The Day The Music Died……it happened just north of Clear Lake, Iowa in a corn field just after midnight on February 3, 1959. It was the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper (JP Richardson), and Ritchie Valens, as well as the young pilot of the private plane carrying the music legends. They had just played the Clear Lake, IA show of the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour. It was snowing and cold and their bus had no heat. Several of the musicians, including headliners, were already sick from traveling in the cold bus. Buddy Holly chartered a plane to take him and two others to their next show – promising a warm bed to sleep in for the night – but there were only two other seats. There are several accounts of how The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens ended up being the ones on the plane, but the most accepted story is that the Big Bopper had the flu, so he asked Waylon Jennings for his seat and Ritchie Valens won a coin toss for the other seat. Whatever really happened, the bottom line is that the three of them boarded the plane after the show and, due to the sever weather and a pilot who was young and unqualified, the plane crashed in a corn field just six miles out of town.
The Surf Ballroom is the location of the final performance of these three musical icons. It has quite an impressive history of its own. Built in 1949, it hosted performances by all the major musicians over more than five decades! They have walls lined with photos and memorabilia of just some of the greats who performed there — the guide said they had more stars perform there than they have wall space! It is now run by a non-profit organization and still open for concerts, weddings, reunions, and other events – ZZ Top played there not too long ago and they host an annual reunion of the Winter Dance Party Tour with big stars coming to honor The Day The Music Died – the Feb 2018 line up will be announced in a few weeks. The Ballroom is kept just the way it was when it was built in 1949 – much is still original to the building (like the lobby and coat check area) and much has been restored over time (like the pineapple wood panels on the walls).
The crash site is on private property, but the owner keeps the path mowed down for fans to visit the memorial that has been placed to mark the spot. It is a 1/4 mile hike through the corn field and is well worth the effort to get there. I visited it on a drizzly, cold morning – I took the 1/4 mile walk with an umbrella on the muddy path…..all alone in the middle of nowhere, but am so very glad I did!
Here are some photos:
You have to take Buddy Holly Place to get to the street the Surf Ballroom is located on
The original lobby and coat check station
Restored pineapple wood panels on the walls
Many greats played this piano, but Duke Ellington signed the underside of the lid after he played it!
They have preserved the phone that Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens called home on the night they died
Part of the Big Band Wall
And, this is part of the Rock and Country Wall
The Lounge is crammed with memorabilia — photos, guitars, personal items, etc….
This is the brief case recovered from the plane crash – it belonged to The Big Bopper and had tour documents in it
In the 1980s, stars who performed there decided they should leave their mark, so they began to sign their names on the wall of the Green Room — majorly impressive!!!
I was struck by this display – it says the Nelson Family is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only family in entertainment history with three generations of hit makers. They also have the distinction of having all three generations perform their hits at the Surf Ballroom! Pretty cool!
Standing on the original stage looking out over the ballroom (the extension in front of me was added to accommodate larger bands in later years).
On the corner of JP Richardson Ave and Ritchie Valens Dr is a small memorial park
This post is topped with three records representing the three legends – it lights up in blue neon at night and you can press buttons to listen to all three number one hits
the underside of the bottom record
Entrance to the lane leading to the crash site
Can’t tell from this photo, but it was a drizzly, misty rain and my hair was soaked! I used an umbrella to walk the lane, but I was already wet!
The crash site is 1/4 mile down this muddy lane through a corn field
PLEASE NOTE: These photos aren’t very good……I actually filmed a Live Video on Facebook of my stroll down the path and the memorial tribute. I was so excited and emotion seeing it all that I totally forgot to take still photos!!! So, I got screenshots from the video…..which don’t make for great photos, but gives you an idea of what I found at the end of the path. Wish I could post the video, but not possible……sorry!!!
The pilot – Roger Peterson
Three records and a guitar with their names
And, then, I had to walk the 1/4 mile back to my car…..in a little heavier drizzle. When I got in the car, I realized I forgot to take still photos and considered walking back – after all, when am I ever going to be back there…..but, decided not to – and a good thing I did because a big down pour came right when I would have been about 1/2 way down the path! It was a long, lonely walk town the path in the middle of nowhere in God’s Country, but it was worth it! I’m so glad I went. As I was pulling away, two other cars pulled up to make the trek……they had a MUCH soggier walk than I had because of the down pour that hit just after they got started!
So…….that was my first full day in Iowa! Clear Lake is about a 3 hour drive from Dubuque, so I was on the road much of the day, but I saw a lot of the Iowa country side and stopped for lunch and dinner and slept really good when I got back to the hotel! 🙂