Fifty years after Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played their final gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, the Day the Music Died became the Day the Music Went On and On.
Last night’s tribute concert at the original Surf raved on for six hours with a contingent of rock vets that seemed as criss-crossed as the original Winter Dance Party tour itinerary, including Graham Nash, Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, Wanda Jackson, Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely, Peter & Gordon, Dave Mason, Bobby Vee and Holly’s original bandmates, the Crickets.
If nothing else, the 50th anniversary bash — produced by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and filmed for a possible upcoming TV special — reiterated to Holly’s Texans and Valens’ Mexican-Americans why the fallen rock icons even got on the plane that crashed that night in 1959. The temperature outside hovered around zero with a wind-chill that would have sliced through their unheated school bus.
“It’s so damn cold out there,” Los Lonely Boys bassist Jojo Garza marveled before his band took the stage. “It kind of puts you in their shoes a little bit more.”
The Lonely Boys teamed with Los Lobos for a rousing run of Valens’ standards, including “Framed,” “Come On, Let’s Go” and a finale of “La Bamba” with Valens’ family onstage to sing along. Holly’s widow, Maria Elena, was also on hand, as was the Big Bopper’s son, J.P. Richardson Jr., who offered a full-on imitation of his father, although McClinton’s steamy take on “Chantilly Lace” was the better tribute.
Most of the show predictably centered around Holly, starting with rowdy renditions of “Oh Boy!” and “Well… All Right” by his fellow Lubbock native Ely. Fueled by an MVP house band that included auxiliary Stones players Bobby Keys and Chuck Leavell, bassist Hutch Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt) and drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp), the Holly hits kept coming, with Peter & Gordon’s “True Love Ways,” Mason’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” Smithereens singer Pat DiNizio’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (included on his new Holly tribute CD) and Nash’s “Everyday” and “Think It Over.”
“Buddy’s music was so simple, it really struck at the core of your heart,” said Nash. “When you hear a Buddy Holly song, you remember it for the rest of your life.”
For the finale, the Crickets — Sonny Curtis, Joe B. Maudlin and Jerry Allison — came out and played a medley of songs they co-wrote, and not just with Holly (also included: “I Fought the Law,” “Real Wild Child” and the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme “Love Is All Around”). The Crickets have been regulars at the Surf on Feb. 2 over the years, even though Holly was on tour with a different band at the time, one that famously included Waylon Jennings.
“The levee ain’t dry and the music didn’t die,” Curtis sang, in reference to Don McLean’s ode to the plane crash, “American Pie.”
The Surf Ballroom itself, newly designated a landmark site by the Hall of Fame, was also one of the stars of the night. Mary Gerber, who lives in nearby Walters, Minn., took some of the only photos that exist from the original show and remembers the ballroom being mostly the same as back then.
“But there are about 10 times more people here tonight than there was that night,” Gerber said, pointing out that the weather was treacherous for attendees, too.
Los Lobos singer/guitarist David Hidalgo said it was fitting that the tribute was held at the 1,800-capacity Surf and not somewhere in New York or Los Angeles. His band happened to be driving through Clear Lake on a recent tour and got off the highway for an impromptu tour of the ballroom, which also houses a museum.
“We wound up spending a couple hours here,” he recalled. “It’s an amazing place. Hopefully, there can be a lot more of these kinds of events here for years to come.”