Each decade seems to bring its own musical trend. The 1940s were all about the Big Band sound that inspired a generation of crooners. When the 1950s rolled in, the sounds of Rock ‘n Roll vied with the previous decade’s hits for airtime. Much like other passing trends, the popularity of this new sound created the end of an era for Swing music. New faces were becoming stars and they were eager to get in front of their fans. For years, the Surf Ballroom was an important step in the progress to gain national fame. Stars from all music genres scheduled shows at this Clear Lake, Iowa venue. Everybody who was anybody paid their dues at the Surf.
We want to thank Clear Lake Tourism for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
The Surf Ballroom has been around since 1934. A tragic fire destroyed the original structure in 1947, but a new venue was quickly built across the street. During those days, the weekly entertainment was split between two genres. “Old Style” music was performed on the weekends, while the early weekdays were reserved for “Modern” music and dancing. We could imagine seeing Duke Ellington or Count Basie pumping up the crowd with some amazing swing tunes. As the 1950s rolled in, the musical pulse of the nation was migrating towards Rock ‘n Roll. It would be a common occurrence for Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, or the Everly Brothers to be found at the Surf. On February 2, 1959, this “must-play” venue would become tied to one of the most notable events in Rock ‘n Roll history.
3 Stars Plaza
On that fateful day, Surf manager, Carroll Anderson, had lined up the Winter Dance Party. The musical performers were a whos-who of Rock ‘n Roll stars. Three names that stood out were Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. While Holly had chartered a plane for their next destination, Richardson and Valens wound up on board due to an unusual set of circumstances. Waylon Jennings gave his seat to Richardson, who was fighting a case of the flu. Valens won his seat from Tommy Allsup on a coin toss. The decision to take off during poor wintry conditions is believed to have contributed to the nearby plane crash that took the lives of the three artists, as well as the pilot.
End of an Era
While the music created by these three stars has passed from mainstream radio, it still endures as timeless classics. We visited the 3 Stars Plaza during the evening. As the sunset across Clear Lake, we listened to the short stories that are recorded for each of the lost stars. Slowly the sky darkened and the names of the musicians began to glow on the bottom disc of the memorial. It was a somber moment when we could just sit and think about how that fateful day brought the end of an era. We made our way back to our car and cued up “American Pie” in honor of these lost stars.