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Sun, Nov. 17

Buddy Holly's final performance was quite an affair

In 1959, Buddy Holly was the headliner to a package musical tour named the "Winter Dance Party."

It also featured Ritchie Valens (whose recording of "Donna" was No 10 in the U.S. charts,) Dion and the Belmonts and "The Big Bopper" (whose "Chantilly Lace" had been a million seller some months previously.)

On Monday, Feb. 2, the tour had reached Clear Lake, Iowa and was due to appear the next evening at Moorhead Armory.

During the evening concert, despite the inclement weather and road conditions, the Surf Ballroom was packed with fans young and old.

During one of the three intermissions that evening, as I sat in the hallway leading to the ballroom on a long padded bench, Buddy Holly came and sat beside me prior to his performance.

As we chatted, it didn't take long for me to realize Buddy was a down to earth humble individual.

A mother and a young boy about 10 years old came over and started talking to Buddy. The mother was in despair as the young lad was having difficulty with motivation in learning a musical instrument.

Buddy, being a true respectful gentleman, explained to the youngster the joy and pleasure he derived from his musical life and the youngster seemed to accept his advice and was enthused to continue.

Buddy went on to explain he called Maria in New York and told her that it was an awful tour; the buses were dirty and unheated and they were freezing riding inside, plus there was heavy snow.

Accommodations were poor and the tour was behind schedule. He told Maria that he was going on ahead to make arrangements for the next concert.

He didn't tell her he had already chartered a four passenger Beachcraft Bonanza plane (Miss American Pie) to take himself, Waylon Jennings (his replacement bass player) and drummer Tommy Allsup to Fargo/Moorhead.

They wanted to get some laundry done and have a decent night's sleep.

After almost 48 years I still remember this experience as if it were yesterday.

When the others in the tour heard of the arrangement, both Jennings and Allsup were asked to give up their seats on the plane.

The Big Bopper approached Jennings and said that he had a cold and that the bus was too cramped and freezing for someone his size and condition, could he have the seat. Waylon Jennings was young and didn't mind; he was enjoying the bus and the novelty of touring.

Ritchie Valens had never flown in a small plane before and was excited by the idea. He pestered Allsup who reluctantly agreed to flip a coin. Valens called 'heads' and took the seat. "I've never won anything," Valens was heard to say.

After the show at approximately midnight, Buddy, Ritchie and The Big Bopper were driven to the Mason City Iowa Airport and paid their $36 fare.

They were unaware that the pilot, Roger Peterson, was not qualified to fly at night and was unfamiliar with the aircraft instruments. The plane took off shortly before 1 a.m. and headed northwest towards Fargo, N.D. - the nearest airport for their next evening's show.

The snow was falling heavy and the strong wind caused all of the airplane's instruments to fluctuate. The 21-year-old pilot was forced to rely on the plane's altitude gyroscope - which happened to read the airplane's pitch and altitude the opposite way of conventional gyroscopes.

Peterson had knowledge of this type of gyroscope, but considering the snow and wind he may have become confused. He may never have realized that when he thought the plane was a climbing turn, it was actually descending.

The plane crashed in a corn field five miles northwest of the Mason City airport killing all four occupants. The wreckage was found the following morning.

As the news flashed around the world, millions of fans heard the news in stunned disbelief. Thirteen years later, Don McLean recalled that cold fateful February day in his number one song "American Pie." As McLean sang it, "The day the music died."

I had the honor two years ago of walking to pay my respects in this desolate Iowa field, in the absolute middle of this Iowa Section.

Buddy had many popular songs. As I watch the "Searchers" with John Wayne and John states "That'll be the day," it sends me into memories of those days growing up in Iowa.

Though I have not had the pleasure of attending, every year on the anniversary of Buddy Holly's final concert, the Surf Ballroom hosts a revival and is most likely attended by more fans from all over the world than the original concert.

Anyone may visit the crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa. A small memorial is located at the place the plane came to rest. Four trees were planted along the fence row in 1999 - one for each performer and the pilot.

Anyone who encounters you will stop and give you additional directions. All the local residents know what you are there for.

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