An epic 10-year search for Midwest fans who saw Buddy Holly's final tour
Sevan Garabedian from Montreal, Canada, has spent the last decade tracking down fans who attended iconic rocker Buddy Holly's final "Winter Dance Party" tour in 1959 in cities around the Midwest. Holly and other stars died in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, north of Clear Lake, Iowa.
Apologies to all my fellow Iowans who live with me in the balmy lower half of Iowa, below U.S. Highway 30, but I have to brag about this mild winter. I’m happy to report that until this week my snow blower remained untouched in the garage.
Sorry to jinx it.
This is the time of year when I tend to dwell most on winter weather. Because I’ve never been colder in my life than in the first hour of Feb. 3, 2009, when I stood in the middle of a frozen field north of Clear Lake in far northern Iowa. A bitter gale flayed my skin on that subzero night.
The only thing that saved me was a massive bonfire set ablaze to protect me and all the other idiots from hypothermia. We had convened to observe the 50th anniversary of “The Day the Music Died” at the exact spot where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper" Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson crashed in 1959. The prototypical rockers had just wrapped a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.
Our bundled-up anniversary gaggle eight years ago warbled through Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the 1971 hit song in tribute to the tragedy. Numb fingers fumbled with a whiskey bottle that was passed around the shivering circle. I was busy recording shaky video footage. At the precise moment of the 1959 crash, just after 1 a.m., some tourists’ plane flew overhead as if hoping to commune with lingering ghosts in the sky.
I counted myself lucky to retain the feeling in all my extremities, let alone sense any otherworldly presence.
A thick-skinned Canadian named Sevan Garabedian also trudged his way through the snow to the crash site that year and has made routine pilgrimages to Clear Lake. It was 2004 when he first boarded a bus from his home in Montreal. He was dropped off at the Mason City airport, expecting to hail a cab.
Whoops: Welcome to Iowa! Fortunately, he was able to hitch a ride into town with a nice stranger.
The 41-year-old jewelry broker obviously isn’t a child of the ‘50s. He got hooked on oldies rock by accident during the early '90s grunge boom when his favorite pop radio station suddenly switched formats and began blaring the Everly Brothers. The founding rock era’s raw authenticity and deft touch with a simple melody entranced him.
Then at a local flea market he spotted a commemorative poster for the final “Winter Dance Party” concert with Holly and company in 1959 in Clear Lake.
Thus began his utter immersion in the minutiae of that culturally seismic Midwest winter of 1959.
“This plane crash, it symbolized the end of the innocence,” Garabedian said.
In 2007 in Clear Lake he met fellow fan Jim McCool of Madison, Wis. The two teamed up on an ambitious project: They would lovingly craft an authoritative, full-length video documentary of that landmark tour.
They’ve managed to interview about 95 percent of the surviving musicians from the 1959 tour — including Tommy Allsup, the lanky guitarist from Oklahoma who died earlier this month. He lost his seat on the fateful plane in a coin toss with Valens.
Eight of the cities on the 24-city “Winter Dance Party” tour were sprinkled among Iowa ballrooms. From those shows alone Garabedian has interviewed nearly 100 fans who attended in 1959.
But two shows on the tour continue to elude him: He hasn’t spoken to a single fan who attended either the Feb. 5 concert at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, or the Feb. 8 show at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
And although one of his coups nine years ago was to dredge up and purchase the rights to the first-ever photos from Holly’s final concert in Clear Lake, he also hasn’t seen a single photo from the Val Air concert after the crash.
By contrast, he found a few fans in Cedar Rapids who still had sets of photos from that city's performance.
Garabedian is missing photos from four out of the 24 cities on the tour. That also includes Davenport, where the lineup was billed as a “Shower of Stars” in the seated Capitol Theater. (Garabedian assumes the seated show made it less likely for teenagers to pull out their cameras. If only all of them had been carrying smartphones.)
“You can’t fathom how someone has these pictures and just doesn’t come out,” he said.
Throughout his long quest, Garabedian has grown increasingly fascinated not only with the dates leading up to the plane crash, but with the remainder of the tour. I’m willing to bet that a similar tragedy today would instantly derail the whole thing. But consider that the Winter Dance Party continued that very same night in Moorehead, Minn. An unknown singer named Bobby Vee took the stage, a substitution that catapulted his career. Not a single show was canceled.
Garabedian admires how Iowa has embraced its role as the primary keeper of the flame for Holly, although the rocker's hometown is Lubbock, Texas.
"It’s the complete opposite of anything morbid," he said.
It's the celebration of an icon who didn't live to see the '60s but nevertheless shaped them, and the decades of pop culture since.
Garabedian departs for Iowa this weekend and hopes to connect with as many 1959 concertgoers as possible to meet and interview during his latest trek. The Surf Ballroom stages its annual commemorative Winter Dance Party events Feb. 1-4.
So if you attended the tour or, even better, have an old box of photos in your dusty attic that might earn a cash reward, reach out to Garabedian at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 514-931-6959.
Or you know where to find him just after 1 a.m. Friday, Feb. 3, no matter the weather. He expects to join a group of die-hard fans from Chicago who convene annually at the crash site.
“Under the clear sky, the stars, it’s silent, and you can really feel it, man,” he said.
If you can feel anything at all, depending on the temperature.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or email@example.com. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson) and on Snapchat (@kylemunsoniowa).