Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Winter Dance Party
BY: RACHEL SMITH
It’s a tale as old as time in North Iowa – or at least for the past sixty years. What was scheduled to be a brief rock & roll tour of the Mid-Western United States soon became one of the most influential and iconic tragedies in the history of music.
As the young musicians zig-zagged their way from venue to venue, the performers soon realized the closely-booked performances weren’t such a great idea. Several degrees below zero, blistering cold temperatures, and dreadful freezing wind chills – all on a bus with a broken heater.
Originally set for 24 appearances during January and February, tragedy struck mid-way through, after the group’s show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Ritchie Valens boarded a small aircraft to fly them from Mason City to their next show.
But the plane never made it. The lives of the three musicians and the pilot lost forever after they crashed into a snow-covered field just north of Clear Lake, causing the history of rock & roll to be forever altered.
Many say Don McLean’s famous track, “American Pie” was written to pay homage to this tragic event, dubbing it The Day the Music Died.
But rock & roll lives on in Clear Lake. And just as other musicians pitched in to finish out the Winter Dance Party sixty years ago, we too, today, do what we can to keep their spirit alive.
In 1979, with the vision and help of on-air personality, The Mad Hatter, the Surf Ballroom began hosting a yearly tribute concert. Rock & roll enthusiasts, donning their poodle skirts and leather jackets, descended upon our great venue to remember, to honor.
To celebrate the music, and to celebrate the lives and lost talent of our three fallen stars.
This year, as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party, the Surf has lined up a star-studded array of legends, featuring many rock & roll greats and a long list of artists who have followed in the footsteps of their musical lineage… to present a tribute to the first generation of rock & roll.
It kicks off Wednesday, January 30th with the Family Sock Hop featuring the Whitesidewalls. They’ve been a staple of the tribute weekend, performing for 15 years.
The Thursday night lineup features Jay & The American, Little Anthony and The Imperials, Robin Luke, and The Good Clear Fun Band.
A Rock ‘n Roll Royalty Show, highlighting the families of musical pioneers who celebrate their rock ‘n roll heritage, will be the theme for Friday evening’s show. Edan Everly with Albert Lee, Frank Avalon, Wendy and Carnie Wilson, The Killer Vees, Linda Gail Lewis with Danny B. Harvey & Annie Marie Lewis, Austin Allsup, Bobby Cochran, Craig Westover featuring James Popenhagen, and Mario Ramirez are all scheduled to appear.
“Saturday evening’s show is a bit like a time capsule,” said Laurie Lietz, Executive Director of The Surf Ballroom & Museum and Winter Dance Party Event Coordinator. “These are the voices and this is the music that defined a generation, and we think that’s worth celebrating,” Lietz concluded. Scheduled to appear at Saturday evening’s show are: Chubby Checker and The Wildcats, Albert Lee and Friends, Shirley Alston Reeves: the Original Lead Singer of The Shirelles, The Chiffons, Brian Hyland, Chris Montez, Johnny Tillotson and The Holy Rocka Rollaz.
This show, this tribute concert, holds a special place for the people in this town. Because February 3, 1959 may have been the day the music died for the rest of the World, but not in Clear Lake.
Here, the music lives on. It lives in the hearts of our young children, who learn the history and celebrate the artists. It lives in the minds of each individual, who travels near and far to visit the memorial crash site.
It lives inside the Surf Ballroom.