If February 3, 1959, was the day the music died, then the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa must surely be the place. At least it makes good copy. The Surf Ballroom had been open for decades before the fateful night the venue became the last performance for music legends Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P Richardson aka “The Big Bopper.” Despite all that had gone on before that single moment forever changed the ballroom and created a pall that has never lifted. But the Surf lives on and has been an entertaining the people of Northern Iowa ever since. Today we explore the history of the concert hall, the events leading up to the deaths of three of rock and roll’s brightest stars, and how the theater has survived and thrived since then.
The Surf Ballroom was built in 1934 on the shore of Clear Lake. The area is only a couple hours drive from both Des Moines and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/Saint Paul and was a popular weekend destination. The original design of the Ballroom has a roof terrace, a boardwalk, and windows that faced the lake. In 1947 a fire destroyed the original club, and the venue was rebuilt across the street where it stands today. The new design opted for brick instead of wood and while the windows were gone several paintings of the lake were made on the interior walls. The clubs owners wanted the Surf to resemble a Beach Club, and the interior featured Bamboo and rattan, and the stage is surrounded by Palm trees. The ceiling even has a cloud machine to create the atmosphere of being outdoors.
The venue initially featured big band entertainment and had concerts from all the great performers of the day including Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman and more.
As modern music transitioned from Big Band to Rock and Roll. The Ballroom began booking more diverse acts. Many Rock and Roll performers played the ballroom before Buddy Holly. The Ballroom was one of the first locations in the state to showcase Rock and Roll musicians, and the concerts would draw people from miles away.
“The Day the Music Died”
In his 1970 hit song “American Pie” Don Mclean described the events of the evening of February 2nd, 1952 as “The day the music died”. Certainly, poetic license, the loss of the three musicians certainly was a blow to the burgeoning Rock and Roll genre. A lot of what happened that night has become muddled and some of the survivors tell the story differently, but based on my research here is how everything transpired.
In 1958 Buddy Holly who was already a having some success as a musician dissolved his original trio “The Crickets” and formed a new trio featuring himself on lead guitar, Tommy Allsup on rhythm Carl Bunch on drums, and Waylon Jennings on bass. While Holly had already had a number one single “That’ll be the day”, he was still struggling financially. To compound things he had recently gotten married and they were expecting their first child. Holly needed to get back on the road and took an offer for top billing in the “Winter Dance Party Tour” a series of concerts throughout the upper midwest.
The tour would also include J.P. Richardson who under the name of “The Big Bopper’ had a hit song named “Chantilly Lace”, Richie Valens who was just 17 but had already had two hits songs, and Dion and the Belmonts. The tour was cursed from the start. While a relatively short tour at just 12 shows, there were no rest dates between them. Also, the venues were arbitrary, with no set pattern there was a lot of backtracking and often there were venues placed hundreds of miles apart which meant sleeping on the bus overnight.
Aside from a random schedule, the bus that carried the musicians and equipment was nothing more than a repurposed school bus. The bus had several mechanical problems and broke down in the middle of the night, almost making the show late. Several of the windows were broken and the winter of 1959 was especially harsh in the upper midwest that year. Several of the crew had gotten the flu and since the tour didn’t provide for roadies, the musicians had to set up their own equipment. The Clear Lake show had been added at the last minute and caused the bus to be diverted. This meant another night in a freezing bus and without a proper bed. In the morning Holly’s drummer had developed frostbite on his foot.
By the time the tour bus had finally arrived at Clear Lake, Buddy Holly had enough. The cold, the decrepit bus, the low pay and cruel disregard the tour operators had for the talent had pushed him to the breaking point. They had one more show about three hundred miles north in Moorehead, Minnesota and the tour was done. Holly decided to charter a plane and fly up to Fargo, North Dakota (the closest city to the venue that had an airport) he could get a good nights sleep in a motel and caught everyone else the next night at the show. He had two extra seats on the plane and offered them to his bandmates, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings.
Waylon Jennings gave up his seat as a courtesy to The Big Bopper who had a pretty bad flu. Richie Valens who also had the flu wanted Tommy Allsup’s seat as well. Allsup finally agreed to a coin toss to see who got the seat and lost. So the flight would be Buddy Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper.
When Holly found out that Waylon Jennings had given up his seat, he jokingly told Jennings “Fine, well I hope you freeze on the bus then.” To which Jennings retorted’Fine well I hope your plane crashes.” Jennings said that for the rest of his life the comment and the survivor guilt haunted him. Years later after becoming a country music legend, Jennings would return to the Surf to do a concert. He said returning was one of the hardest things he ever did.
The three left for the airport in neighboring Mason City right after midnight the morning of February 3rd. There was a very heavy snowstorm going but the pilot assured the passengers he could handle the task. The plane only made about nine miles and crashed in a cornfield north of the city.
The Ballroom’s performer’s lounge (Aka “The Green Room”) is open to the public. There is a tradition that performer’s leave a note on the wall after playing here.
I also want to show you a few pictures of the Lake and a cool house I always drive by whenever I am in the city.
The Museum is free (but donations are requested, and well worth it) and if you happen to be there on a day there is a concert make sure you stick around. You’ll see that music didn’t die at the Surf Ballroom it only came back stronger.