The Day the Music Died
February 3, 1959 - Since Don McLean released the song, American Pie, that day has been known as The Day the Music Died.
On that day a plane carrying three musicians, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” JP Richardson crashed into a cornfield outside Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all three along with their pilot, Roger Peterson. The trio performed earlier that evening at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom and were heading to their next stop, 365 miles away in Morehead, Minnesota.
There are all sorts of twists and turns in the story about the concert tour they were on and the crash itself. The tour scheduling was a mess with buses between locations repeatedly breaking down. Often those buses were nothing more than old school buses with heating systems that had no chance of keeping up with below freezing Midwest temperatures.
Holly, before flying out, jokingly told band member Waylon Jennings, yes, that Waylon Jennings, he hoped his bus froze up. To which Jennings, again in jest, replied he hoped Holly's plane crashed. Guitarist Tommy Allsup was supposed to be on the flight but after Valens repeatedly asked him to switch, Allsup pulled out a half dollar coin and they flipped for it. Valens won.
It has all the makings of a movie and one, titled Clear Lake, was supposed to begin production last year but I haven't been able to determine if it did indeed happen and has yet to be released.
You can do a deeper dive into the details of the crash and events leading up to it on Wikipedia. Also, at the bottom of this post, are videos of the three musicians in performance.
It seemed appropriate for me to be visiting Clear Lake, the Surf and the crash site in the same month as the crash occurred.
Walking into the Surf Ballroom I instantly felt I’d become Marty McFly, transported back in time to the 1950s. The place looks almost exactly like it did in 1959.
The red velvet around the stage, the wood paneling, the fish motif on the booths’ sides, every effort has been made to restore it in its original condition. It reminds me so much of places I might have been in with my parents back in the 60s.
Until seeing it I didn’t realize just how big it is, it’s massive. It holds more than 2,000 people. The dance floor alone is 6,300 square feet. There are 95 booths along the back wall of the dance floor and another 71 along one of its sides, each row on different levels to provide a better view of the stage for those sitting in them.
And, oh by the way and by the by, when the Surf was built in 1948, drawers were mounted on the booth walls beneath the tables. The drawers were designed for women’s purses but were just as commonly used to hide liquor snuck in by patrons. Liquor by the drink didn’t become available for purchase until the Fourth of July, 1963.
In addition to the ballroom, there is a lounge, the Cypress Room, tucked into the front corner of the building, that can seat another 120 people. With a small stage, I assume it was used regularly back in the day to generate income between the main ballroom performances.
Donations are asked but no fee is charged for visitors and, with exception of office and storage spaces, you’re free to wander just about anywhere throughout the facility. That includes up on the stage, where you can feel what it might have been like for the performers and their bands back in 1959 and the small Green Room, just off the stage.
The Green Room isn’t green at all, most aren’t, it’s simply the name traditionally given to the space performers hang out while waiting to go on stage. That small room is where the fateful coin toss between Allsup and Valens took place, just as they were preparing to leave the Surf that night.
Over the years, musicians have signed the Green Room walls, to the point there is little room left for more. But, don’t go looking for the autographs of Holly, Valens or the Big Bopper. Artists didn’t begin autographing the walls there until sometime in the mid-1980s. Though Jennings did sign the wall when returning for a performance in 1995.
When visiting the Surf Ballroom, take a few extra minutes and walk over to Three Stars Plaza, just a block west of the ballroom. The city has installed a 15-foot outdoor art piece that looks like a giant record spindle with three records atop, one for each of the musicians. At night it lights up in blue neon.
I didn’t realize how close the crash site was to town. The plane must have only been in the air for a couple of minutes, before falling to the ground. It’s just six miles from the Surf Ballroom, which is located on the lake, a few blocks from downtown Clear Lake.
One word to the wise, don’t use your GPS’ default for the crash site. I had the address to the site but out of laziness put in ‘Buddy Holly crash site’, which did come up as an option, and followed that to the spot it took me, about a mile away from the actual location.
Not seeing the iconic Buddy Holly dark glasses monument near the road when I arrived there, I knew instantly I was in the wrong location, changed the address in my GPS to 315th St and Gull Avenue, and it took me right to the spot.
The monument is a bit smaller than I’d imagined from photos, four-feet high and about the same width across. As it would have been back in 1959, snow covered the ground, with about two feet in some spots thanks to the snowplows coming through to clear the road.
Further on out into the field, there is a memorial at the actual site of the crash. The stainless steel marker features a guitar and set of three records, bearing the names of each of the musicians. A second marker with the pilot’s name and cut in a wing shape is a few feet away.
Standing there even today, decades later, with February winds blowing across those open fields, one still feels the somberness, how cold and desolate it must have been back in 1959.
The memorial is on private property, between two farm fields, but visitors are allowed to to walk out to it. Simply follow the fence line beginning behind the eyeglass monument for roughly a quarter mile west. You can’t miss it.
Remember though, it is a farm field so if you go in February, dress appropriately. Even if you go in the summer and it’s been rainy, the fields will be wet and muddy.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum dedicated the Surf Ballroom as an historic rock and roll landmark in January, 2009, the 50th Anniversary of that fateful night:
"There are few buildings in existence today that represent a complete shift in our musical history. As the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, the Surf is the bedrock of where the sound and attitude of rock and roll changed forever."
More photos from the Surf Ballroom and crash site are available on my flickr page.
Final Sidenote: One of the stops along the concert tour, four days prior to Clear Lake on January 29, was the Capitol Theatre in Davenport, Iowa. Many, many, years later, the college I worked for owned the theatre and the 10-story office building in which it was located on the ground floor. I had an office in the building for a couple of years.
I was in and around the theatre many times. It's an incredibly beautiful structure but, sadly, has not been open for more than a decade. The current owners are nearing completion on converting the offices into apartments. There has been talk of revitalizing the theatre as a movie theatre and I still hold out hope the Capitol will come to life once again.
**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.