Remembering 'the day the music died' in Iowa
Editor's note: This story by Register reporter Mike Kilen originally ran in February 2009 to mark the 50th anniversary of the plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson. Elwin Musser, the photographer, died in 2015.
A long, long time ago ...
Elwin Musser carried his camera for the Mason City Globe Gazette to a farm field north of Clear Lake.
February made him shiver. ...
He had no idea it would be one of Iowa's most notorious days.
"I walked over here," said Musser, 89, taking careful steps in the frozen field, his mind reeling back 50 years, "to see where the plane hit."
Bad news on the doorstep ...
The leg wing of the Beechcraft Bonanza hit here, he said, and plowed a groove into the rich soil. The fuselage dug in next and the plane skidded 570 feet and crumpled into a heap by a fence.
"I see the fence posts have changed," he said softly.
Back then, Musser lifted his camera to his eye. Steady. He couldn't think of the bodies lying on the ground, covered in blankets. He had shot hundreds of accidents in his career and had trained himself that way.
Over the fence was another body. He didn't climb over to inspect it.
"We couldn't be too morbid," he said.
The news was already traveling the world.
I couldn't take one more step. ...
At Musser's feet lay the bodies of rock 'n' roll stars Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, while J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson was on the other side of the fence. Pilot Roger Peterson was in the plane, dead.
It was Feb. 3, 1959.
But something touched me deep inside.
The day the music died.
Clear Lake residents joke today that if everyone who said they were at the Surf Ballroom that night was actually there, the crowd would have reached 50,000. The famous little ballroom holds about 2,000 people. It's estimated the actual count was close to 1,500 at the concert.
Tommy Allsup, the guitarist for Buddy Holly that night, said if every musician who was supposed to be on that tiny plane was actually there, you could fill a 747 with them.
Such was the growth of the legend, juiced even more by Don McLean's 1971 song, "American Pie," making that day - the morning after the rock star's final concert - the day the music died. Books and films also told the story and so do people, some more accurately than others. They continue.
"It was the first great rock and roll tragedy," said Sevan Garabedian, who is filming a documentary on the 1959 tour, called the Winter Dance Party. "Everything changed after that. So some people remember the little details."
Buddy Holly ate a bratwurst. A coin was flipped to see who got on the airplane. The weather was really bad, or was it? People remember dancing, although movies show they weren't. Some heard news of the crash before they possibly could have.
As McLean sang, "I can't remember if I cried. ..."
They try hard to remember.
Bob Hale, a disc jockey in Mason City in 1959, took a call from Carroll Anderson, the manager of the Surf, asking if he knew about these fellas on a rock 'n' roll tour who had an open date to fill on a Monday.
"Book that show now," Hale told him.
"Within two hours, we started promoting it," said Hale, 75, who lives in Chicago today.
Posters were printed and excitement grew among north Iowa youngsters. It wasn't as if the performers were unknown. Each had radio hits - Richardson's "Chantilly Lace" was a current hit, while Valens sang "Come on, Let's Go" and Holly had "That'll Be The Day."
Throw in Dion and the Belmonts, and it was the making of a big night, even for the Surf, which had seen plenty of big-name big bands.
Diana Fischer from nearby Joice began checking her stash from her 25-cents-an-hour baby-sitting job to see the $1.25 show. She was 15.
She wanted badly to see the Big Bopper and hear her favorite song, "Chantilly Lace."
By early that Feb. 2 evening, John Hurd of Mason City had arrived with friends to be one of the first in line. He was 15.
"I wanted to get close to the stage," he said.
But when the rock stars arrived, they were cold and tired. They had used an old school bus to travel the Midwest; it had heater problems and had broken down. A drummer even got frostbite and couldn't play.
Hale was the master of ceremonies, a good promotion for his station, KRIB in Mason City, which north- Iowa kids listened to while cruising the streets.
"Buddy was the boss of the whole thing," Hale said. So when he came to Hale asking how they could get a flight out of the area to their next show in Moorhead, Minn., to have a chance to rest and do some laundry, Hale told him of Dwyer Flying Service.
But the plane could hold only three musicians.
First, there was a show to play.
"With our drummer in the hospital for frostbite, everything was up in the air," said Allsup, who today lives in west Texas. "We'd come to the conclusion that Buddy Holly would play drums behind Dion and the Belmonts."
Hale made a show of it.
"Buddy was back there with a hat pulled over his eyes. So I sat down with Dion onstage, and he said his regular drummer was sick. So I asked him who his drummer was. It was a schtick. And he said, 'We call him Buddy Holly!' "
The crowd went nuts. Many young adults pressed up to the stage while others danced in back.
"Oh, we loved to dance," said Pat Schultz, of Nora Springs, who remembers pushing toward the stage to clap to "Chantilly Lace."
"The Big Bopper was bigger than life, and Ritchie Valens was about my age," said Michael Grandon, who was 16 then and still lives just up the street from the Surf. "But I was looking at the girls. I was standing right over there behind that third pillar."
He pointed to a spot toward the rear, a smile on his face.
Others sat in the booths that surround the dance floor, gradually ascending seven levels. On the first date, you sat at the bottom and progressed upward - to increasing privacy - with each date.
At each break, band members met with kids.
Hurd, wearing the customary coat and tie, got a 45 rpm promotional record of "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" signed by Holly and others. He still has the valuable piece of memorabilia today in a secret location. He also went backstage to talk with the band.
"It was cold in that dressing room and a couple of them didn't feel well. They were on the negative side and weren't really giving answers to questions. You could tell they were real tired, but when they got on stage you really couldn't tell," he said.
Many who attended wish they could remember more.
"To us, it was just another concert with our parents saying this music is horrible, how can you stand it?" said Nancy Crosby, a Clear Lake native who today lives in San Diego.
Others said they knew they were witnessing special talent.
Bill Wobbeking of Urbandale, driving home from the show with a friend, turned to him and said of Holly, "'He's better than Elvis.' And I was a huge Elvis fan."
As the winds picked up outside and the night grew toward the show's close at midnight, they had no idea the magnitude of what was about to happen.
Buddy Holly was an "old soul," said Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts. "He was like a business man. And he said, 'Listen, I got a plane but it's a four-seater. Only three of us can go. So we'll flip a coin."
DiMucci said he didn't even have a coin to flip and, growing up with parents who every day argued about the rent in Brooklyn, N.Y., the $36 flight seemed like a waste of money.
It was up to the others.
Waylon Jennings, then a young bass player who would later find fame in country music, gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, who was battling a fever.
Holly teased him, saying he hoped the bus froze up again. Jennings shot back, "Well, hell, I hope your old plane crashes," an exchange reported in the book "The Day The Music Died," by Iowa author Larry Lehmer.
Later in life, Jennings said he was haunted by his words and suffered substance abuse problems.
That left one seat. Valens, who had pleaded with Allsup for his seat, stood in the doorway of the green room, today filled with autographs from music greats from around the world. When Allsup came back in from the waiting station wagon to make sure they got everything, Valens asked him again. Allsup agreed to flip a half-dollar coin. Valens called heads and won. "I went to the station wagon and told Buddy I flipped a coin with Ritchie and lost. I told him he could pick up a letter for me when he got to Moorhead. He told me he needed my ID. So I gave him my wallet. That's why it turned up at the crash site," Allsup said.
The three piled into the car with Surf manager Anderson and his wife, Lucille, and headed for Mason City's airport.
"They were in the back seat and, I don't know, there was something about those big famous people, like Buddy Holly. I remember he said he was married only three months at the time. It was blustery outside but what snow we did have was not much," Lucille Anderson recalled.
Jerry Dwyer of the Dwyer Flying Service met them at the airport, packed luggage into the plane and watched it take off, following its path into the sky.
Dwyer said the visibility was about eight miles and weather was not a factor. He faced a lawsuit from the Valens family in the following years and raids on his place to find parts of the plane.
He claims to have both parts of the plane hidden and untold knowledge of the events that night, which he will reveal in a book after the 50th anniversary has passed.
In the following months and years, rumors flew of disputes between the musicians, the appearance of a gun and other tales of foul play.
Lehmer, who investigated the crash for his book, said it was clearly pilot error, and crash investigators were correct in their conclusions. Peterson suffered from vertigo and may have been confused whether he was rising or descending because of his inexperience using flight instruments.
Lehmer also said people's memories of what followed the next morning are distorted.
When Dwyer found out the plane didn't arrive in Moorhead, he planned a scouting mission the next morning, but fog kept him grounded until 9:30 a.m. After he located the downed plane, news didn't go out until later in the morning.
"Even to this day I have two or three people a week come up to me and say, 'Well, I heard, and I was having breakfast with my father at 6 a.m."
For some, the time may be confused but the memories of sadness are clear.
Perhaps for none more than Holly's widow, Maria Elena. She said she got a call from a musician who told her not to turn on the TV. But she did "and that's how I found out what had happened," she said.
"I was for a while not able to talk about it, him, and I didn't accept that he was gone."
Bob Hale was at the radio station when he got the UPI wire report. He immediately turned to the record player and put on a Buddy Holly song. Young adults stood outside the studio.
"I was only 19 years old. I was totally, like, in shock," said DiMucci about hearing of the accident the next day in Moorhead. "I walked back out to the bus, and I was the only one on the bus and Ritchie's blue outfit was hangin' from the luggage rack, and Buddy Holly's guitar was on the seat, and I was alone on the bus. And I was baffled."
Raleigh King of Mason City, who had attended the concert with his cousin, took off in a '53 Chevy and the two drove to the crash site.
Dorothy Hepperly of Mason City, also at the Surf that night, told her older sister, "They're dead. They're all dead!"
Her sister thought she was talking about her parents.
Diana Fischer of Joice said her father hit the broom on the ceiling, her usual signal he needed her and didn't want to climb the stairs with his bad knees. He told her the news and they piled in their car to drive to the crash site eight miles south of their farm.
Others did, too, but said they saw nothing because the scene had been secured by officials. Many of them never returned to the field. Photographer Musser of Mason City agreed to retrace his steps for this story.
Lucille Anderson said her husband was haunted by the experience. He was sent to identify the bodies. Soon after, he stripped the Surf marquee of their names.
Dwyer said it was the worst night of his life, except for the death of his son.
Others around the world mourned from afar. Over the years, people have made pilgrimages to the crash site, even more since the 1971 McLean song brought up the accident again.
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died.
No matter what time of year, said Jeff Nicholas, whose family owns the farmland today, people are out here.
He paused before the memorial set up in the field, metal records with their names and plastic flowers blowing in the icy wind.
"Whenever we're out here, we like to be silent in memory of the guys," he said, standing in the snow. "It seems appropriate when it's really cold and desolate out here."
Nicholas is president of the Surf, which has held a tribute concert on the anniversary of the crash every year since 1979. Musicians flock in, many with associations to those old days, including DiMucci and Allsup. So do fans, and this year's tribute was a quick sellout.
"I was there the second year and you could feel the electricity in the air," Dorothy Hepperly said.
She relived a more innocent time before everything changed.
"The fans, they come over there from all over the world, even though it's very cold out there," Maria Elena said. "You really have to love somebody to do that.
"The Surf has always been more for the music, celebrating his music, not his death."
In Clear Lake, the music really never died.