CLEAR LAKE, Iowa – It's been 50 years since a single-engine plane crashed into a snow-covered Iowa field, instantly killing three men whose names would become enshrined in the history of rock 'n' roll.
The passing decades haven't diminished fascination with that night on Feb. 2, 1959, when 22-year-old Buddy Holly, 28-year-old J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and 17-year-old Ritchie Valens performed in Clear Lake and then boarded the plane for a planned 300-mile flight that lasted only minutes.
"It was really like the first rock 'n' roll landmark; the first death," said rock historian Jim Dawson, who has written several books about music of that era. "They say these things come in threes. Well, all three happened at the same time."
Starting Wednesday, thousands of people are expected to gather in the small northern Iowa town where the rock pioneers gave their last performance. They'll come to the Surf Ballroom for symposiums with the three musicians' relatives, sold-out concerts and a ceremony as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designates the building as its ninth national landmark.
And they'll discuss why after so many years, so many people still care about what songwriter Don McLean so famously called "the day the music died."
"It was the locus point for that last performance by these great artists," said Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "It warrants being fixed in time."
Clear Lake is an unlikely spot for a rock 'n' roll pilgrimage — especially in winter. The resort town of about 8,000 borders its namesake lake, and on winter days the cold and wind make the community 100 miles north of Des Moines anything but a tourist destination.
The crash site is on private property, a five-mile drive from Clear Lake and half-mile walk off the road. Corn grows high in adjacent fields during the summer, but in winter the fields are covered with snow and a path to the small memorial is often thick with ice. The memorial features a small cross and thin metal guitar and records, all of which are draped in flowers during the summer.
"It's a much nicer trip in the summer," said Jeff Nicholas, a longtime Clear Lake resident who heads the Surf Ballroom's board of directors. "But in the winter, you get more of a feel of what it was like."
No one tracks the number of visitors, but fans stop by throughout the year and on some summer days visitors to the crash site can create the oddity of a corn field traffic jam.
Stewart said the deaths still resonate because they occurred at a time when rock 'n' roll was going through a transition, of sorts. The sound of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Holly was making way for the British Invasion of the mid-1960s.
"The music was shifting and changing at that point," he said. "The crash put a punctuation point on the change."
All three musicians influenced rock and roll in their own way.
Holly's career was short, but his hiccup-vocal style, guitar play and songwriting talents had tremendous influence on later performers. The Beatles, who formed about the time of the crash, were among his early fans and fashioned their name after Holly's band, The Crickets. Holly's hit songs include "That'll Be The Day," "Peggy Sue" and "Maybe Baby."
Richardson, "The Big Bopper," is often credited with creating the first music video with his recorded performance of "Chantilly Lace" in 1958, decades before MTV.
And Valens was one of the first musicians to apply a Mexican influence to rock 'n' roll. He recorded his huge hit "La Bamba" only months before the accident.
The plane left the airport in nearby Mason City about 1 a.m., headed for Moorhead, Minn., with the musicians looking for a break from a tiring, cold bus trip through the Upper Midwest.
It wasn't until hours later that the demolished plane was found, crumpled against a wire fence. Investigators believe the pilot, who also died, became confused amid the dark, snowy conditions and rammed the plane into the ground.
The crash set off a wave of mourning among their passionate, mostly young fans across the country. Then 12 years later the crash was immortalized as "the day the music died" in McLean's 1971 song, "American Pie."
Vonnie Amosson, who manages the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Clear Lake, said that ever since the plane crash, the community has embraced the tragedy. It's a continous stream of tourism dollars, and the town's chamber of commerce estimates that this year's events, dubbed "50s in February," will generate more than $4 million for Clear Lake's economy.
"It's kind of sad that this is what we are known for," Amosson said. "But on the other part of it, I think the whole '50's in February' weekend is a huge memorial and it's an honor to them."
In part because of its role in rock history, the Surf Ballroom has retained its vintage look, with a 6,000-square-foot dance floor, ceiling painted to resemble a sky, and original cloud machines on either side of the room. Ten Buddy Holly banners line the wall opposite the stage. The 2,100-capacity ballroom still hosts many national and regional performers, most of whom add their names to a backstage wall that is now crowded with drawings and signatures.
"It's quite a special place," said Nicholas, the Surf board member. "This place looks just like it did in 1959."