As they do every year, Buddy Holly fans young and old, but mostly old, head to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, to pay homage to the Texas rocker who played his final show on Feb. 2, 1959, before he boarded a small plane for the next stop in Moorhead. The plane crashed in an Iowa cornfield, killing Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. And the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.
On this the 60th anniversary of the Day the Music Died, two film producers who have carefully documented every detail it seems of the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour will be there, too. After interviewing all the tour’s living members — except Dion — dozens of fans, and many others, and collecting dozens of photos from all the tour’s venues — except the Capitol Theater in Davenport, Iowa — Sevan Garabedian of Montreal and Jim McCool of Madison, Wis., are putting the finishing touches on the latest incarnation of their labor of love: “The Winter Dance Party Tapes.”
Back in 2011, they planned a film documentary called “Gotta Travel On: The Winter Dance Party Odyssey.” But, Garabedian said, the plan changed when they decided it would be a shame to lose all the history contained in those many hours of interviews.
“We ended up with all this wonderful footage, wonderful stories, each story had its own magic touch,” he said in an interview last week, on his way to Clear Lake. “We thought ‘how can we possibly cut this down to two hours and leave all those wonderful interviews on the cutting room floor?’ ”
They have already released a trailer on YouTube and the interview with Frankie Sardo, the solo artist who joined Holly and the Crickets; Dion and the Belmonts; Valens, and J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) for the logistically insane and bitterly cold tour that started in Milwaukee on Jan. 23, 1959, then zigzagged across and up and down Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
The rest of the interviews are to be released in increments throughout the year.
In trailer sound bites, Sardo and two of the Belmonts, Carlo Mastrangelo and Fred Milano, talk dramatically about the toll the cold took on the musicians traveling in school buses with no heat with one that memorably broke down after the Duluth show, leaving them stranded in northern Wisconsin.
Milano ticks off the temperatures: “17 degrees below zero, 35 below zero, 20 below zero. This cold like we’ve never experienced,” said the native New Yorker. Mastrangelo adds: “We were freezing to death, all of us. The heat is gone. There we are on the bus, all 11 of us, freezing to death.
“And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Buddy, and Buddy said, ‘Screw this, let’s get a plane,’ ” says Sardo. A conclusion that Garabedian heartily endorses. “There is no argument about that. It was a perfect storm. The highways, no heat, the weather, the logistics, not getting good sleep, not washing their clothes, the buses breaking down. Buddy was feeling responsible. He wasn’t going to put up with this. When he got to Clear Lake, he found a charter service. He made up his mind, he was flying.”
In addition to collecting stories, the two have scoured the tour towns for photos. They’re still hoping for some more from the Jan. 28 concert at the once elegant Prom Ballroom in St. Paul. They have three taken downstairs but none from the concert. “We’re hoping to find more fans and more pictures,” Garabedian said.
They recently scored about a dozen photos from the Moorhead concert, which went on despite the plane crash only hours earlier. Some photos came from Robby Vee, son of Bobby Vee who at age 15 famously played with his band, the Shadows, at the Moorhead Armory that night, along with the other distraught tour performers, including Waylon Jennings, who had taken the bus from Clear Lake.
Sardo talks about the lasting guilt he felt because he survived when others died and why he never talked about the crash.
“I put the memories in the scrapbook,“ he says. “So there was a twinge of guilt. So there is no rhyme or reason. For a quirk, I could have been on that plane. My guilt is saying to myself the truth, “Thank God, I wasn’t a headliner. So I carry a little bit of guilt about that.”
So once again Garabedian and McCool will be in Clear Lake. As they’ve done in the past, they’ll go to the crash site about 1:05 a.m., the time the plane crashed, and sing the 1970s ode to Holly “American Pie” with a couple of drinks.
Why do people keep coming back to Clear Lake? “The answer is simple,” Garabedian said. “People long for a simpler time where you can go to this really small town, to a ballroom, the same ballroom that was there in 1959. And you keep going back.”