Monday, February 2, 2009

The Day The Music Died

Just after 1 a.m. February 3, 1959, a three-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza went down about five miles northwest of Mason City Municipal Airport, near Clear Lake, Iowa. The plane crash took the lives of the pilot, Roger Peterson, and three musicians: Charles Hardin Holley, better known as Buddy Holly, 22; Ritchie Valens (originally Valenzuela), 17; and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, 28. It has become famous, in Don McLean's "American Pie" formulation, as "the day the music died." The event has echoed through rock 'n' roll history for 50 years, representing, if not the end of rock 'n' roll itself, the close of an era, the end of the first bloom of rock anarchy and innovation.

As they have for decades, visitors have been making the pilgrimage to the resort town of Clear Lake, Iowa, about 110 miles north of Des Moines. Tonight, the 50th anniversary of the trio's deaths, the city's Surf Ballroom and Museum will host a huge concert in conjunction with the Rock Hall. Expected are luminaries including Graham Nash, whose 1960s British band was named for Holly; the Smithereens' Pat DiNizio, who wrote the song "Maria Elena" for Holly's widow; Los Lobos, who followed in the Hispanic-rock tradition begun by Valens; Texans Delbert McClinton and Joe Ely; and Tommy Allsup, who was a Holly sideman at the show 50 years ago.

The Surf, which was refurbished in 1995, includes the original stage, the telephone where Holly and Valens placed their last calls, guitars, photographs and a green room with hundreds of autographs. They all pay tribute to the last show for three men. Holly, Valens and Richardson were part of the Winter Dance Party, a ramshackle tour that had started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and headed to small cities in Minnesota and Iowa. The tour, which also included Dion and the Belmonts and members of Holly's backing band, had lumbered along in subfreezing temperatures in unheated buses; two days earlier, one bus had stalled out on a lonely Wisconsin road. By the time the group reached Clear Lake, Holly in particular was ready to bolt. He booked the plane to fly to Fargo, North Dakota, where he planned to rest up and do laundry in advance of the group's next concert in Moorhead, Minnesota, across the state line.

Fargo native Bobby Vee, who remembers the tragedy vividly, acknowledges that he owes his career to the event. The then-high school sophomore named Robert Velline had come home for lunch and heard a local DJ talking about the Moorhead show. "I had a ticket for the show. I was a huge Buddy Holly fan and a huge rock 'n' roll fan," he recalled, adding that a major rock 'n' roll concert in the area was a rarity. "As I got closer into the kitchen ... [my mother and brother] were talking about this plane crash that had taken place. I couldn't put it all together."

But the promoter had decided to go on with the show and invited local bands to participate. Vee was in a garage band, and a friend suggested that they participate. The band, so loose it didn't even have a name, got on the bill. At the end of the night, a local booking agent approached them, and the Shadows (a name Vee came up with as they waited offstage) entered the music business. "It changed my life," Vee said. "I was a 15-year-old. I'd never experienced that kind of tragedy. I wasn't there to start a career -- I didn't know what a career was -- I was just there to help out, because that's what people do when there's a problem."

The trio's deaths coincided with a period of dark events in rock 'n' roll history, including Elvis Presley's induction into the Army, Jerry Lee Lewis' blacklisting, the record industry payola scandals and Chuck Berry's Mann Act conviction, not to mention the rise of manufactured teen idols such as Frankie Avalon and Fabian.

Partly thanks to McLean's lingering phrase, the ensuing years have been painted as a rock Dark Ages, rescued only by the Beatles' arrival in 1964 at the vanguard of the British Invasion.

What would have happened to the trio in that era is, of course, impossible to know. Valens, celebrated in the movie "La Bamba," was just starting his career and may have produced more hits; Richardson, a former DJ and radio program director who shot some rudimentary music videos, had shrewd entrepreneurial instincts. And then there's Holly, with his songwriting talent, his arranging abilities (he did the strings on "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," his last single) and sheer knowledge of music.

Maria Elena Holly, who watches over his legacy, says Buddy had big plans: He wanted to do albums with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson; he wanted to try film music; he wanted to do music publishing. "He was a multitasker in every way," she said. Monday, he and the others will simply be remembered at the ballroom where it's always February 2, 1959, and they're putting on another great show.

"When I come to these things, I don't think about [that] this is the last time I talked to him was from here. I think, I'm meeting the fans who have kept his memory alive," said Maria Elena Holly, who admits to getting "a little bit teary" when she hears "True Love Ways." "And that's really what Buddy wanted to happen with his music: He wanted people to enjoy the music, to listen to it and make them happy," she said. "And when I think of it that way, I think at least his dream came true."


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