Feb. 2, 1959. It would be the night rock ‘n’ rollers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson appeared on stage for the last time at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Actually, it was the last time they would appear anywhere, because early the next morning as they attempted to leave the bitter cold and snow, their small plane crashed into an Iowa cornfield. The story is legendary. Don McLean wrote about “The Day The Music Died” in his song “American Pie.”
I was a senior at Catalina High School here in Tucson. On Feb. 3 I heard the tragic story on KTKT, our local top-40 station. I remembered the night that Buddy Holly had played in our high school gym in 1957, shortly after his songs “That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue” had hit the top of the charts. The “Show of Stars” featured Fats Domino, Paul Anka, Chuck Berry, The Drifters, Buddy Knox, Laverne Baker and Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Tickets cost $2!
It was a different time.
In Tucson there were three TV channels, a handful of AM stations and one FM radio station, though nobody had an FM radio.
Jet planes had yet to arrive at the local airport.
Downtown was still the place to shop, especially at the big-three department stores — Steinfeld’s, Levy’s and Jacome’s.
There were no malls.
On the East side, there were hardly any paved streets past Wilmot.
In the Northwest, Marana was a sleepy little farming community. A few hardy souls lived in a new area called Casas Adobes. There was no town called Oro Valley.
And, there was no freeway to Phoenix.
I loved rock ‘n’ roll and wanted to be a disc jockey. In high school I worked at the only local FM station … for free. I played classical music, mispronounced all the names and virtually had no audience. The only thing that mattered: I was on the radio. In the next few years I worked at just about every station in town while I put myself through school at the University of Arizona. Eventually I improved my style and worked my way up to the No. 1 station in town, KTKT. Here I had my own nightly show, and what’s more, I actually got paid a decent wage.
In 1965 I graduated from UA and left Tucson to go out in the world to find my fame and fortune. I was gone 42 years. In 2007, I returned and retired to the place I call Paradise —Tucson, or more precisely, Oro Valley.
Feb. 2, 2009. It’s been 50 years since Buddy Holly and the others made their last appearance before they went on to the great Jukebox In The Sky. I was just a kid back then. Now I am retired and helping plan my Class of 1959 reunion. I never did make radio my career. But, every February I thought about “The Day The Music Died” and promised myself that, if they made a big deal of the 50th anniversary, and if they held it at the Surf Ballroom, I would be there. And, I was.
As I left the Minneapolis airport for the car rental lot and just about froze on the spot, I wondered if I’d made a sound decision. A nice two-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Clear Lake. It was a quick trip. One day up, see the show, come back the next day. If snow appeared I decided I would scrap the whole venture. As it was, it was sunny. But, cold … mind-numbing cold. Zero when I arrived and it didn’t go much higher than that.
The Surf Ballroom looked much the same as it did 50 years earlier.
That’s what the natives told me. Those Iowans were real friendly. I was by myself; the “little woman” choosing to stay where you didn’t need seven coats to get the mail. But, being alone didn’t mean lonely. I got there before the doors opened and waited outside attempting to forget about the frostbite by chatting with the fellow standees.
Standard question: “Were you here on that night 50 years ago?”
The little old lady next to me said, “Yes, it was great. I was only 15 … had to have my parents drive me and my girlfriends.”
This is a story about love. We were the first generation of rock ‘n’ rollers, only a few years into a genre that everybody claimed would be a flash in the pan.
Of course, there was Elvis Presley, the King.
These were The Princes. One step down from super-stardom. On this night, the entertainers and fans provided one giant love-fest.
What a collection. Wanda Jackson. Peter and Gordon. Graham Nash. Bobby Vee. Dave Mason. They all sang their own hits plus one or two of Buddy’s. Of the three stars, the only one who had an heir was The Big Bopper. His son, J.P. “Little Bopper” Richardson, was born after his father’s death. He brought down the house with a faithful rendition of his dad’s giant hit “Chantilly Lace.”
There were some other relatives there, too. Richie Valens was only 17 when he died, but some siblings from his large family were present. And, Maria Elena Holly, Buddy’s widow, thanked everybody for keeping his memory alive.
At midnight the lights were lowered and three stars appeared on the ceiling amidst applause and some tears.
But, more than just the celebrities and tributes, it was watching the people, the folks, the fans who were there. Most were about my age and they were happy people. I didn’t hear grumbling about the weather, the show, the food, the packed crowd, or anything really.
They were mostly Iowans with a smattering of fans from all over, including quite a few from the United Kingdom, where the play “Buddy” originated and where he has an incredible fan base.
These were all happy people. Some women were dressed in the uniform of the 1950s — poodle skirts and saddle shoes. Outside of this venue you would make fun of them. Not that night; they all looked sweet.
The next day I drove back to Minneapolis in the bitter cold, by the snow-covered cornfields and reflected on the event. What a time. Not just the night before, but the 1950s. Ike was president and things were OK. We hadn’t lost our innocence … yet. TV shows, radio and records didn’t talk about sex or politics. It was all about love. Not bad.
One day to relive and reflect on days gone by. I was quickly shaken back to reality at the airport by taking off my shoes and going through the metal detector. Innocence lost.
The writer lives in Oro Valley. Go online to www.ktkt99.com, Ray Lindstrom’s tribute to KTKT, Tucson’s great top-40 station.