McLean's song became so popular - and so familiar to people around the world - that that date, when American rock and roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, along with their pilot, 21-year-old Roger Peterson of Alta, perished in the crash of their small plane in a field north of Clear Lake really did seem, for a time, like the day the music died.
No it didn't. You see, one of the great things about music, films, television, and all of the fine arts, is that they do not die when their creators leave this Earth.
In the case of the Clear Lake tragedy, not too long after it occurred, Buddy Holly's music became extremely popular in England and throughout Europe. Youngsters in England began forming bands and playing the music of Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Two Liverpudlian teens, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, kind of named their fledgling group after the Crickets, only the insect they chose was the beetle, with an "a" (to emphasize the BEAT of the music, get it?).
A few years later, of course, the Beatles, the Hollies, and other British groups led the so-called British Invasion, introducing America to British rock - which was, of course, for the most part, the introduction of the music of Holly, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and other rock and roll pioneers to a younger generation of American teens.
Next thing you know, the music that had "died" was suddenly brought back from the dead, and in the years since, the fans of both the Fifties brand of rock and roll and the Sixties band of rock have flourished, adding along the way fans of 70s and 80s rock, etc.
Exhibit number one - the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake - the very venue at which Holly, Valens and the Bopper performed their last show - has staged a "Winter Dance Party" commemorative show every year on that February 2 date, and Baby Boomers and their kids come from all over the world to attend, reminisce, and enjoy the music they love, performed by a number of rock performers who have been influenced by the music of Holly and Valens.
Each year, it is estimated that the Winter Dance Party visitors increase the business of the Surf Ballroom and the Clear Lake area by 1- 2 million dollars. This year, it was a special anniversary - the "Fifty Years After" show, and the local businesses expected to bring in twice the normal amount.
It was extremely cold as we walked to the famous ballroom, where none of our group had ever been. However, that was all forgotten once we got inside the legendary ballroom, which earlier in the week had been designated as a landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was certainly warmer inside than out, partly because of the electric excitement of anticipation in the air.
We spent a little time looking at "Memory Lane," where the photos and names of many of the stars who have performed at the Surf through the years are displayed, and also stopped in the Gift Shop, of course, where posters, t-shirts, and various Surf memorabilia were available for sale.
We found our reserved booth (Booth #504), and settled in for an evening of food and drink (including popcorn, sandwiches, beer, liquor and soda), fellowship, and, of course, rock and roll.
The host for the show, which began at 7 p.m. and didn't end until midnight, was Terry Stewart, the President of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, who were cosponsors of the event. Stewart spoke briefly, then introduced the evening's emcee, "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, a legendary New York City "jock," who currently hosts a show on Sirius satellite radio.
Not too bad a group. Certainly more than capable of keeping up with the numerous performers they would accompany (with little rehearsal) on this evening.
Most of the acts we would groove to that night had been previously announced, but the line "Special Guests TBA" on the Fifty Winters Later website had intrigued my brother and me for more than a month now, and we had both fashioned our "wish list" of just who these special guests would be. On the way, we compiled our lists on paper, and made a bet of a quarter apiece that whoever had the most correct guesses would take the $1 pot. Doug had his list, including Dion, Shooter Jennings, Eric Clapton, et al., and I had mine, which included, among others, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney. His wife had a much shorter list and mine had the biggest list, kind of. She would win the pot if more special guests on her list -"everybody else" - showed up. In the end, Doug and I were shut out and Doug's wife Nancy, who had two people on her list who were actually there (the R & R Hall president and Holly's widow, Maria Elena) and my wife Janet, who had two of the guests on the "everybody else" list (former Traffic member Dave Mason and Chris "Let's Dance" Montez) perform, wound up splitting the huge pot.
While at the Surf, Bopper jr. also retrieved a briefcase which his dad had allegedly left backstage 50 years ago, and he tearfully told the sell-out crowd that he was "taking it back home." A little hard to believe in the light of day, maybe, but it was the kind of magical night that we all certainly wanted to believe it was true.
Ritchie Valens (real name, Valenzuela) was the next artist to be honored, and several Latino artists were on hand for that honor, including the bands Los Lonely Boys and Los Lobos, who played separately and also together. Valens was only 17 when he died, but he did have a few hits, including "Donna," "That's My Little Suzie," "Come On Let's Go," and, of course, "La Bamba-" all of which were performed on this night. One of the first Latino artists to come after the trailblazing Valens, Chris Montez, also performed during this segment.
One of the 2009 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, "The Queen of Rockabilly" Wanda Jackson, performed her hit "Let's Have a Party," and told the crowd, "Thanks for inviting me to your party. What a party!"
The evening's other announced guest, Dave Mason, took the stage and performed two of his best-known tunes (both favorites of mine, too), "We Just Disagree" and (from his days with the Hall-of-Fame group Traffic) "Feelin' Alright." Mason also performed a Buddy Holly tune and said he wished he had gotten to meet the legend.
Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens was also present to honor Holly in both word and song, as was the Sixties duo Peter and Gordon, who sang their hit "True Love Ways," a Buddy Holly composition. Graham Nash of the Hollies (and, of course, CS and N) sang Holly's "Think It Over" and "Everyday," and Bobby Vee performed "It's So Easy" and his own "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes." Vee, of course, was a high schooler in Fargo, North Dakota in 1959 and he and his band, the Shadows, had the unfortunate assignment of filling in at the dance to which Holly, Valens and Bopper were headed. "The show must go on," you know. Vee has performed many times in the years since with Holly's old group, the Crickets, and he did so on this night, too.
My guesses for the evening's final songs were "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be the Day," and I was ALMOST right. They did indeed do those two tunes, but then followed them with the Bo Diddley - influenced "Not Fade Away," the first single released by the Rolling Stones, by the way.
Everyone came on stage for the final number, including all the performers I've mentioned plus Tommy Allsup, who played in Holly's backup band at the Surf in 1959 and, like the other band member, Waylon Jennings, had to give up his seat in the plane to Valens and Richardson. Also dancing on stage were Ritchie Valens' sister and brothers and Holly's widow, Maria Elena, who thanked the crowd for attending and supporting the event. The Holly and Valens families have been frequent attendees at previous Winter Dance Party tributes, and are considered to be part of the "Surf Ballroom family."
After the concert, my brother and his wife went to the motel bar to unwind, and guess who was also there ? Sonny Curtis and J.I. Allison. My brother said he did "something I've never done before," and had the two Crickets personally sign his "Fifty Winters Later" souvenir booklet. He said he tried to call me, but he tried my cell phone, which was back home. Oh, well.
When we got back home, my brother, who has traveled extensively and who lives in sunny Phoenix, said of his mid-winter trip to Iowa, "This is the best vacation ever."