J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson and 17-year-old Ritchie Valens performed in Clear Lake and then boarded the plane for a planned 300-mile flight that lasted just minutes.

“It was really like the first rock ‘n’ roll landmark; the first death,” says rock historian Jim Dawson, who has written several books about music of that era. “They say these things come in threes. Well, all three happened at the same time.”

Thousands of people were expected to gather Wednesday in the small northern Iowa town where the rock pioneers gave their last performance. They came to the Surf Ballroom for symposiums with the three musicians’ relatives, sold-out concerts and a ceremony as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designates the building as its ninth national landmark.

They discussed why, after so many years, so many people still care about what songwriter Don McLean so famously called “the day the music died.”

“It was the locus point for that last performance by these great artists,” says Terry Stewart, president and chief executive officer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “It warrants being fixed in time.”

Clear Lake is an unlikely spot for a rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage — especially in winter. The resort town of about 8,000 borders its namesake lake, and on winter days, the cold and the wind make the community 100 miles north of Des Moines anything but a tourist destination.

The crash site is on private property, a five-mile drive from Clear Lake and a half-mile walk off the road. Corn grows high in adjacent fields during the summer, but in winter, the fields are covered with snow, and a path to a small memorial is often thick with ice. The memorial features a small cross and thin metal guitar and records, all of which are draped in flowers during the summer.

“It’s a much nicer trip in the summer,” says Jeff Nicholas, a longtime Clear Lake resident who heads the Surf Ballroom’s board of directors, “but in the winter, you get more of a feel of what it was like.”

No one tracks the number of visitors, but fans stop by throughout the year. On some summer days, visitors to the crash site can create the oddity of a cornfield traffic jam.

Mr. Stewart says the deaths still resonate because they occurred at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was going through a transition of sorts. The sounds of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mr. Holly were making way for the British Invasion of the mid-1960s.

“The music was shifting and changing at that point,” Mr. Stewart says. “The crash put a punctuation point on the change.”

All three musicians influenced rock ‘n’ roll in their own way.

Mr. Holly’s career was short, but his hiccup vocal style, guitar playing and songwriting talents had tremendous influence on later performers. The Beatles, who formed about the time of the crash, were among his early fans and fashioned their name after Mr. Holly’s band, the Crickets. Mr. Holly’s hit songs include “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Maybe Baby.”

Mr. Richardson, “the Big Bopper,” is often credited with creating the first music video with his recorded performance of “Chantilly Lace” in 1958, decades before MTV.

Mr. Valens was one of the first musicians to apply a Mexican influence to rock ‘n’ roll. He recorded his huge hit “La Bamba” just months before the accident.

The plane left the airport in nearby Mason City about 1 a.m., headed for Moorhead, Minn., with the musicians looking for a break from a tiring, cold bus trip through the Upper Midwest.

It wasn’t until hours later that the demolished plane was found, crumpled against a wire fence. Investigators think the pilot, who also died, became confused amid the dark, snowy conditions and rammed the plane into the ground.

The crash set off a wave of mourning among the stars’ passionate, mostly young fans. Twelve years later, the crash was immortalized as “the day the music died” in Mr. McLean’s 1971 song “American Pie.”

Vonnie Amosson, who manages the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Clear Lake, says that ever since the plane crash, the community has embraced the tragedy. It brings a continuous stream of tourism dollars, and the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce estimates that this year’s events — dubbed ‘50s in February — will generate more than $4 million for the town’s economy.

“It’s kind of sad that that is what we are known for,” Miss Amosson says, “but on the other part of it, I think the whole ‘50s in February weekend is a huge memorial, and it’s an honor to them.”

In part because of its role in rock history, the Surf Ballroom has retained its vintage look, with a 6,000-square-foot dance floor, ceiling painted to resemble a sky and original cloud machines on either side of the room. Ten Buddy Holly banners line the wall opposite the stage. The 2,100-capacity ballroom still hosts many national and regional performers, most of whom add their names to a backstage wall that has become crowded with drawings and signatures.

“It’s quite a special place,” says Mr. Nicholas, the Surf board member. “This place looks just like it did in 1959.”

In concert

50 Winters Later: The Commemorative Concert Where: Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa When: 7 p.m. Feb. 2 On the bill: Los Lobos, Tommy Allsup and the Crickets, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, Los Lonely Boys, Wanda Jackson, Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens, Graham Nash, Bobby Vee, Peter & Gordon, Cousin Brucie Morrow and Tim Rice. Special guests also are expected. Web site: www.50winterslater.com


Keeping the Music Alive, a panel discussion with Rita Box Peek and Brian McRae, who will feature the music of David Box, one of the lead singers for the Crickets after Buddy Holly’s death. A special exhibit from the Southwest Collection’s Crossroads of Music Archive will be on display. Where: Buddy Holly Center, Lubbock, Texas When: 4 p.m. Feb. 2 Web site: www.buddyhollycenter.org


Two new box sets are out: “Buddy Holly Memorial Collection” (three discs, Geffen Records) and “Buddy Holly: Down the Line: The Rarities” (two discs. Geffen Records)

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