The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa became a loss-of-innocence shrine for fans of rock ‘n’ roll, the place where early rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson gave their last performances on February 2, 1959, just before perishing in a plane crash — later lamented as “The Day the Music Died” in the song by Don McLean.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story tells the enduring tale of the musical icon’s meteoric rise to fame and his final legendary performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, before his tragic and untimely death at the age of 22. In just 18 months the Texas-born rock ‘n’ roller revolutionized the face of contemporary music influencing everyone from The Beatles to Bruce Springsteen. Inside the Ford Wyoming Center audiences of all ages will be treated to 20 of Buddy Holly’s greatest hits, including timeless classics “That’ll Be The Day”, “Peggy Sue”, “Oh Boy” and “Rave On”.
In modern times, it’s a given that many rock ‘n’ roll stars and musicians from all genres live fast and die young, but Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story will transport you to a time of genuine fun and carefree innocence of the 1950’s in America. Prepare yourself for a night where the music lives!
For anyone too young to recall what is now etched into rock ‘n’ roll history, it was just after midnight, February 3, 1959, in Iowa’s frozen winter landscape where Buddy Holly found himself and bandmates cold, and longing for, of all things, some free time to do laundry. So instead of riding a bus 350 miles to the next stop of the tour in Minnesota, Buddy chartered a plane to fly him there along with his band members, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. Jennings gave up his seat to the J.P., and Tommy Allsup lost his seat in a coin toss with Valens.
Unfortunately, their pilot was an unqualified local, young like Buddy and just 21 years old. The plane, a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza, flew only six miles before it crashed, killing the three pioneers of early American rock ‘n’ roll music along with pilot Roger Peterson, crashing in a field several miles north of the Surf Ballroom, where the early rock stars had wrapped a gig only hours earlier. It was one of the first tragedies to strike modern American music and a figurative end to 1950s culture. Don McLean coined it “The Day the Music Died” in his 1971 opus “American Pie.”
And the events that unfolded Feb. 3, 1959, at the airport in neighboring Mason City, Iowa, haunted one of Holly’s bandmates — a forefather to country music’s original outlaw movement — for years to come.
Young Waylon Jennings had been playing bass in Holly’s backing band for the “Winter Dance Party” tour and offered his seat on the plane to the sick J.P. Richardson.
1959 Winter Dance Party poster from the Randy Bachman Collection
While the tour had been unceremoniously stranded on more than one occasion that winter and, before takeoff, Holly jestingly told Jennings he hoped the bus broke down. Jennings responded with “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
In a 1999 interview with CMT Jennings said, “I was so afraid for many years that somebody was going to find out I said that.” Jennings continued, “Somehow I blamed myself. Compounding that was the guilty feeling that I was still alive. I hadn’t contributed anything to the world at that time compared to Buddy.
“Why would he die and not me? It took a long time to figure that out, and it brought about some big changes in my life — the way I thought about things.”
Sharon Lassiter Photo (Waylon Jennings-01/30/59, Laramar Ballroom, Ft. Dodge, IA)
Jennings and Holly had bonded in Buddy’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Jennings spun records on local radio station KLLL where Buddy would visit during his shifts. In 1958, the “Peggy Sue” star would produce Jennings’ first record, a cut of Cajun standard “Jole Blon.”
The friendship led to Jennings picking up a bass for the “Winter Dance,” a tour he told Rolling Stone in 1973 that Holly did only “because he was broke. Flat broke.”
Buddy Holly in Concert, circa 1959, Rolling Stone Magazine
Though bad weather and an inexperienced pilot were the immediate blame for the crash, in a larger sense it could be attributed to the economics of the early rock ‘n’ roll industry.
Holly’s royalty rate on records sold was quite favorable for the day — five percent times ninety-percent of the retail price of the records sold.
However, as a co-writer with Jerry Allison and Petty, Holly only received 16 2/3s percent of the songwriter royalties from The Crickets first hit, “That’ll Be the Day.” The other 50-percent of the royalties went to music publishing companies Peer-Southern and Nor-Va-Jak Music-the latter owned by Norman and Vi Petty.
Additionally, the purpose of touring was to promote record sales. Net revenues from touring were often quite small, especially when compared with the revenues from sales. Holly had paid for the airplane rental out of his pocket.
No doubt Petty took risks as the producer and deserved compensation for his efforts, but was his percentage more than he deserved?
The question is not easy to answer. Holly and The Crickets did not produce any hits before they recorded with Petty in his Clovis, New Mexico studio where Petty charged a fixed fee for recording rather than the hourly rate which was the standard then and now.
The “Winter Dance Party” played on for two weeks after the crash, including that night in Moorhead, Minnesota. Jennings would continue his music career, forging a celebrated outlaw sound heard on 1970s records such as “Dreaming My Dreams” and “The Ramblin’ Man.”
Jennings was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He died from diabetes complications in 2002.
“Buddy was the first guy who had confidence in me,” Jennings told CMT. “Hell, I had as much star quality as an old shoe. But he really liked me and believed in me.”
Unlike the official “Day the Music Died” shrine at the nearby Surf Ballroom, where the trio played their final concert, the memorial at the crash site is strictly D.I.Y. In fact, the site didn’t even have a memorial until 1988, when music fan Ken Paquette made a stainless steel monument of a guitar and three records with the names of the three rockers. In 2009 he made a memorial for the pilot as well.
Much like the Surf, the crash site is the same as it was in 1959: a lonely spot in a giant Iowa field. The access point on the nearest farm road is marked by a big pair of Holly’s trademark eyeglasses. It’s a long walk from there to the crash site, but the bare patch of dirt in front of the memorial shows that lots of fans make the trek.
The memorial is a repository of offerings: plastic flowers, spare change, Mardi Gras beads, little American flags, eyeglasses, even a rusty 1959 Iowa license plate (If more people knew about the laundry story, they might leave clean socks and underwear). A whirligig made of Jello molds spins in the breeze. The fragility of these items suggests that the site is frequently policed, and the only-recent graffiti on the big eyeglasses shows that it’s probably repainted every year.
Most visitors don’t realize that as they stand to the south of the memorial, snapping photos, they’re literally on the spot where Buddy Holly’s body was thrown from the plane, as seen in grim newspaper photos displayed at the Surf and in news reports.
Video link: https://youtu.be/k9ysfTO1Dfw
Buddy, Ritchie, and The Bopper achieved immortality, although not in a way anyone would have chosen. If they’d have stuck to their original post-concert transportation plan, who knows how long their careers might have flourished? Just like the original tour in 1959 billed as an event for those from age 8 to 80, you will find Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story appropriate for all ages. Secure your tickets today and book your hotel stay at Ramkota Casper.