Sorry, 'American Pie,' but the music didn't die in Clear Lake. Just ask the fans.
The Winter Dance Party at Clear Lake, Iowa's Surf Ballroom celebrates rock 'n' roll and honors the legacies of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, who died Feb. 3, 1959 in an airplane crash after a show at the Surf. Des Moines Register
Some Iowans celebrate family at birthday parties or annual reunions.
Margaret Majerczyk celebrates at the Winter Dance Party.
“We call it our ‘February family’ because we know so many people now,” said Majerczyk, 74, of Floyd, Iowa, by way of Liverpool, England. “They come back every year because of that atmosphere.”
Majerczyk, a semi-retired hardware store clerk who watched the Beatles in Liverpudlian clubs, takes an annual pilgrimage to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, site of the Winter Dance Party and home to the last stage where rock 'n' roll pioneer Buddy Holly swooned audiences.
The four-night event, where a crowd of roughly 2,000 people are expected, marks 60 years since a plane carrying burgeoning stars Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "the Big Bopper" Richardson crashed in a field north of the ballroom they played hours before.
Don McLean immortalized the date, Feb. 3, 1959, in his 1971 folk rock opus, “American Pie,” as "the day the music died.”
At the Winter Dance, Majerczyk steps back to a time before music’s first modern tragedy, to poodle skirts and thick-rimmed glasses, to her teenager years and a soundtrack that reminds her of simpler times.
It’s likely Majerczyk will see Wayne Christgau, the Surf’s “everything” man, a 72-year-old who flips tables faster than someone half his age. Christgau can still point out the booth where he and parents sat during his first Surf visit, in 1953, for a Duke Ellington show.
They’ll probably catch Austin Allsup on stage, musician son of Tommy Allsup, the Holly guitarist who, through a coin toss, lost his seat on the deadly plane to Valens. Tommy Allsup died days before Winter Dance 2017, leaving his son to step in — a tribute he’s embraced each February since.
British, Iowan or Texan, each intertwine as part of the February family, a community proudly waving a flag for a rock 'n' roll world after Elvis entered the Army and Little Richard returned to the church, before Bob Dylan went electric and the Beatles played "Ed Sullivan."
Because the music only dies if someone decides to stop playing it.
“We’re not going there for the tragic and (to) remember that,” Majerczyk said. “We’re keeping the music alive.”
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'The tour from hell'
The Winter Dance Party tour kicked off Jan. 23, 1959, in Milwaukee, zig-zagging across mostly small city dance halls in the Upper Midwest — Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa and back to Minnesota. Traveling overnight, buses failed to heat the musicians, leading to drummer Carl Brunch catching a frostbite so severe he spent the night of Holly’s last show in the hospital.
By the Feb. 2, 1959, stop in Clear Lake, the 22-year-old “Peggy Sue” singer had enough. He chartered a plane from Mason City to Moorhead, Minnesota, the next tour stop. Flying into wintry conditions, 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson never made it out of Cerro Gordo County.
The plane crashed Feb. 3, 1959, just after 1 a.m.
“He chartered the plane because things were going so badly,” said Winter Dance documentarian Sevan Garabedian, 41, of Montreal, Canada. “The last thing on his mind was it’s gonna get worse, right?”
And, for 20 years, the Surf stood as the site where music died.
Then, in 1979, a year after “The Buddy Holly Story” biopic invaded theaters, Clear Lake radio personality Darryl “The Mad Hatter” Hensley declared it time for 1950s rock 'n' roll to fill the Surf again, promising to hold the “The Tribute to Buddy Holly Concert” in the ballroom on Feb. 3, 1979, a Saturday night.
That first gig lost money, about $4,000 by Surf archive estimates, but a tradition began. The Winter Dance Party celebrates a 40th anniversary on Feb. 3, 2019, a Saturday night.
"As much as I love the music, we don’t go for the acts anymore,” Garabedian said. “We go for the camaraderie, to be in the city, in Clear Lake.”
Healing at the Surf
For years, Connie Valens couldn’t keep photos of her brother Ritchie in her home. She couldn’t listen to “La Bamba” or “We Belong Together.” She was only 8 when he died, and he was just 17, not yet a high school graduate, she’d say.
It was too painful.
“We were young children,” Valens said. “It all just came and went so quickly.”
But, after meeting passionate locals at Iowa charity events in the late 1980s, Valens attended a Winter Dance. She fell in love with the people, returning every few years until 2011, when she relocated to Spirit Lake and became an annual attendee.
The dance helped her heal.
“They celebrate the music that happened there,” Valens said. “Not the tragedy. They celebrate that was the last place the pioneers or rock 'n' roll played their last concert, and that night changed the face of music forever.”
So Valens joins the crowd of travelers each year. Surf officials said that ticket holders from four countries and 36 states plan to make the 2019 journey.
It’s grown from one night to a four-day party featuring an art show, sock hop and musical luncheons. New this year, organizers from the Everly Brothers Childhood Home in Shenandoah plan a pop-up museum to showcase the Everlys' friendship with Holly.
Majerczyk hosts an annual British luncheon and organizes a group of about 50 to journey from England. Holly left his impact on Liverpool in the late 1950s — famously influencing Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
"That feeling that they get," she said. "They feel that closeness when they come."
More history: Remembering 'the day the music died' in Iowa
A new generation
The February family has lost a number of prominent figures from Holly lore in recent years. Jerry Dwyer, owner of the crashed plane in 1959, died in 2016; Tommy Allsup in 2017; and Dean Snyder, longtime Surf owner, in 2018.
Is there a fear the dance won’t outlive its leading figures? Some say yes; others won’t humor the thought.
The dance sold out this year, and organizers have already kicked off 2020 planning.
The Surf, which now operates as a nonprofit organization, its employees and its roughly 300 volunteers reach about 2,400 students and adults annually with educational outreach programs.
The organization invests in teaching locals about the history and tradition associated with the Surf. The venue welcomes about 60,000 guests annually, either for a walk through the museum or a ticketed concert.
“Will it be as popular and draw from as far and wide? I’m not sure,” said Surf Ballroom executive director Laurie Lietz. “There’s a lot of room for artists who have been influenced by this history to come in and play their part. ... We have hope.”
Second-generation names, such as Austin Allsup and Edan Everly, son of Don Everly, plan to perform in 2019.
A touring musician himself, Austin Allsup met his father at age 17 and considered him more big brother than dad. He recognizes “I’m here by the flip of a coin, you could say.” Like Connie Valens, he journeyed to the Surf feeling the weight of his loss.
And, like Valens, a warm embrace left him wanting to return each year.
“Filling in for him at this gig every year, it’s pretty tough, emotionally, but then it also brightens the spirit, too,” he said. “It’s probably my favorite gig of all time.”
As long as he’s invited, Allsup plans to come back each year.
Because he knows the music, like a beloved family member, stays alive as long as those who celebrate it.
Visit the Surf
Where: 60 N Shore Drive, Clear Lake. By-donation museum open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays.
Other upcoming concerts: Brett Young (Jan. 26, sold out); Hairball (March 1); The Band Perry (March 3); The Johnny Holm Band (March 15); Dylan Scott (March 29); Delbert McClinton (April 26).
Check your attics: Winter Dance documentarian Sevan Garabedian continues to search for photographs from Winter Dance Party tour dates in Clear Lake and Des Moines. He can be reached at 514-931-6959 or email@example.com.
The Surf's national honors
The Surf Ballroom's singular place in pop music history has been recognized in many ways. Two of the most significant, according to its website:
- In 2009, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, Ohio, dedicated the Surf as a historic American rock 'n' roll landmark, identified as a location significant to the origins and development of rock 'n' roll. The plaque reads: "There are few buildings in existence today that represent a complete shift in our musical history. As the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. 'the Big Bopper' Richardson, the Surf is the bedrock of where the sound and attitude of rock and roll changed forever."
- In 2011, the Surf Ballroom & Museum was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.