Who knew that a little ballroom in a small Iowa city would become a part of Rock-n-Roll legend? The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was the site of the last performances for three early Rock stars – Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
The three stars – along with pilot Roger Peterson – perished when their small plane crashed a few minutes after taking off from the Clear Lake airport in the early hours of Feb. 3, 1959. The musicians had performed at the annual Winter Party dance at the Surf.
Holly was the biggest star of the artists performing that night. People primarily think of him when they talk about the crash. The deaths led to the Don McLean song, “American Pie.” The famous line refers to the crash as “the day the music died.”
The trio were going to fly to their next gig in Fargo, ND. The tour bus lost heat, and the opportunity to get to Fargo in a few hours and sleep in a warm bed played a role in the decision. The rest of the tour would ride in the bus once it was fixed.
The crash happened a couple of years before I was born. I’m not sure how I became a fan of Holly, first, and then Valens. I liked The Big Bopper, too. I think my love for their music had to have been instilled by my older sisters, who were teens during that era. I’m sure I heard the music growing up. But, I am a big fan of these guys.
Lisa and I visited the Surf several years ago, but it was a quick stop. We were on our way to the Twin Cities in Minnesota and made a lunch stop in town.
We missed out on a wonderful, sobering experience that we, fortunately, had another opportunity to do, recently. The Surf is open to the public most days of the week. It may be closed due to an upcoming concert, but it’s usually available for public tours. And it’s free.
The Surf is part concert venue and museum. It is on the National Register of Historical Places.
Several musicians have performed here through the years – and continue to. They leave memorabilia for the ballroom. It’s amazing how many musicians, regardless of their age, know about the Surf and its place in history.
Older acts that have performed here include Paul Revere (Paul Revere and the Raiders), Styx, Lynrd Skynyrd, BB King, and the Everly Brothers. More recent stars include Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum, Dwight Yoakim and Little Big Town.
Kevin Costner has even performed here with his band. Costner played a role in a funny story told by Wayne, who has been with the ballroom for a couple of decades. He is basically the resident historian (my words, not his). It seems a guy walked up one afternoon wearing shorts, a ball cap and sun glasses. He asked if he could take a tour. Wayne told him the Surf was closed that afternoon, but that he should come back the next day and see Kevin Costner and his band.
The man, removed his sunglasses and said, “Hi. I’m Kevin…” I joked that I’m sure he got his tour that day.
The vast majority of artists are respectful of the Surf and its legacy, Wayne said. Performers and dignitaries sign their name to the wall and ceiling of the green room (which is actually painted white). The small room is just off the stage. It’s the last stop before hitting the stage.
Among the thousands of famous signatures are: Willie Nelson, Shooter Jennings, The Crickets (after Buddy’s death), as well as the Valens family. Even politicians get into the act – President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney have signed the wall.
One signature may be the most poignant of them all, though. Shortly before heading to the airport, Waylon Jennings, who was performing as a member of Holly’s band, told Buddy that he hoped the plane would crash (as a joke). That joke stayed with him and affected him the rest of his life.
After several years, Jennings returned to the Surf in the mid-1990s. His wife – Jesse Coulter – was instrumental in helping him work through the terrible memories of what he said and the loss of a friend. During an interview with media, Wayne said Jennings kept tapping his knee and saying he wished he had never said those words.
Jennings signed the wall. Nearby are autographs from Willie Nelson – a Jennings friend and former singing partner – and Shooter (Jennings’ son). Coulter also signed her name near the group.
We stood on the original section of the stage where so many acts have performed. The stage was lengthened to accommodate a request by Alice Cooper for his show.
As you look out form the stage across the dance floor, you see the portraits of the three stars – Holly, Valens and Richardson. They’ll always be a part of every Winter Party dance held there.
The dance floor is bordered by booths on two sides. They are the same as they were in the 1950s.
One booth has a special meaning to Wayne. His parents brought him to his first show at the Surf. They sat in booth 110. A photo of the family hangs among the gallery of the stars in the ballroom.
Speaking of the gallery, the Surf serves as a mini Rock-n-Roll music museum. Photos of performers hang in the hallway (many taken with Wayne).
Signed guitars hang above the floor in the lounge area. They’re autographed, too – BB King, Dee Snyder, Costner, Little Big Town and Bentley are among them.
Charlie Daniels autographed a fiddle.
The Beach Boys autographed a surfboard (duh, it IS called the Surf Ballroom).
Tons of memories of Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper are displayed throughout the ballroom. The Bopper’s family has loaned the ballroom a briefcase he used as part of his act.
The Big Bopper was known for the song “Chantilly Lace.” He would walk on stage and pull out a telephone and start talking at the start. He would start the singing portion after speaking into the phone “Oh, baby, you know what I like…”
Valens was known for his first hit song – “La Bamba” – which he sang in Spanish. If you’ve seen the movie of the same name, Los Lobos did the singing for the lead actor, Lou Diamond Phillips. Valens also scored big with “Donna,” a ballad for the girl of his dreams.
Buddy was the true hit maker of the group. He had an impressive list of hits for a guy in his early 20s. “Rave On.” “Peggy Sue.” “That’ll be the Day.” The list goes on.
Their deaths were great losses not just for the music, but for their families. Fortunately, their memories will live on for a long, long time. As the years pass, their music stays relevant with people – old and young.
About a block away from the Surf Ballroom is an impressive memorial to the performers. The Three-Star Memorial features three records above a turntable design. The three singers’ names are inscribed at the bottom of the lowest record.
The memorial is beautiful any time of the day. It is lit at night.
A memorial at the crash site is accessible for people. It’s on private land, but the owner keeps a cleared space for people to walk from the road. We visited it during our last trip to North Iowa last fall. The story can be viewed here – https://thewalkingtourists.com/day-music-died-paying-respects-early-rock-stars-clear-lake-iowa/.
Whether you are staying in Clear Lake or just passing through, do yourself a huge favor and take an hour of out your plans and visit the Surf Ballroom. The building tells a history that is fascinating and sobering.
For more information about the Surf Ballroom, please visit www.surfballroom.com.