CLEAR LAKE, Iowa–At 1 a.m. Friday, a handful of people will gather under a waxing moon on a gravel road about 5 miles north of here.
At a memorial in a farm field, the fans will say a prayer and sing a couple of songs. “We give thanks for the lives of these people that brought us all together and thanks for the music,” says Paul King, 66, a retired businessman from Northampton, England. He is a member of the British Buddy Holly Society and has made 24 pilgrimages to Clear Lake, including 17 for anniversary celebrations.
The after-midnight procession is the culmination of an annual celebration of the legacy of the three young rock ‘n’ roll singers and the survival of the Surf Ballroom, the venue in this town of 7,777 where they performed their final show.
The Surf, built in 1948 — after its first incarnation across the street on the shores of Clear Lake burned down a year earlier — is a shrine to the 1950s and the early days of rock music. It has its original ticket window, wooden dance floor and booths and a meticulously restored seashore-and-palm-trees motif. Faux clouds still roll across the black ceiling.
It is, says Jay P. Richardson, The Big Bopper’s son, “a temple of rock ‘n’ roll. If you want to pay your respects to Elvis, you go to Graceland. If you want to pay your respects to Dad, Buddy and Ritchie, you go to the Surf Ballroom.”
Once a hot spot
Clear Lake is a summer vacation hub in the middle of farm country, a two-hour drive from Minneapolis or Des Moines, the closest big cities. It’s the sort of place that’s bypassed by many national acts now, but in the days before everyone had TVs, musicians regularly toured small towns by bus, drawing capacity crowds from miles around to places such as the Surf.
The original ballroom, built in 1934, hosted all the famous acts of an earlier era: the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Count Basie, Lawrence Welk. By 1959, the new Surf was rocking.
Karen Spratt, 69, grew up on a farm near Clear Lake. “We milked cows twice a day and had a radio in the barn,” she says. “We learned all the words and sang along. My idols were Buddy and James Dean.” She was barely 16 when the Winter Dance Party came to the Surf, but her mom said she could go. Admission was $1.25.
It was, she says, “a fantastic night.” When she heard about the crash the next day, “we all cried. How could they be gone?”
Holly, the headliner, Valens and The Big Bopper had been touring the Midwest by bus. Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Sardo also were on the bill. Holly was not accompanied by the Crickets, his original backup band. Instead, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup shared the stage with him.
The lineup included some of the hottest performers of the day, Allsup says. “Elvis was in the Army in Germany, Little Richard had retired … and Jerry Lee Lewis was at the bottom of his career,” he says. “There weren’t that many rock ‘n’ roll stars running around.”
Holly’s hits Peggy Sue and Rave On were radio staples. Valens’ La Bamba was a Top 40 hit in 1958 and the Bopper’s Chantilly Lace was released that summer.
The Surf was sold out that night to its capacity of about 2,000. In his 2011 book Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth, Dion Dimucci described what happened. Holly, he wrote, decided he couldn’t take another night on the tour bus and chartered a plane to fly to Moorhead, Minn., for the next stop on the tour.
The small plane had four seats: room for the pilot, Roger Peterson, and three more. In the dressing room, Dimucci wrote, a coin was flipped to see who would fly with Holly and who would ride the bus. DiMucci and The Big Bopper won, but DiMucci opted out after he was told the flight would cost $36 each. “I said to Ritchie, ‘You go,’ ” he wrote.
The plane crashed minutes after takeoff; all four men were killed. Light snow was falling as the plane took off. Investigators concluded the crash was caused by poor weather conditions and pilot error.
‘Not a sad place’
Bill Wobbeking was at the Surf that night. He had just turned 18 and was attending college in nearby Mason City. After the show, he and a friend talked about Holly’s performance. “We kept saying over and over, he’s better than Elvis,” says Wobbeking, 71, a retired bank controller who lives in Urbandale, Iowa.
He has attended several reunions at the Surf and says it’s a joyful place. “My last memory of being in there that night was a happy time,” he says. But Wobbeking can’t bring himself to visit the crash site.
Bob Hale, who was a radio DJ in 1959 and emceed the Winter Dance Party, has tried to walk into the field to the crash memorial, but he had to turn back. At the Surf that night, he says, Holly asked if he could touch Hale’s pregnant wife’s belly. They talked about Iowa’s tough winters, and Holly promised he’d come back in the spring to perform and go water skiing and swimming.
“As he was getting into the car to go to the airport,” Hale, 78, who lives in Park Ridge, Ill., recalls, “he said, ‘I’ll see you in the spring.’ ”
Richardson, who was born a few weeks after his father’s death, first visited the Surf in 1988 and met Maria Elena Holly, Buddy’s widow, and Valens’ siblings. “I never realized my father had the impact he had until I went to the Surf,” he says. He first performed there in 2000 and will host this week’s events.
“It’s not a sad place to me,” Richardson says. “The Surf is the last place I know my father was having a good time.” He recently loaned some artifacts to the Surf’s museum, including his father’s brown leather briefcase engraved with the initials “J.P.R.” It was recovered from the crash site.
Restored to glory
The Surf went through difficult times after the events of 1959. A succession of owners and managers neglected it and some skipped town leaving unpaid bills, says Jeff Nicholas, president of the North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum, the non-profit group that has managed the ballroom since 2008.
Over the years, the iconic pineapple murals in the lobby — a symbol of hospitality — were covered by wood paneling and carpet. When it rained, trashcans were arrayed on the dance floor to catch leaking water.
The day the music died
Pilot Roger Peterson and three stars of early rock and roll died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959:
Buddy Holly Age: 22 Hits: That’ll Be The Day, Rave On, Peggy Sue Note: The Beatles’ name was inspired in part by Holly’s band, The Crickets
J.P. Richardson Jr., The Big Bopper Age: 28 Hits: Chantilly Lace; wrote White Lightning, Running Bear Note: Credited for coining the term “music video,” he recorded videos for his songs
Ritchie Valens Age: 17 Hits: Donna, La Bamba, Come On Let’s Go Note: The Beach Boys, Carlos Santana and Los Lobos cite Valens as an influence
In 1994, the Dean Snyder family, owners of a Clear Lake construction company, bought the ballroom and began restorations.
The Surf hosted 40 concerts and events in 2011, including shows by 16 nationally known artists, and the annual February commemoration brings about $2 million to the area, says Nicholas, who owns the farm where the plane crashed.
“There just seems to be a mystery and a magic” about the Surf and its place in music history, Nicholas says. He once encountered a man standing near the crash site with tears rolling down his face. “Lots of memories,” is all the visitor would say.
A few weeks after the crash, a pistol that had belonged to Holly was found near the site. In 2007, Richardson asked that his father’s body be exhumed to resolve questions about whether the gun was discharged during the flight and whether The Big Bopper, whose body was found further from the wrecked plane than the other victims, had survived and tried to seek help.
The autopsy found that The Bopper died on impact and found no evidence of gunfire.
Nicholas says he gets goosebumps every time he walks into the Surf, and executive director Laurie Lietz says, “I come in every morning and I say, ‘Good morning, boys.’ Every morning. The Valens family swear they feel Ritchie’s presence here.”
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top felt the history of the Surf when his band performed here for the first time in October 2011.
“To see it and walk through it was really a treat,” he says. “It’s a period-perfect piece of unintended leftover architecture. There’s something beyond nostalgic about it. There’s something quaint that is a standing reminder of the way things were.”
ZZ Top left with a Surf souvenir, Gibbons says: a vintage candy-striped popcorn machine on wheels. “It’s now in our recording studio in Houston,” he says.
This year’s Winter Dance Party, which begins Wednesday, features concerts, dance lessons, memorabilia and art shows and a bus trip to the memorial site. Allsup will perform, and Pat Boone is the headliner. King and other Surf fans who created a music scholarship fund in 1999 plan fundraising events.
“I can’t wait,” says Jack Dreznes, 63, a Chicago record store owner who serves on the scholarship board. “It’s the music and the camaraderie of the people who love the music. It’s fun music, it’s innocent music, it reminds us old-timers of our youth.”
Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, says everyone should visit the Surf. “It is living history,” he says. “The music didn’t die.”
Allsup, who stood beside Holly onstage that fateful night and will stand in the same place this week, agrees. “The music lived,” he says. “The guys died, but their music lives on and on.”