64 years later: ‘The Day the Music Died’

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(ABC 6 News) – On February 3rd, 1959, a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa made legends out of three relatively unknown musicians and changed music forever.

The story begins at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. The Winter Dance Party Tour featuring Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. After the show, because of the cold and a tour bus with no heat, the plan was to fly to Fargo, North Dakota for their next performance in Moorhead.

Just before 1:00 a.m., they took off from the Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather – light snow with low visibility. Pilot Roger Peterson was planning for snow but not bad visibility. The plane crashed nearly six miles from the airport, just north of Clear Lake and Mason City. All four on board the small Beechcraft Bonanza were killed instantly.

It would be hours before someone went looking for them.

Jim Collison, a reporter for the Mason City Globe Gazette describes that fateful day in 1959 as “a grey day, a grey, gloomy, day.” He was one of the few journalists on the scene. The call came into the newsroom at 9:30 a.m.

“Of course immediately things started to move. I mean real fast. He told me to go to the crash site and of course, he told the photographer, Elwin Musser, to go to the crash site.”

Photos that would be seen around the world for decades.

“Elwin took his pictures and we rushed back. We were then at a deadline because this was big national news. We had to get a story out as fast as we could.”

Jeff Nicholas is the president of the Surf Ballroom. He also owns the farmland where the plane crashed. He grew up there.

“You know, a lot of people talk about their music dying at the Surf,” said Nicholas as he gave a tour of the memorial site.

“But this is where the music died.”

Nicholas was a teenager when he learned that the infamous crash happened on his farm.

“One of the wings hit in, and actually dug a trench in the frozen ground which is absolutely incredible.”

Connie Valens was only eight years old when her brother Ritchie died in the crash. No photos with him, she just has the memories. Including their last Christmas together.

“Momma had made a big party and we had the Christmas tree, and I knew he was coming in,” Connie recalls of Christmas in 1958.

“I wanted to be the first person that saw him when he came in the door. He goes ‘Mi hija’ which is an endearment and hugs me. He gives me a big old kiss on the lips. I remember wiping my mouth and saying ‘is this what I waited up for?'”

Connie heard from her classmates at school her brother died. She thought it was just a rumor. It wasn’t until she got home that she found out the rumor was true.

“You’re eight years old. Your world has just crashed in around you. Your brother/dad was gone. I felt very alone.”

Things could have been different. A backstage coin toss in the green room determined her brother’s fate. Tommy Allsup, a member of Buddy Holly’s band lost a coin toss to Ritchie Valens. Valens, winning his seat on the plane.

“There was a time when people didn’t talk about it. This wasn’t Clear Lake’s finest hour,” added Nicholas.

Nicholas holds a Winter Dance Party every year. Giving people a chance to travel back in time. Thanks to the help of Jeff Boxell, a Buddy Holly impersonator with A Hard Day’s Night tribute band.

Keeping the music alive for all generations including students at Clear Creek Elementary School who got to take part in their own Winter Dance Party.

“We get to go to the Surf Ballroom for school!” 10-year-old Mackenleigh Tarr excitedly told ABC 6.

“We get to dance and listen to old music for Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper,” added 10-year-old Aubrey Schroeder.

Tarr also shared her love for The Big Bopper: “I LOVE The Big Bopper! Because I love his music and how nice he was.”

“It’s such a blast to see all these little third and fourth graders dressed like Buddy Holly,” shared Boxell.

“They’re having so much fun. Just to be able to keep that music alive.”

People come from all over the world including Michael Delf from England. He visits every year. He’s been a fan of Holly for decades.

“I became aware of these tributes because I did see Buddy Holly in England in 1958. When I heard this was going on, I just thought, ‘I have to come. I have to come here.'”

And if there’s one song that helped put Clear Lake on the map, it’s Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

“I wanted to write a big song about America,” McLean exclusively told ABC 6 News.

“I had already heard songs like ‘This Land is Your Land.’ I didn’t want to write that kind of a song. I wanted to write something that was completely modern. So I fused politics with Rock’ n’Roll.”

McLean was a paper boy when the crash happened and wrote the song 12 years later.

ABC 6 News Good Morning Reporter Sydney Zatz asked if he thought the song would still be popular 50 years later. His response:

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t think I’d be doing this interview 50 years later about it. It’s become a huge thing over the years.”

The Grammy-nominated song is not the only way the victims’ legacy is staying alive. The Surf’s Winter Dance Party and the crash anniversary aren’t seen as a time for mourning.

Nicholas describes the Ballroom: “This isn’t a cold, dark place that took their loved ones. This is a place their loved ones were performing and doing what they loved for the last time.”

It’s a time to celebrate the music.

“Keeping alive the legacies,” said Connie.

“Not only of my brother, but all the musicians that we lost, and that we loved. The music never died. It didn’t die. It still lives.”