SIXTY-THREE YEARS AGO TODAY, the music died. On February 3, 1959, three musicians—Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson—and a pilot died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. It was, and remains, a monumental moment in American music history.
Today the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake still hosts a Winter Dance Party honoring the musicians who performed their final concert there on February 2, 1959. Early the next morning en route to Moorhead, Minnesota, the charter flight carrying the rock-n-roll musicians crashed in a field near Clear Lake in northern Iowa.
In 2015, Randy and I traveled an hour and 15 minutes south of Faribault along Interstate 35 to Clear Lake, where we toured the Surf. We were mere preschoolers when Holly and the others died. But the story of this tragedy imprinted upon us as teens, when Don McLean released his hit, “American Pie,” in 1971. How well I remember that tribute, the lyrics, the length of the nearly 8.5-minute song.
While in Clear Lake on that May day seven years ago, we didn’t visit the crash site. Rain kept us away. But we certainly enjoyed our tour of the historic ballroom, site to many concerts from greats such as Duke Ellington, Lawrence Welk, the Beach Boys, the Doobie Brothers… The posters and photos, the aged booths, the stage and dance floor, all pay homage to the past, when ballrooms centered entertainment. The Surf, on the National Register of Historic Places and a designated National Historic Landmark, represents another time, another era, not simply a concert venue.
Today I celebrate music and those who create it, past and present. Music enriches our lives beyond entertainment. Music, in many ways, writes like poetry into our hearts, souls and memories. And this February day, I honor the memories of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, as I consider “the day the music died.”
TELL ME: Have you toured the Surf Ballroom or the crash site? Or do you have music memories of Holly, Valens and Richardson that you’d like to share?
© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling