Clear Lake, Iowa — A pilgrimage of sorts took place this weekend as people from far and wide traveled to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake to observe the 60th anniversary of the final performance of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson before they perished when their charter plane crashed into a northern Iowa stubble field.
The 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour was about one-third complete when the tour buses pulled into Clear Lake on February 2nd. The weather was bitterly cold, which had caused the heaters of the buses to fail, resulting in miserable travelling conditions for the performers.
The buses arrived at the Surf Ballroom at 7:30 that Monday night, running a little late for their 8:00 pm performance. The tour’s leader, Buddy Holly asked the ballroom manager to arrange a charter flight to take three of the musicians to Fargo, North Dakota so they could escape the cold buses, and have time to do laundry before their Fargo show Tuesday night.
After the show, the three who were scheduled to fly, Buddy Holly and his backup musicians Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings prepared to head for the airport. At the last minute, Allsup gave up his seat on the flight to Ritchie Valens after Valens successfully won a coin toss, and Waylon Jennings surrendered his seat to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from the flu.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of Tuesday, February 3rd, 1959, a Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft carrying Holly, Valens, and Richardson, along with their pilot, Alta native Roger Peterson, took off from the Mason City Airport headed for Fargo, and flew off into legend. The wreckage of their aircraft, and the bodies of the four, were discovered later that morning by the owner of the charter service who was flying the route they were to have taken, after hearing they never arrived in North Dakota.
Twenty years later began the annual Winter Dance Party Reunion Weekends at the Surf. This year, 2019, marks the 60th anniversary of what has been called “The Day The Music Died”, and according to Doris Welle of the Iowa Rock & Roll Music Association, another 3-day weekend observance began Thursday, with performances by family members of some of the musicians who played there 60 years earlier, as well as relatives of other musicians from that era.
Welle says a large number of Ritchie Valens relatives make the trek to Clear Lake each February to remember the life and legacy of their loved one.
She says people are drawn from all over the world for the annual celebration of the lives and music of the trio of musicians who perished 60 years ago.
The 60th anniversary of the loss of the 22-year old Holly, 17-year old Valens, 28-year old Big Bopper, and 21-year old pilot Roger Peterson wrapped up with a concert at around midnight Saturday night. The same time the show ended 60-years earlier.