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I Was Just Thinking: ‘The Day the Music Died’

A couple weeks back, the folks at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake held their annual “Winter Dance Party” to mark the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper.

The three played their final concert of the Winter Dance Tour at the Surf on Feb. 2, 1969. From Clear Lake the bus was scheduled to head to Fargo, N.D., for the next stop on the tour. The heater had gone out on the bus and the touring musicians were constantly cold. Because of that, the three teen stars decided to charter a plane to fly them to North Dakota.

It was an ill-fated decision. The three, along with pilot Roger Peterson of Storm Lake, died shortly after takeoff from a Mason City airport. The crash scene is marked by a memorial in the rural Iowa land between Mason City and Forest City.

Dance parties were quite popular among those of us growing up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. That’s totally changed. Nowadays, big stars don’t play dances, they play concerts. Fifty years ago, or so, stars played dances. All the major teen idols of the day played at places like the Surf or the Val Air Ballroom in Des Moines. Rather than thousands, those events drew hundreds of teens gyrating on the big dance floor in front of the stage.

We could see all the big stars – The Beach Boys, Ray Price, Dion and the Belmonts, just to name a few – and we could all get right in front of the stage as they belted out the tunes that were popular for our generation.

So it was that night in Clear Lake.

A whole group of Central Iowans – including the sophomore class at North Polk High School – were already planning to see the Winter Dance Party when it came to the Des Moines’ Val Air Ballroom about 10 days after stopping in Clear Lake. If memory serves, after the concert in Fargo, the group was to return to Iowa for a date at the Laramar Ballroom in Fort Dodge before playing in Des Moines.

Several hundred teens saw the final performance in Clear Lake. If you believe everyone who claims to have been there, however, it’d probably be more like a quarter million.

I remember heading off for school on Feb. 3 and getting the news that Holly had died along with the other two stars. For a bunch of 15- and 16-year-old high schoolers, it was devastating news. Yes, we all felt as though we’d lost a family member. For many of us, it was the first time death had hit so closely. That’s how important Buddy Holly was to a generation.

Even before the plane crash, we’d do our best to imitate Holly as we sang “That’ll Be the Day,” Peggy Sue,” and “Every Day.”

For many of those my age, the three musicians live on in vinyl LP records. I don’t put them on the turntable often, but when I do its normally around this time of year. They’re well-worn from use – I played them over and over and over in the days following the crash – but I still enjoy listening to the innocent lyrics of early rock ‘n roll. Mostly, I play several Buddy Holly records, but I’ll often slip on a Ritchie Valens or Big Bopper record, as well.

I never tire of hearing “Oh, Donna,” “LaBamba,” and “Chantilly Lace.”

But, most of all, I listen to Buddy Holly. Some of the songs I love best never made it to the Top 40 list, but are wonderful to hear nonetheless.

And it’s usually around this time I remember a sad bunch of sophomores at North Polk High School. I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation who remembers “The Day The Music Died.”

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