Clear Lake Losses

Good morning. It’s Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. A week from today, Democrats in Iowa will brave the winter weather to cast the first votes in the presidential nominating process. As I mentioned in Friday’s Morning Note, my first presidential campaign — and first reporting trip to Iowa — was 36 years ago this month. A young regional reporter from California, I was covering Alan Cranston’s bid in another crowded Democratic field.

There wasn’t much suspense in the Hawkeye State in 1984. Front-running Walter Mondale, who hailed from neighboring Minnesota, won nearly half the caucus-goers’ votes, with Gary Hart a distant second. My guy, Sen. Cranston, finished far up the track, and would be out of the race the day after the New Hampshire primary the following week. I did experience a bit of personal suspense, however.

I had broken away from the campaign trail for a night to write about a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Organized by a charismatic local deejay whose on-air handle was “The Mad Hatter,” it was a 25th anniversary tribute to a fateful concert that took place in 1959 — the last show played by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

But the night of dancing and nostalgia was cut short when State Police announced the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Everyone was urged to find shelter immediately. When I got outside, the conditions were perilous: Wind was blowing snow so hard you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. I made it to my hotel after a short, but harrowing drive, and the whiteout stranded thousands of people and cost one young woman her life.

It was, in its way, a fittingly grim remembrance of the night the music died.

The name of the venue in Clear Lake must have seemed a stretch to Ritchie Valens (ne Valenzuela). Ritchie was not a surfer, but he was from California, and the name “Surf Ballroom” and the concert hall’s beach motif — murals with swaying palm trees complemented the rattan furnishings — was utterly out of place in the wintry American heartland.

In 1959, the Surf Ballroom didn’t even face the shore of Clear Lake anymore: The original edifice, built in 1934, had burned down a dozen years before Buddy Holly brought his band there. The new “Surf” was built across the street in the old parking lot.

The venue was managed by a man named Carroll Anderson, a savvy music lover who had quickly embraced the new sound sweeping the country. Anderson booked the best bands and performers he could find:  The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, Jan and Dean. On Feb. 2, 1959, Anderson brought in the “Winter Dance Party.”

The star of the tour was Buddy Holly, joined by talented cohorts: J.P. Richardson Jr., who performed under the name Big Bopper; Dion and the Belmonts; 17-year-old Valens, the Mexican-American prodigy from Southern California; and band members Tommy Allsup (lead guitar), Carl Bunch (drums), and Waylon Jennings (bass guitar).

The first show was Jan. 23, 1959, in Milwaukee. Six thousand teenagers braved temperatures of 17 below zero to converge on George Devine’s Million Dollar Ballroom. For the next 10 days, the musicians crisscrossed Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, seemingly without any geographical logic, on poorly heated buses that sometimes broke down.

Sixty-one years ago tonight, they played the Fiesta Ballroom in the western Minnesota town of Montevideo. A local rocker named Bob Bunn, who revered Buddy Holly, wanted to have his idol sign his guitar. So after the show ended, Bunn drove to the Highway Cafe, where he heard the band was eating. Approaching the table, he found Holly friendly — but chilled to the bone.

“Is it always this damn cold in Minnesota?” Holly asked.

“No,” Bunn replied. “It gets a lot colder.”

Image result for ritchie valens

Ritchie Valens – Oh Donna, Along with “Come On, Let’s Go,” this says it all.

Buddy Holly was not cheered by that news. He’d already been contemplating the idea of chartering a plane. One issue was who would fly with him — they couldn’t all fit — and the capriciousness of that question would haunt the survivors for years.

After their show in Clear Lake, Holly found a pilot with a four-seat Beechcraft B35 Bonanza who would take them to Fargo, N.D. Holly tapped Jennings and Allsup to ride with him, but neither ended up making the trip. Jennings graciously gave his seat to J.P. Richardson because the Bopper was coming down with the flu. When beseeched by Ritchie Valens, who didn’t even own a winter coat, Tommy Allsup agreed to flip a coin for the last seat on the plane. Ritchie won.

The airport in Fargo was closed because of a blizzard, but 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson apparently didn’t know that. It would cost $108 for the trip, he told Holly, who agreed instantly. “He was,” Allsup said later, “determined to fly.”

As every mid-20th-century music aficionado knows, Waylon Jennings later gravitated back to country music, and performed into his 60s before passing away in 2002. The youngest star on the tour was Valens, who played his great hit, “Oh, Donna,” at that last show. When he climbed aboard the little plane at the Mason City airport just after midnight on Feb. 3, 1959, Ritchie had not yet turned 18. He never would.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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