Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.
February 3rd is a difficult day for a Buddy Holly fan. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t born yet when the Winter Dance Party ’59 tragedy happened. It’s still going to be a tough day for you.
I ought to know.
Behind every chart-topping hit and every smiling photo of Buddy Holly lies a tragic ending, that you can’t re-write. How could such a charmed life end so brutally?
I dread seeing February 3rd come up on the calendar. I learned about the tragedy when I was about 12 or so, and always found it somewhat haunting. But it wasn’t until I started to become a big fan of Buddy’s that I knew the exact date.
On January 23, 1959 Buddy Holly with his bandmates (Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch) left New York to begin a tour called “Winter Dance Party ’59”- an event that has since been dubbed “The Tour From Hell”.
It was all downhill from there: Milwaukee, Kenosha, Mankato, Eau Claire, Montevideo, St. Paul, Davenport, Fort Dodge, Duluth, Green Bay, and finally, Clear Lake, Iowa: February 3, 1959: The Day The Music Died— A bleak timeline leading up to one of the World’s greatest tragedies.
So Full of Life
Strangely enough, however, during the rest of the year, I just don’t connect Buddy Holly to the tragedy of February 3, 1959. How can I not connect him with the actual event in which he died? Put simply, I don’t feel that Buddy Holly is truly dead. Metaphorically, in the minds of many of his fans, he never really died. He exists in the music he left behind, in his legacy and in every single one of us who adore and cherish his work.
When I listen to Buddy Holly’s music, I feel the joy of life. I feel a happiness that I never thought possible. Buddy himself was so full of life. You can hear it in everything he did… I forget that he died in a plane crash at a really young age. I forget, I can’t explain it, I just do… even though it was one of the first things I ever heard about him.
Then the anniversary comes. I look at the last photos taken of Buddy and his tour mates on the Winter Dance Party ’59 tour and I think “What if…” and “If only…”
It’s painful enough to witness your favorite celebrity die, but it’s another thing to learn about the death of a beloved celebrity retro-actively. It’s strange to mourn someone who died before you were even born, and oddly enough, it doesn’t make it any easier.
I often wonder what the industry – what the World – would have been like with Buddy Holly still in it, or at least if he had been around for many more years than he actually was. What would he have done next, what other masterpieces would he have produced, who would he have become as he matured… and what effect would it have on the Music Industry as a whole?
And what about Ritchie Valens, the teen prodigy who left High School to become a Superstar… Just imagine how much more he would have done for music, with all he had accomplished by 17.
Would J.P. Richardson have gone from The Big Bopper to Big Time Record Producer? There are so many questions as to what might have been if the music hadn’t died that day.
The Cold, Hard Facts
I’ve never been to Buddy Holly’s grave site. And truly, it’s the only place on Earth I really want to visit. I just can’t seem to get there for numerous personal reasons beyond my control.
The photos of his headstone at the City of Lubbock Cemetery are another indication that his fandom is stronger than ever. I’ve seen all kinds of things on his grave. Other than the usual guitar picks and coins and various floral arrangements, there have been items such as: sunglasses, keychains, a golf ball, a mini bottle of Jack Daniels, and more recently, one of those solar panel angels that charges in the sun during the day and turns pretty colors when it gets dark out.
But I think the most touching thing I’ve seen on his grave was a plush spotted leopard cub. It had gotten a little rough sitting out in the weather, but it was still cute. Seeing the picture of that toy at his grave really touched me. I took it as a gentle reminder that Buddy, too, was vulnerable, and had a soft side, like child.
The coroner’s reports for the three stars who died that day are public. I highly don’t recommend reading them unless you’re able to disconnect your emotions from these kinds of things, and/or you have a sincere fascination with the macabre that allows you to do so. I read them a few years ago, and now I can’t “unread” them. They’re graphic. They’re a real wake up call, and as Sting would say, they show how “fragile” we are.
A Bittersweet Celebration
With all the sadness surrounding that tragic day, sometimes I just can’t wait for it to go by. Sometimes I can’t hear the music over all the “what ifs” and “if onlys”… I want it to all just go away so I can hear Buddy again.
But there’s a silver lining to each February 3rd, and that is the love that the world has shown to our lost stars. From radio stations to TV documentaries, tributes and homages have been paid to Buddy, Ritchie and J.P. for decades.
The biggest and most famous tribute, however, is held annually at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA where Buddy, Ritchie and J.P. had their last show. The Surf has been the site for the annual Winter Dance Party since 1979.
Winter Dance Party is not just a show, but a way to educate the public and preserve music history for generations to come. It’s a celebration; a bittersweet celebration, that carries with it a chapter of history etched into the hearts and minds of future generations.
It fills my heart with a special kind of happiness when I know that our heroes did not die in vain. Projects like The Surf Speaks run by twin sisters Sherry and Sheryl Davis continue the legacy to honor the Three Fallen Stars.
I’m also happy to know that as of 2021, The Surf has become a National Historic Landmark which is about the highest honor a place can get. With its rich history and years of tributes, no place deserves this honor more than The Surf.
Maybe someday I’ll be a part of the crowd in Clear Lake at Winter Dance Party. Who knows. I understand it, I get it… but I’ve yet to feel it; first hand.
As the world continues to change and traditions are replaced, fans take solace in knowing that the tradition of Winter Dance Party will never cease. It’s the honor, the celebration, the homage that ties us closest to our fallen stars.
And it is that kind of love, that makes the coldness a bit easier to bear.
(Note: Winter Dance Party ’21 was canceled due to COVID. It will resume again in 2022.)
Voting has closed in the 2020 Love Song Survey. Check out the results from previous years here, and listen to The Grooveyard on February 13 to hear the results.
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