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The Day The Music Died

January 25, 2019
Emmetsburg News

"Was it really 60 years ago?" my sister asked.

The 60th Anniversary Winter Dance Party at the Surf in Clear Lake is coming up. February 2019 marks 60 years since the original Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom, the last concert Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper played. My sister was at that concert 60 years ago.

"I was among the last group of people to see their final performance," she remembers.

My sister was 16 years old when she and her high school boyfriend traveled to the Surf for the Winter Dance Party. She remembers the songs they played and getting Ritchie Valens autograph after the concert. The autograph is on the back of a picture, which is stored with other high school mementoes.

It was snowing a lot after the concert when they left Clear Lake. It was taking them a lot longer than normal to drive back to West Bend. By the time they got to Algona the plows were out and it had started to clear. They called home from Algona, letting our parents know they would be late.

Little did they know, that day would become known as "The Day the Music Died."

Rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were killed in a plane crash that night, along with the pilot Roger Peterson.

The next day, my sister and her boyfriend went back to Clear lake to see the site of the plane crash.

"We stood there and looked at it - the wing, the tail gear, parts of the plane. It was the first time I had seen that type of wreckage," she remembers. "If I close my eyes, I can still see the scene of the plane crash as it was."

My sister brought home a small piece of metal from the crash scene. That, too, is among high school mementoes.

The 1959 Winter Dance Party included Buddy Holly with a band consisting of Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar), and Carl Bunch (drums), with the opening vocals of Frankie Sardo.?New hit artist Ritchie Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper"?Richardson, and Dion DiMucci and his band The Belmonts were also part of the group. The tour was set to cover 24 Midwestern cities in 24 days.

Looking up history of the Winter Dance Party online, the tour began in Milwaukee, WI, on Jan. 23, 1959. The amount of travel was a logistical problem, with the group circling around the Midwest, zig-zagging between cities over 400 miles. The entire company of musicians traveled together in one bus; reconditioned school buses. The buses and the performers were not equipped for the weather, which consisted of waist-deep snow in several areas and varying temperatures from the 20s to as low as minus-36-degrees. The artists had no road crew and were responsible for loading and unloading their equipment.

One leg of the tour, the Winter Dance Party tour traveled from the Laramar Ballroom in Fort Dodge to the Armory in Duluth, MN, on to the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, WI, and then to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake on Feb. 2, 1959. The next stop was Moorhead, MN, a 365-mile drive.

Reports state that Buddy Holly chartered the plane to fly to Fargo, ND, the closest airport to Moorhead. The plane crashed less than six miles northwest of the Mason City airport from which they had departed.

News about the accident spread fast. My sister said her boyfriend called her with the news.

"Today, that accident probably wouldn't have happened," she surmised. "Back then we didn't have the technology and that probably had something to do with the plane crash."

She added, "It never occurred to us at the time that it was anything monumental. It was just a very sad accident."

It wasn't until 1971 when Don McLean's song "American Pie" memorialized victims of the Feb. 3, 1959 accident. It became known as "The Day the Music Died."

The 2019 event at the Surf Ballroom is Jan. 30 through Feb. 2, including Chubby Checker and the Wildcats, The Chiffons, and Wendy &?Carnie Wilson. On Jan. 31 is a pop-up museum on the history of rock 'n' roll pioneers, The Everly Brothers from Shenandoah.



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