Fans Pack Surf Ballroom for Tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper

Wanda Jackson, Los Lonely Boys, Joe Ely, Crickets Recall 50th Anniversary of Fatal Plane Crash

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Fifty years later, a lot of things sure seemed the same at the Surf Ballroom. Poodle skirts, pompadours, the Crickets on the bandstand and the brutally cold weather with below-zero wind chill.

Feb. 3, 1959, was the day the music died as Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper perished in a snowy plane crash shortly after performing at the Surf as part of the Winter Dance Party that had crawled through the Upper Midwest in a poorly heated school bus.

On Monday night (Feb. 2), 1,800 people from 32 countries gathered in Clear Lake at the sold-out Surf to commemorate that infamous day by listening to an eclectic parade of stars — Wanda Jackson, Graham Nash, Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, Joe Ely, Peter & Gordon, Dave Mason, Delbert McClinton, Bobby Vee, the Big Bopper Jr. and the Crickets, Holly’s backup band.

Mary Gerber was at the concert in 1959, surprised that her parents would let a 16-year-old out on a school night. She stood up front and excitedly snapped seven photos. She rediscovered those negatives two years ago while cleaning out her mother’s house. Those rare pictures — perhaps the only ones existing of that historic night — were on display in the lobby of Surf on Monday as Gerber returned to the ballroom for the first time in five decades. On that fateful night in 1959, she and her 18-year-old brother drove home to Walters, Minn., but he fell asleep at the wheel and the car ended up in a ditch — and the siblings had to walk the final three miles home. She also recalled that the Surf wasn’t particularly crowded that night — not like it was on Monday.

Steven McGregor, 45, made the trip all the way from Australia — his second ride at the Surf since 2005. “I love Buddy Holly. This is fantastic,” he told Born in Scotland, he was making a whirlwind journey with stops in Hawaii, the Sundance Music Festival in Utah, Clear Lake and then Scotland. He didn’t quite figure out what to do with the Valens replica guitar — signed by Los Lobos and others — he bought for $1,600 at auction at the Surf. Would he ship it home or carry it as baggage?

Bob Hale was the emcee of the concert in 1959. He announced the death of the three young stars that morning on KRIB radio after Surf manager Carroll Anderson called him to confirm their identities at the crash site a few miles north of town. Hale then phoned United Press International in Des Moines, Iowa, and the news spread around the world. Now a retired TV personality in Chicago, Hale, 75, returned to the Surf Monday to introduce J.P. Richardson Jr., aka the Big Bopper Jr. The ex-DJ shared the story of how he and the Bopper sat in a booth near the stage in 1959 and talked about how both of their wives were pregnant. He then brought his “adopted son,” Bopper Jr., onstage for the Clear Lake gathering.

A showman in a faux leopard-skin jacket, Bopper Jr. reminded the rock fans that his dad wrote hits for other people, including George Jones’ “White Lightning” and Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear.” He sang those and, of course, his father’s biggest hit, “Chantilly Lace.” However, this second-generation rocker wasn’t the main attraction.

The Surf-goers, who looked to range in age from 8 to 80, came to hear silver-haired stars sing hits by Holly and Valens. Bob Hobart, 65, a retired high school principal from Peoria, Ill., pined for “Donna” and “La Bamba” while his son Steve, 30, a seventh grade math teacher in Clear Lake, showed up for “the party that everyone has been talking about for months.” (His last visit to the Surf was to see the hard-rock band Anthrax.)

Aria Asbe-Snyder, 18, who had seen Joe Nichols and REO Speedwagon at the Surf, said “it’s great to be part of history,” but she had to be back at college in Mankato, Minn., by 10 the next morning. While the college freshman wore a commemorative Winter Dance Party T-shirt, many Surf-ers sported Grease-evoking outfits, pompadours and fake horn-rimmed glasses.

The five-hour program, sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was relatively seamless considering how many acts were involved. Cousin Brucie, a legendary New York radio disc jockey, and Sir Tim Rice, who wrote lyrics for Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber, served as emcees. An all-star house band featured saxophonist Bobby Keys (Rolling Stones), keyboardist Chuck Leavell (Stones, Allman Brothers), bassist Hutch Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt) and drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, John Fogerty, Melissa Etheridge, Smashing Pumpkins). Two boom cameras zoomed over the ballroom crowd to capture this show for a possible TV special.

Most of the stars offered three-song sets, usually featuring at least one tune by either Holly, Valens or the Big Bopper. For instance, Wanda Jackson did Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which Holly covered on the 1959 tour, while Ely jumped into Buddy’s “Oh Boy.” Graham Nash never mentioned that he used to sing in the Hollies before joining Crosby, Stills & Nash, but he did three Buddy Holly favorites, including “Every Day” with Peter & Gordon. Rocker Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens, who released a Holly tribute album this year, added a nice touch with three violinists on his three songs.

Dave Mason, formerly of Traffic, provided a change of pace with his rock hits, “We Just Disagree” and “Feelin’ Alright.” Los Lonely Boys tore it up with their high-octane brand of blues-rock before downshifting into their hit, “Heaven,” which had the younger folks in the Surf crowd singing along. Bolstered by Keys on sax, Los Lobos rocked the house. Ely sat in with them to do “Are You Listening Lucky,” and then various members of the extended Valens family and Holly’s widow, Maria Elena Santiago, joined Los Lobos for a spirited, long-winded “La Bamba.”

Tickets cost $85 for Monday’s marathon. In 1959, young rock fans paid $1.50 to attend the Winter Dance Party at the Surf. Over the years, this classic ballroom has played host to everyone from Duke Ellington and Lawrence Welk to Merle Haggard and Montgomery Gentry. The Surf has been staging Winter Dance Party anniversaries since 1979 but none as big as this year’s.

Fittingly, Sonny Curtis and the Crickets closed the evening with an extended set. Curtis reminded the folks of all the hits he’d written, including “I Fought the Law” and “Love Is All Around,” the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He offered his “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” his answer to the 1978 hit movie starring Gary Busey. And, of course, his trio performed the songs that they and Holly made famous — “It’s So Easy,” “Raining in My Heart,” “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day.” They closed with an all-cast rendition of “Not Fade Away,” complete with band member Tommy Allsup, a tall Texan in a cowboy hat, taking a guitar solo just as he had done 50 years ago on that same stage.

Jon Bream has been the music critic of the Minneapolis Star Tribune since 1975.