As we pulled up to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, we felt like we should have been driving a ’57 Chevy Bel Air hardtop, or maybe a classic T-Bird decked out with whitewall tires and fender skirts. That’s because this place exudes the 1950s rock-and-roll era.
More than that, it memorializes “the day the music died”…for it was at the Surf Ballroom where innovative rock and rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson played their last concert on Feb. 2, 1959.
With the chords of Peggy Sue and Chantilly Lace still rattling the ballroom rafters, the three music pioneers were killed later that night in a plane crash a few miles north of town. Newspaper clippings, photos and memorabilia on the ballroom walls tell the story.
The three musicians were among a group of performers on a “Winter Dance Party Tour” to cities around the Upper Midwest. The tour route had been poorly planned, which meant long hours and many miles on a cold tour bus between venues.
So Buddy Holly chartered a plane from the Mason City airport for the next leg of the tour in Fargo, North Dakota. There were two other seats on the plane. Waylon Jennings gave up his seat to The Big Bopper, who had the flu, and 17-year-old Ritchie Valens won the other seat in a coin toss. The plane went down in a snowstorm.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio dedicated the Surf Ballroom as a historic landmark in 2009. A plaque in the ballroom entryway reads: “There are few buildings in existence today that represent a complete shift in our music history. As the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson, the Surf is the bedrock of where the sound and attitude of rock and roll changed forever.”
The Surf Ballroom continues to book modern-day performers for dances. And during the day, it’s open to visitors who wish to absorb the history and atmosphere of days gone by. As we quietly walked about, the ballroom and stage lighting was subdued, befitting a memorial of this magnitude. But over the ballroom sound system, the music of the ’50s softly played…reassuring those of us who grew up in that era that the beat goes on.
A half block from the ballroom is a large sculpture honoring the three musicians consisting of a spindle and stacked records. At night, its neon lights glow like a jukebox.
There’s also a memorial at the plane crash site—marked by a stainless steel guitar and three stainless steel records. A large pair of black-rimmed glasses—a la Buddy Holly style—mark the trailhead.
This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at www.OurIowaMagazine.com.