Finding Buddy Holly at the Winter Dance Party, where the music still plays every year
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. Brian Powers, firstname.lastname@example.org
It was a three-hour drive between my small hometown and college, mostly on two-lane roads. Ample time for radio, then still in an AM world. Plenty of time for a song running 8 ½ minutes if WLS or some other station played the full "American Pie."
"February made me shiver" I fully understood, making that trek to and from the University of Illinois in early 1972. But much of Don McLean's opus was a mystery for an 18-year-old, even one steadfastly enamored with Elvis Presley since his 1968 comeback.
Rather than being pushed forward into album rock — one can only tolerate so much Jethro Tull flute — I was drawn back to what McLean christened as "the day the music died."
Feb. 3, 1959, as I would come to learn, was the date that the four-seat plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson (Big Bopper) and pilot Roger Peterson crashed into farmland just minutes after taking off from Mason City, Iowa, on an intended flight to Fargo, North Dakota.
Not that I knew nothing of Holly before "American Pie." But it grew clear that an occasional listen to "That'll Be the Day" wasn't enough to understand a much more profound influence.
Consider what Bob Dylan said when he finally delivered the mandatory lecture for receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, after eight months of reflection on the unprecedented honor for a songwriter.
"I guess I'd have to start with Buddy Holly. ... From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother.
"Buddy played the music that I loved — the music I grew up on: country-western, rock 'n' roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre ... and Buddy wrote songs — songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. ... He was the archetype. Everything I wasn't and wanted to be."
The Winter Dance Party is an annual event held in Clear Lake, Iowa, honoring Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson. Arizona Republic
The Winter Dance Party tour played at the National Guard Armory in Duluth, Minnesota, on Jan. 31, 1959, three days before the crash killing Holly.
The 17-year-old Robert Zimmerman, soon to change his name to Bob Dylan, was up front in rapt attention.
"I was only six feet away," Dylan said in his Nobel lecture. "He was mesmerizing. ... Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction.
"Then out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn't know what. And it gave me the chills."
Mike Evans was 17 and a senior at Mason City High School, Class of 1959. He'd been to the Surf Ballroom in nearby Clear Lake for dances before and figured $1.25 for admission to see Buddy Holly and the host of other performers was well worth a 13-mile drive, even on a school night.
"Me and a bunch of guys drove over in my '52 Plymouth," Evans said. "I think it was probably one of the largest crowds they ever had, something like 1,500 people."
Teenagers crowded around the stage depending on their level of interest in each of the Winter Dance Party performers, but most were there to dance.
Clear Lake was the 11th stop in as many days across three states. The Big Bopper was fighting a cold from touring for almost two weeks in the frigid upper Midwest.
Two shows had been scheduled for Feb. 1, but the matinee in Appleton, Wisconsin, was cancelled when the tour bus broke down on the overnight drive from Duluth, Minnesota. Temperatures were 20 below when the bus gave out 10 miles outside Hurley, Wisconsin. When the performers finally reached Green Bay, Wisconsin, drummer Carl Bunch was not with them; he had been taken to a hospital for treatment of frostbitten feet.
It was another 350-mile trek, in a new bus, from Green Bay to Clear Lake for the Feb. 2 show at the Surf Ballroom.
There, Buddy Holly played the drums for Dion and the Belmonts, Evans said. "Not a lot of people realized that at the time."
Or that Waylon Jennings, then an unknown from Holly's hometown of Lubbock, Texas, was playing bass for a touring version of the Crickets. Or about the travel concerns.
"At the end all three came out and performed for 15-20 minutes together," Evans said. "That was kind of cool. It made me appreciate their performance more after hearing about the problems with the bus."
Evans left the Surf after midnight, driving past the Mason City Airport on his way home. "It was spitting a little snow, but nothing serious," he says. "Roads were a little slick but not bad."
At 1 a.m., a Beechcraft Bonanza took off from the airport. The private plane crashed five miles into its flight, killing all on board.
On his way to school the next day, Evans learned of the crash on Mason City radio station KRIB from Bob Hale, a local disc jockey who emceed the Surf show.
"We decided we were going to go over the crash site," ditching school, Evans said.
"We couldn't get real close. It's out in the middle of the field. That airplane just rolled up into a ball into a barb-wire fence. It was a mess. We all felt pretty bad about it, that's for sure."
Evans now is 77, coming up on his 60th high school reunion. He lives in Sun City West with a spare bedroom stocked with memories of his intersection with rock 'n' roll history.
There's a sign promoting the water feature of Clear Lake — So Close, So Enticing! —along with drawings of the Surf Ballroom and the Barrel Drive-In (now gone), framed albums tied to the Winter Dance Party stars and an enhanced version of the tour promotional poster including 45 records from Holly, Valens and Dion.
When Evans says he's from Mason City/Clear Lake, the link to Holly is often instantaneous. "It's amazing how many people still remember. I think the music was born instead of died. The only sad thing about is was he didn't write 100 more songs."
Mike Evans talks about seeing Buddy Holly in concert on Feb. 2, 1959 the same day Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson died in a plane crash. Arizona Republic
Mike Randall has been told most of his life that he looks like Buddy Holly.
During high school in southern Illinois in the 1970s, he played in a band called Four on the Floor with his brothers, sometimes joining with a teachers band called Impending Shame to play at sock hops.
"I had no intention of playing '50s music as a career for my life," Randall said. "It wasn't my era." He studied jazz in college, then while living in California tried to make a living as a songwriter. "Things didn't work out."
Randall moved to Arizona, starting a career in the automotive industry. But auditing and handling service contracts is only so rewarding for a musician. So he agreed to play Holly for a 50th birthday party, a gig that went over well enough to become the "most exciting thing going on in my music career."
He formed Come Back Buddy, a three-piece '50s tribute band that includes his now-wife, Janine, various drummers and sometimes his brother Dean. The group has been together for 20 years.
"Growing up in the Midwest, hardly anybody had faith in doing music for a living," Randall said. "I always kept my day job and was afraid to make the plunge." That decision was made for him in 2012 with a round of job cuts. "It's gotten busier and busier since then," for Come Back Buddy, with up to five performances a week, he said.
"Buddy Holly's music means so much to people. It's meaningful for my life. Some of it I can't really explain. I get to do things Buddy Holly would like to do," he said.
Randall plays a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar like the one Holly used when he burst into the national consciousness in 1957.
Randall's work is just one reason Holly's legacy remains alive.
"The Buddy Holly Story," a 1978 film that earned an Academy Award nomination for Gary Busey, provided important momentum ahead of the 20th anniversary of the crash.
The first Holly tribute concert at the Surf Ballroom came in February 1979, with Wolfman Jack as the emcee for a one-night event featuring Del Shannon.
Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens in the well-received 1987 film "La Bamba."
The jukebox musical "Buddy" debuted in 1989 in London, where it had a 12-year run. The show has toured around the world, including 225 performances on Broadway.
John Goldrosen wrote the first major biography about Holly — "Buddy Holly: His Life and Music" — in 1975, then updated that work with "Remembering Buddy" in 1986.
Larry Lehmer expanded on his newspaper reporting about Holly and the Winter Dance Party tour for the Des Moines Register to produce "The Day the Music Died" in 1997, a year after Phillip Norman's Holly biography "Rave On."
John Mueller, who played Holly in the musical, has ongoing life in the role with the Winter Dance Party, a re-creation of the 1959 tour that still earns positive reviews after a decade of performances.
Lehmer was a 13-year-old growing up near Council Bluffs, Iowa, when Holly's plane went down some 250 miles away.
"I had no idea musicians of that stature were traveling in small planes around the Midwest," he says. "I didn't know where Clear Lake was or why they would be there. It was always a mystery to me."
That riddle consumed much of Lehmer's life for close to two decades until "The Day the Music Died" was published. His detailed work includes the Civil Aeronautics Board report on the crash that found the probable cause to be pilot error for attempting a flight "which would necessitate flying solely on instruments when he (21-year-old Peterson) was not properly certificated or qualified to do so."
Lehmer mostly buys that explanation, although he's heard and tried to run down all the more conspiratorial theories: that Holly's gun was fired on the plane, that there was a fight in the cockpit, that an argument over drugs and perhaps rerouting the flight to Minneapolis for their acquisition played a role.
"The candy bars at the crash site (that some link to drug use) always seemed odd," Lehmer said.
Perhaps more plausible is the question of whether the small plane was properly balanced depending where Holly (145 pounds) and Richardson (perhaps as much as 210) were sitting. If the Big Bopper, as most believe, was in the back, then the Bonanza's center of gravity could have been beyond allowable limits, creating handling problems for Peterson.
An effort has been made to have the National Transportation Safety Board reinvestigate the plane crash, particularly based on the balance issue and potential mechanical failure.
The number of and passion of Holly fans surprised Lehmer as it helped him sell books.
"It's almost like there is a competition to see who is the biggest Buddy Holly fan," said Lehmer, whose book on "American Bandstand" is due out this spring.
Waylon Jennings is buried a mile from my house, at a cemetery in Mesa. He died in Arizona in 2002 at 64 after years of poor health.
Memorials on his grave during a recent visit included Bud Light cans, guitar picks, coins, a small pink mailbox and items symbolizing his outlaw country stardom with Willie Nelson.
The Jennings that interests me is the 21-year-old version, who while working as a disc jockey in Lubbock in 1958 became friends with Holly, already a national sensation from his early hit records with the Crickets.
Jennings could sing, and Holly took a swipe at producing his first record. "When Sin Stops/Jole Blon" went nowhere — it doesn't even sound like the "Good-Hearted Woman" Jennings. But when Holly and the Crickets went separate ways, Buddy gave Jennings a bass guitar as a sort of Christmas gift and two weeks to learn to play it to be part of his backup band for the Winter Dance Tour.
All of that was a precursor to that Monday night at the Surf Ballroom and the backstage lobbying for one of the two seats alongside Holly on the plane to Fargo.
Lehmer says Jennings first told him the seemingly prophetic story of the final minutes after the performance before Holly, Valens and Richardson left for the Mason City airport. Holly gave Jennings some grief about giving up his spot to the ailing Big Bopper.
"Well, I hope your old bus freezes up again," Holly said.
"Well, hell, I hope your old plane crashes," Jennings shot back.
Lehmer says by the time his book came out, Jennings had repeated that story 50 times.
On my visit to Jennings' grave, two good old boys are there too, sitting in a van. They seem nice enough at a cemetery in the light of day, although I wonder if I'd want to meet up with them in a country bar after a few too many.
I tell them the Surf Ballroom story, about how Jennings could have been on the plane, how Valens was because he called heads to win a coin toss with Tommy Allsup, another Holly band member on the tour. They seem impressed and watch from the van while I'm at the gravesite. They wish me well when I leave.
I forgot to tell them my next stop would be the Surf Ballroom.
Clear Lake, Iowa
The temperature reached minus 28 overnight when I arrived for the 40th Winter Dance Party Jan. 30-Feb. 2, grown from a one-day tribute concert in 1979 to an annual four-day pilgrimage for many. "It's the family reunion you want to go to," says music heritage preservationist Sherry Davis, who teams with her twin sister, Sheryl, on The Surf Speaks living history project.
It's colder than I remember it being at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea, where for a few days I was the coldest I'd ever been.
By Saturday morning, Feb. 2, it's less frigid while I make a quarter-mile hike from the rural intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue outside Mason City. The cross streets are easy to locate because of giant Holly trademark glasses marking the only access to the crash site.
The wind, gusting to 23 mph, is louder than the conversation given the cold and the timing. It was 60 years minus 15 hours from the moment the plane narrowly avoided hitting the Juhl family farmhouse only to crash a half-mile away.
The largest part of the wreckage landed up against a barbed wire fence, where a modest memorial stands.
The stainless steel guitar memorial on this day, of all days, is not complete. Of three steel records representing the performers, Holly's is missing, knocked off by a snowplow and under repair at the Surf Ballroom.
A woman visiting from England slips and falls to the ground. She's not injured, but the incident adds to an unnerving feeling. Mallory Huffman, Surf education coordinator, places a lei around the memorial. It's from a Hawaiian fan who couldn't make it to the Winter Dance Party this year but sent her respects.
The Surf Ballroom maple dance floor is 6,300 square feet, 25 percent larger than a NBA basketball court. Booths ring the floor on two sides with an ocean beach club motif dating to the original Surf, which was built in 1933 across the street from the current location on the shore of Clear Lake.
Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey were among those playing the Surf in the big-band era.
A fire destroyed it in 1947, but the music didn't die then, either. The current Surf opened 15 months later, in July 1948, with then manager Carroll Anderson more than willing to book rock 'n' roll acts at the dawn of that era.
Booth seating is a tough ticket today at the Winter Dance Party and businesses quickly snatch up the tables, on the fringe of the dance floor. The only other seating is in the adjacent Cypress Room, now primarily a museum area.
Musician Robin Luke talks about his memories of Buddy Holly at the Winter Dance Party in Clear Lake, Iowa. Jeff Metcalfe, azcentral sports
So standing room is the way most take in the five-hour concerts each night, a physical challenge for the event's Baby Booomer demographic. Few complain or even act their age, and it's easy to envision 70-year-olds as teenagers.
"We've grown old with the Surf," says Jeff Waters, who met his now-wife, Kathy, in January 2002 and proposed to her a month later at the Winter Dance Party. They were married in June 2002, when Jeff was 60, and have only missed the party once ever since.
"A lot of us are just amazed it's lasted as long as it has," says Robin Luke, who performed with Holly on "American Bandstand" in 1958 and made his Winter Dance Party debut this year. "When I think SiriusXM and others are still playing music on a regular basis, it sort of flabbergasts me. At the same time, I am an oldie-but-goodie kind of guy, and I've always loved old time rock 'n' roll.
"The reason people still dig it is that it's three chords and a prayer. The music is easy to remember, easy to sing and there's memories. What's amazing to me is there are quite a few young people here."
Like Grace Siem, a 17-year-old from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, attending with her mother. Yes, this is her grandfather's music, she said, but it's hers now, too.
"Once I got a hold of it, I just dived in all the way. It's such a unique sound. There's not really anything like that today. It was something I really grew to enjoy.
"It's so crucial we get to know history, and what better way to do it than through music. It takes you back to a completely different time, and it's an experience every young person should have."
Teenager Grace Siem talks about her love of early rock ‘n’ roll and why she attended the Winter Dance Party tribute to Buddy Holly. Jeff Metcalfe, azcentral sports
The Davis twins were like Siem in the 1990s. "We would sing (Valens) 'La Bamba' every day to our bus driver," in fifth grade, Sheryl said. "We thought we were driving him crazy, but he actually really enjoyed it. We would put on little rock 'n' roll review shows for our parents and grandparents and rehash some of those (movie) scenes. Great music is great music no matter what year it's from."
Now Sherry and Sheryl are writing about the architectural phenomenology of the Surf Ballroom Winter Dance Party for an upcoming book, "Remembering Popular Music's Past: Heritage-History-Memory." They also are working with the Everly Brothers Childhood Home Foundation to help preserve the tiny home where Holly's rock 'n' roll contemporaries Don and Phil Everly grew up in Shenandoah, Iowa.
"I basically consumed everything a person could consume from afar about this history and all these artists," Sherry said. Then she attended her first Winter Dance Party in 2016 and discovered something. "I basically knew nothing until I got here. It gave me a new patina to my knowledge. It's the closest any living person can be to that history, but even more to that era. I don't think there's any other event where all these forces converge."
Paul McCartney owns publishing rights to Holly's music and has since 1976. He's never played at the Winter Dance Party even though he and John Lennon named the Beatles after Holly's Crickets. When they were the Quarrymen, in 1958, their first recording was "That'll Be the Day."
The Beatles' presence is felt at the Winter Dance Party because of their evolution from Holly's influence. McCartney's 1987 rockumentary "The Real Buddy Holly Story," his answer to inaccuracies in the 1978 film, is shown daily during the Winter Dance Party at the Clear Lake Arts Center.
"There's something about the lyricism in Buddy Holly's words and in his melodies, I can see how that might have resonated with the English soul perhaps more than the Elvis-crazed United States rock 'n' roll," says Mark Morton, a Texas Tech music professor in Holly's hometown of Lubbock.
An accomplished musician who sounds like a cross between Lennon and McCartney, Morton teaches a class called "The Music of the Beatles."
"Where Buddy Holly sadly was cut short in exploring beyond the 12-bar blues and beyond the three basic chords, that's where the Beatles really picked up the mantle and explored that beyond anyone's imagination," Morton said.
"I might go so far as to say it was the Beatles that saved tonality. That's a very big responsibility that started with Buddy Holly and carried on with the Beatles and beyond."
When McCartney plays Phoenix on June 26, just after he turns 77, hope he includes Holly's "Words of Love" — or, better yet, make enough noise until he sings it. There's no mistaking where the Beatles' 1964 version originated, mixed in with some London mod sound, Morton said.
If you're lucky enough to have tickets for the Rolling Stones on May 7, maybe Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both 75, will play Holly's "Not Fade Away," their first U.S. single in 1964 and an opening song on previous Stones' tours.
Holly, if still alive, would be 82. Would he, too, still be performing? Perhaps coming on stage for a turn with his proteges? If Tony Bennett is still out there at 92 and recording with Lady Gaga, why wouldn't that be possible for someone as creative as Holly?
"He's like Mozart," Morton said. "Classical musicians wonder all the time what classical music would have been like through the 19th century had Mozart lived to 50 or 60. In a similar way, it was Beethoven that took the mantle from Mozart similar to the Beatles from Buddy Holly.
"Near the end of his short career, that's when he started to explore other harmonies. We can only conjecture what amazing things he could have come up with. The best we can do is listen to the Beatles."
Chubby Checker is through with a raucous one-hour set that would have done in a younger man, let alone one who is 77.
The final night of the Winter Dance Party is winding down, with a traditional three stars tribute to Holly, Valens and Bopper. Some in attendance are planning a trip to the plane crash site, now just an hour away from the exact 60th anniversary.
It's the time the coin flip was held in 1959, sparing Tommy Allsup, who later opened the Heads Up Saloon in Fort Worth, Texas. Valens called heads to win his seat on the plane.
It's 39 degrees and foggy 60 years later on the early minutes of Feb. 3. Driving along U.S. Highway 18, the Mason City Municipal Airport is almost invisible. Visibility at 1 a.m. is 437 yards. No planes are taking off on this night.
If only that had been the case in 1959. Peterson might have said: Sorry Buddy, I'll be happy to refund you and your pals $36 each for the tickets to Fargo. Or maybe we can try again in the morning. It'll be safer.
Jeff Metcalfe reports on Arizona State University sports and the Olympics for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. He has covered the Valley’s sports scene since 1985. Last year, Jeff looked back at another Baby Boomer icon: Tony Dow, who played Wally on "Leave It To Beaver," which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.
1959 Winter Dance Party lineup
- Buddy Holly: Sept. 7, 1936-Feb. 3, 1959 (22 at death)
- J.P. Richardson (Big Bopper): Oct. 24, 1930-Feb. 3, 1959 (28)
- Ritchie Valens: May 13, 1941-Feb. 3, 1959 (17)
- Frankie Sardo: Sept. 16, 1936-Feb. 26, 2014 (77)
- Carl Bunch: Nov. 24, 1939-March 26, 2011 (71)
- Waylon Jennings: June 15, 1937-Feb. 13, 2002 (64)
- Tommy Allsup: Nov. 24, 1931-Jan. 11, 2017 (85)
- Dion DiMucci: July 18, 1939 (currently 79)
- Carlo Mastrangelo: Oct. 5, 1937-April 4, 2016 (78)
- Fred Milano: Aug. 26, 1939-Jan. 1, 2012 (72)
"That'll Be the Day," 1957
"Words of Love," 1957
"Peggy Sue," 1957
"Not Fade Away," 1957
"Maybe Baby," 1958
"Rave On," 1958
"It's So Easy," 1958
"It Doesn't Matter Any More," 1959
"Raining in My Heart," 1959
"Come On, Let's Go," 1958
"La Bamba," 1958
"Chantilly Lace," 1958