What you need to know about Buddy Holly and ‘the day the music died’ in Iowa
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
One of the first tragedies to strike rock 'n’ roll took place more than 60 years ago, when a plane carrying three of the genre’s biggest stars crashed into an icy field north of Clear Lake.
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson, along with pilot Roger Peterson, died Feb. 3, 1959, following a Winter Dance Party tour stop at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.
It was deemed "the day the music died" by Don McLean in the 1971 acoustic opus “American Pie."
What was the Winter Dance Party tour?
Holly, age 22, Richardson, 28, and Valens, 17, were marquee talent on the Winter Dance Party tour, each having found respective radio success with “That’ll be the Day,” “Chantilly Lace” and “La Bamba.”
The tour, a run of Midwestern ballroom and auditorium shows booked for roughly three-and-a-half weeks, kicked off Jan. 23, 1959, in Milwaukee.
Some called it the tour from hell, with routing that zig-zagged from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Iowa and back again to Minnesota. Tour buses, traveling 300-plus miles on a given night through the frozen rural Midwest, broke down often, leaving the musicians sick and frostbitten.
Following earlier Iowa appearances in Davenport and Fort Dodge, the tour stopped Feb. 2, 1959, at the Surf Ballroom — a last-minute addition to the route. Tickets cost $1.25.
The plane crash
Tired of a grueling tour schedule and hopeful for a decent night’s sleep, Holly chartered a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza from Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City. The plane was to take three members of the tour to Fargo, North Dakota, a neighboring city to Moorhead.
Valens and Holly guitarist Tommy Allsup flipped a coin for a spot on the plane. Sick with the flu, Richardson asked Waylon Jennings, Holly’s bassist at the time, for his seat on the plane.
Taking off into wintry conditions just before 1 a.m., the plane crashed roughly 6 miles northwest of the airport.
Holly’s pregnant widow, María Elena Holly, heard the news of his death on a television report. In the wake of the psychological trauma, she suffered a miscarriage the next day. Holly’s death pushed authorities to adopt the policy of not revealing a victim’s identity until the family receives notification, Time reported.
In popular culture
The crash that changed rock 'n' roll forever became cemented in popular culture through music and film, notably in the 1978 Academy Award-winning biopic “The Buddy Holly Story,” starring Gary Busey as Holly, and the 1987 Valens film, “La Bamba,” starring Lou Diamond Phillips as the 17-year-old star.
McLean sings of “the day the music died” in the six-verse epic “American Pie,” a work capturing the “loss of innocence.”
““Basically, in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he said in a 2015 interview. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”
Celebration and legacy
Despite charting only one No. 1 hit ("That'll be the Day"), Holly influenced a generation of rock 'n’ roll stars. A certain Liverpudlian band (hint: The Beatles) decided to name itself after an insect partly because that’s what Holly’s band, the Crickets, did. Two days before Holly's death, Bob Dylan caught a Holly concert in Duluth, Minnesota; a formative Mick Jagger caught a Holly show in London.
The Clash, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen … and the list of Holly’s influence goes on.
And, in 1979, the Surf Ballroom began celebrating Holly, Valens and Richardson with an annual Winter Dance Party featuring the sights and sounds of 1950s rock 'n' roll.
What started as a one-night celebration featuring prominent names from the time turned into a four-day journey back to an era of poodle skirts and doing the twist. The event returns to the Surf each year in late January or early February.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's celebration has been canceled.