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Feb 3, 1959: The day the music died

1/19/12 3:28:10 PM -- Clear Lake, IA, U.S.A. -- THIS IS FOR A LIFE COVER:.Jeff Nicholas, president of the Surf Ballroom & Museum stands near a memorial at the site of the 1959 plane crash that killed  Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson a few miles outside of Clear Lake, Iowa.  Nicholas also owns the land.  "It's an honor to own this land.  People come from all over the world to stand at this site.  This is where the music died, but in a way, it's also where the music began," he says..On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died when their plane crashed in a farm field north of Clear Lake, Iowa ? an event memorialized as ?the day the music died? in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean. The three 1950s stars played their last gigs at Clear Lake?s Surf Ballroom, which is intact today and holds an annual celebration of its moment in music history. The ballroom, largely the same as it was in its ?50s heyday, struggled as a for-profit business and has been operated as a non-profit since 2008. It hosts concerts, weddings, reunions and school tours. It has a small museum, but the big draw is the place itself. The maple dance floor and booths are original. One of the two original coat checks is still there and so is the phone that Holly used to call his wife before the fatal crash, the website boasts. The fun part is the annual gathering of fans from all over the world, which this year is Feb. 1-4 and is delicately called the ?winter dance party.? There are concerts each night, a bus outing to the crash site, which is marked by a giant pair of the glasses Holly wore, dance lessons, video and art contests and a gathering of the British Buddy Holly Society (whose members have been coming to Clear Lake for 23 years). Chuck Berry is a featured performer this year. It?s a charming and weird slice of Iowa life and rock ?n? roll history. -- ...Photo by Christopher Gannon for USA TODAY. (Christopher Gannon/for USA TODAY)

1/19/12 3:42:10 PM -- Clear Lake, IA, U.S.A. -- THIS IS FOR A LIFE COVER:.Horn-rimmed glasses, flowers and a microphone hang from a memorial at the site of the 1959 plane crash that killed  Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson a few miles outside of Clear Lake, Iowa..On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died when their plane crashed in a farm field north of Clear Lake, Iowa ? an event memorialized as ?the day the music died? in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean. The three 1950s stars played their last gigs at Clear Lake?s Surf Ballroom, which is intact today and holds an annual celebration of its moment in music history. The ballroom, largely the same as it was in its ?50s heyday, struggled as a for-profit business and has been operated as a non-profit since 2008. It hosts concerts, weddings, reunions and school tours. It has a small museum, but the big draw is the place itself. The maple dance floor and booths are original. One of the two original coat checks is still there and so is the phone that Holly used to call his wife before the fatal crash, the website boasts. The fun part is the annual gathering of fans from all over the world, which this year is Feb. 1-4 and is delicately called the ?winter dance party.? There are concerts each night, a bus outing to the crash site, which is marked by a giant pair of the glasses Holly wore, dance lessons, video and art contests and a gathering of the British Buddy Holly Society (whose members have been coming to Clear Lake for 23 years). Chuck Berry is a featured performer this year. It?s a charming and weird slice of Iowa life and rock ?n? roll history. -- ...Photo by Christopher Gannon for USA TODAY. (Christopher Gannon/for USA TODAY)

1/19/12 2:50:13 PM -- Clear Lake, IA, U.S.A. -- THIS IS FOR A LIFE COVER:.A giant pair of horn-rimmed glasses stand as a salute of Buddy Holly and mark the entrance to the crash site   a few miles outside of Clear Lake, Iowa..On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died when their plane crashed in a farm field north of Clear Lake, Iowa ? an event memorialized as ?the day the music died? in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean. The three 1950s stars played their last gigs at Clear Lake?s Surf Ballroom, which is intact today and holds an annual celebration of its moment in music history. The ballroom, largely the same as it was in its ?50s heyday, struggled as a for-profit business and has been operated as a non-profit since 2008. It hosts concerts, weddings, reunions and school tours. It has a small museum, but the big draw is the place itself. The maple dance floor and booths are original. One of the two original coat checks is still there and so is the phone that Holly used to call his wife before the fatal crash, the website boasts. The fun part is the annual gathering of fans from all over the world, which this year is Feb. 1-4 and is delicately called the ?winter dance party.? There are concerts each night, a bus outing to the crash site, which is marked by a giant pair of the glasses Holly wore, dance lessons, video and art contests and a gathering of the British Buddy Holly Society (whose members have been coming to Clear Lake for 23 years). Chuck Berry is a featured performer this year. It?s a charming and weird slice of Iowa life and rock ?n? roll history. -- ...Photo by Christopher Gannon for USA TODAY. (Christopher Gannon/for USA TODAY)

buddy_holly (Christopher Gannon)

1/19/12 12:30:33 PM -- Clear Lake, IA, U.S.A. -- THIS IS FOR A LIFE COVER:.Lyrics to "American Pie", a tribute song following the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were written on the Surf Ballroom's green room wall by Don McLean in 1994.  McLean released the song on an album of the same name in 1971..On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died when their plane crashed in a farm field north of Clear Lake, Iowa ? an event memorialized as ?the day the music died? in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean. The three 1950s stars played their last gigs at Clear Lake?s Surf Ballroom, which is intact today and holds an annual celebration of its moment in music history. The ballroom, largely the same as it was in its ?50s heyday, struggled as a for-profit business and has been operated as a non-profit since 2008. It hosts concerts, weddings, reunions and school tours. It has a small museum, but the big draw is the place itself. The maple dance floor and booths are original. One of the two original coat checks is still there and so is the phone that Holly used to call his wife before the fatal crash, the website boasts. The fun part is the annual gathering of fans from all over the world, which this year is Feb. 1-4 and is delicately called the ?winter dance party.? There are concerts each night, a bus outing to the crash site, which is marked by a giant pair of the glasses Holly wore, dance lessons, video and art contests and a gathering of the British Buddy Holly Society (whose members have been coming to Clear Lake for 23 years). Chuck Berry is a featured performer this year. It?s a charming and weird slice of Iowa life and rock ?n? roll history. -- ...Photo by Christopher Gannon for USA TODAY. (Christopher Gannon/for USA TODAY)

1/19/12 12:24:32 PM -- Clear Lake, IA, U.S.A. -- THIS IS FOR A LIFE COVER:.Jeff Nicholas, Surf Ballroom & Museum president looks over the thousands of autographs covering the walls inside the Surf Ballroom's green room..On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died when their plane crashed in a farm field north of Clear Lake, Iowa ? an event memorialized as ?the day the music died? in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean. The three 1950s stars played their last gigs at Clear Lake?s Surf Ballroom, which is intact today and holds an annual celebration of its moment in music history. The ballroom, largely the same as it was in its ?50s heyday, struggled as a for-profit business and has been operated as a non-profit since 2008. It hosts concerts, weddings, reunions and school tours. It has a small museum, but the big draw is the place itself. The maple dance floor and booths are original. One of the two original coat checks is still there and so is the phone that Holly used to call his wife before the fatal crash, the website boasts. The fun part is the annual gathering of fans from all over the world, which this year is Feb. 1-4 and is delicately called the ?winter dance party.? There are concerts each night, a bus outing to the crash site, which is marked by a giant pair of the glasses Holly wore, dance lessons, video and art contests and a gathering of the British Buddy Holly Society (whose members have been coming to Clear Lake for 23 years). Chuck Berry is a featured performer this year. It?s a charming and weird slice of Iowa life and rock ?n? roll history. -- ...Photo by Christopher Gannon for USA TODAY. (Christopher Gannon/for USA TODAY)

1/19/12 12:38:27 PM -- Clear Lake, IA, U.S.A. -- THIS IS FOR A LIFE COVER:.Images of Buddy Holly stand over the dance floor at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa..On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died when their plane crashed in a farm field north of Clear Lake, Iowa ? an event memorialized as ?the day the music died? in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean. The three 1950s stars played their last gigs at Clear Lake?s Surf Ballroom, which is intact today and holds an annual celebration of its moment in music history. The ballroom, largely the same as it was in its ?50s heyday, struggled as a for-profit business and has been operated as a non-profit since 2008. It hosts concerts, weddings, reunions and school tours. It has a small museum, but the big draw is the place itself. The maple dance floor and booths are original. One of the two original coat checks is still there and so is the phone that Holly used to call his wife before the fatal crash, the website boasts. The fun part is the annual gathering of fans from all over the world, which this year is Feb. 1-4 and is delicately called the ?winter dance party.? There are concerts each night, a bus outing to the crash site, which is marked by a giant pair of the glasses Holly wore, dance lessons, video and art contests and a gathering of the British Buddy Holly Society (whose members have been coming to Clear Lake for 23 years). Chuck Berry is a featured performer this year. It?s a charming and weird slice of Iowa life and rock ?n? roll history. -- ...Photo by Christopher Gannon for USA TODAY. (Christopher Gannon/for USA TODAY)

1/19/12 1:08:03 PM -- Clear Lake, IA, U.S.A. -- THIS IS FOR A LIFE COVER:.Booths adjacent to the dance floor inside the Surf Ballroom & Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa..On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died when their plane crashed in a farm field north of Clear Lake, Iowa ? an event memorialized as ?the day the music died? in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean. The three 1950s stars played their last gigs at Clear Lake?s Surf Ballroom, which is intact today and holds an annual celebration of its moment in music history. The ballroom, largely the same as it was in its ?50s heyday, struggled as a for-profit business and has been operated as a non-profit since 2008. It hosts concerts, weddings, reunions and school tours. It has a small museum, but the big draw is the place itself. The maple dance floor and booths are original. One of the two original coat checks is still there and so is the phone that Holly used to call his wife before the fatal crash, the website boasts. The fun part is the annual gathering of fans from all over the world, which this year is Feb. 1-4 and is delicately called the ?winter dance party.? There are concerts each night, a bus outing to the crash site, which is marked by a giant pair of the glasses Holly wore, dance lessons, video and art contests and a gathering of the British Buddy Holly Society (whose members have been coming to Clear Lake for 23 years). Chuck Berry is a featured performer this year. It?s a charming and weird slice of Iowa life and rock ?n? roll history. -- ...Photo by Christopher Gannon for USA TODAY. (Christopher Gannon/for USA TODAY)

1/19/12 12:37:54 PM -- Clear Lake, IA, U.S.A. -- THIS IS FOR A LIFE COVER:.A 180 degree view of the Surf Ballroom as seen from the stage in a panoramic composite from multiple photographs..On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died when their plane crashed in a farm field north of Clear Lake, Iowa ? an event memorialized as ?the day the music died? in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean. The three 1950s stars played their last gigs at Clear Lake?s Surf Ballroom, which is intact today and holds an annual celebration of its moment in music history. The ballroom, largely the same as it was in its ?50s heyday, struggled as a for-profit business and has been operated as a non-profit since 2008. It hosts concerts, weddings, reunions and school tours. It has a small museum, but the big draw is the place itself. The maple dance floor and booths are original. One of the two original coat checks is still there and so is the phone that Holly used to call his wife before the fatal crash, the website boasts. The fun part is the annual gathering of fans from all over the world, which this year is Feb. 1-4 and is delicately called the ?winter dance party.? There are concerts each night, a bus outing to the crash site, which is marked by a giant pair of the glasses Holly wore, dance lessons, video and art contests and a gathering of the British Buddy Holly Society (whose members have been coming to Clear Lake for 23 years). Chuck Berry is a featured performer this year. It?s a charming and weird slice of Iowa life and rock ?n? roll history. -- ...Photo by Christopher Gannon for USA TODAY. (Christopher Gannon/for USA TODAY)

On assignment for USA TODAY, I recently made a trip north to Clear Lake, Iowa, to photograph two pieces of hallowed ground in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.  Clear Lake is home to the legendary Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson played their fateful last gig before perishing in a plane crash a few miles north of town in the early morning hours of February 3, 1959.  The Surf, (seen directly above in a 180-degree panorama) considered by many to be a temple of rock ‘n’ roll, appears much as it did over 50 years ago when the trio of rock pioneers played there.  The ballroom’s green room walls are now covered with signatures of entertainers who have played there over the decades.  Among the scribbles are lyrics to Don McLean’s 1971 song American Pie, lamenting “the day the music died” – written by McLean himself.

I drove a few miles north of town with Surf Ballroom president Jeff Nicholas to the site of the plane crash, land that he also owns and farms.  We braved single digit temperatures to visit the site, now memorialized with silver albums, flowers and several pairs of horn-rimmed glasses immortalized by Holly.  “It’s an honor to own this land,” he says.  “People come from all over the world to stand at this site.  This is where the music died, but in a way, it’s also where the music began.”

And the music continues at the Surf, where ’50s-era rock fans make regular pilgrimages to perform, dance to and celebrate the music that, in a way, began on that fateful, frozen night 53 years ago.

Find USA TODAY’s story here.

A tearsheet of how the ink hit the page:

buddy_holly (Christopher Gannon)

 

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