Sixty years later, remembering 'The Day the Music Died'

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The Day the Music Died
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson (aka the Big Bopper) (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Courtesy of the artist, Allan H. Plant/Getty Images [via NPR])
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Sixty years ago this week, the Winter Dance Party concert tour was crisscrossing the Upper Midwest by bus in frigid conditions.

Among other acts, the tour included 17-year-old Ritchie Valens of "La Bamba" fame; J.P. "the Big Bopper" Richardson and his hit "Chantilly Lace"; and bespectacled rock star Buddy Holly, famous for songs such as "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue."

On Jan. 27, 1959, the tour played the Fiesta Ballroom in Montevideo, Minn. The next night it was in St. Paul. Then a couple stops in Iowa before a Jan. 31 concert at the Armory in Duluth.

"They would go from one place in Wisconsin to a place in Iowa, to a place in Minnesota, back to Iowa, back to Minnesota. They just jumped all over the place," Larry Lehmer, author of the book "The Day the Music Died," told MPR News in 2009. "These were largely 300 and 400-mile trips, performing every night. There were no nights off. It was the dead of winter, and the transportation they found for them was not very reliable. They had a lot of buses that would break down in that cold weather."

Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa
The legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Luke Taylor | MPR 2012

From Duluth, the tour — which also included Dion and the Belmonts — headed to Appleton, Wis., for a Feb. 1 concert; the bus broke down during that trip. After that: The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, for a Feb. 2 show.

Early the next morning, tired of the long, cold bus rides, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly boarded a chartered plane bound for the next tour stop in Moorhead, Minn. Shortly after takeoff from the Mason City airport, the plane crashed, killing the three musicians and their pilot.

Feb. 3, 1959, became known as "The Day the Music Died," memorialized in Don McLean's famous song "American Pie."

A group of men at the crash site in February 1959
A group of men view of the wreckage of a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane in a snowy field outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, in early February 1959. The crash, on February 3, claimed the lives of American rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. 'The Big Bopper' Richardson, along with the plane's pilot. Hulton Archive | Getty Images

The crash, the final concert and the Winter Dance Party tour also are memorialized each year at the Surf Ballroom. It's a tradition that started in 1979, on the 20th anniversary of the crash.

This year's anniversary event will include concerts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 31-Feb. 2. Among the bands playing on Saturday night will be the Holy Rocka Rollaz, an early American rock 'n' roll / rockabilly trio from Northeast Minneapolis.

The band includes frontman Mark Flora, Lisa Lynn on standup bass and vocals, and drummer Matt Alexander.

This will be the band's fifth year as part of the overall anniversary event, and the fourth year playing at the Surf.

What's it like to take that historic stage?

Photo of the Holy Rocka Rollaz
The Holy Rocka Rollaz are an early American rock 'n' roll / rockabilly trio from Northeast Minneapolis. They include frontman Mark Flora, drummer Matt Alexander and Lisa Lynn on standup bass and vocals. Photo by Neil Craigan Photography | Courtesy of Holy Rocka Rollaz

"Goose bumps… butterflies," Flora said. "The fact that you're in the same building that Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper did their last concert in — it is a spiritual thing. I don't want to say it's haunted, but I will say that people bring their spirits to this place, and they love 50s music.

"A big thing about the Winter Dance Party: It's not a morbid event at all. It's celebrating the music of the 50s, and of Ritchie and Buddy and the Bopper. It never gets old. We get on that stage and there's 2,000 people just screaming and ready to go. The second we just tear it up — it seems like it's over in two minutes, really."

Flora said the band worked toward a goal of being a part of the anniversary events at the Surf.

"We've always felt like early American rock 'n' roll and rockabilly are cherished art forms, and we set out to do it the way it's meant to be done," he said. "And I felt that the Surf Ballroom would be a perfect fit for what we do and what we're trying to celebrate — the traditions of early American rock 'n' roll and all those pioneers."

signpost in Clear Lake, Iowa, at the corner of Ritchie Valens Drive and Buddy Holly Place
Streets in the center of Clear Lake, Iowa, have been named for legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson (aka the Big Bopper). Pictured is the signpost at the corner of Ritchie Valens Drive and Buddy Holly Place. Luke Taylor | MPR 2012

Flora, 55, was born several years after the plane crash. But he grew up immersed in the music of the 1950s. During the 1980s, he said, he started listening more to Buddy Holly.

"His music really spoke to me," he said. "It felt fresh to me; it still feels fresh to me."

Also in the 1980s: He made his first pilgrimage to see the Surf Ballroom.

Performing at the Surf in recent years, immersed in that history, has provided some memorable moments. Last year he was able to talk with members of the long-running doo-wop group The Elegants, who also were in the anniversary concert lineup.

"They toured with Buddy Holly and the Crickets. They were on buses with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and backstage. Hearing those guys talk about their friend Buddy — that was priceless," Flora recalled. "I said, 'Guys, can we drive to Minneapolis and back? I'm not done hearing all your stories.' That's my favorite part of it — it goes back to the people."

This article originally published on the MPR News website on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019.

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Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa


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