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Last dance before the music died

Last dance before the music died

Last dance before the music died

The current Surf Ballroom replaced an earlier Surf that burned.

By David and Kay Scott

CNHI Travel Writers

The small town of Clear Lake, Iowa, is home to one of the iconic buildings in rock ‘n’ roll history.

The Surf Ballroom, a music venue from the 1940s, is where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson (the “Big Bopper”) last performed on a cold February night before their deaths in an early morning airplane crash.

The deaths became known as “the day the music died” following Don McLean’s cryptic 1971 hit “American Pie.”

In mid-September, we explored the Surf Ballroom and, on our drive out of town, stopped to visit the crash site.

The young pilot and his three passengers were on their way to Fargo, North Dakota, for the next night’s performance in neighboring Moorehead, Minnesota.

The concerts in Clear Lake and Moorehead were stops on the “Winter Dance Party,” a rock ‘n’ roll tour of the Upper Midwest that also included Dion and the Belmonts, the Crickets and Frankie Sardo.

The Iowa venue where the musicians performed that February night was actually the second Surf Ballroom, the original having burned in 1947.

Although most of today’s music fans know the Surf as a mecca for rock ‘n’ roll, the ballroom was originally designed for dancing to big band music. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller and the Dorseys all played at the Surf.

< p>Big band leader Ozzie Nelson and wife-vocalist Harriet appeared here as did their son, Ricky Nelson, and, later, his twins, Gunnar and Matthew.

Early rock ‘n’ roll icons, including Roy Orbison, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers and Conway Twitty, performed here.

In more recent years, the Surf hosted the Doobie Brothers, Santana, REO Speedwagon, Alice Cooper, Martina McBride and others.

Like many historic music venues, the Surf went through several owners as it experienced its ups and downs. The current owners acquired the building in 1994, and in 2008 leased the Surf’s operation to a non-profit organization.

The Cypress Room lounge once served as a break area for dancers to enjoy refreshments. Today, it is primarily a museum with loads artifacts and photos of musicians who performed at the Surf. Then it was on to the impressive ballroom.

The stage faces a large maple dance floor surrounded by small booths. The ballroom is simply beautiful, a nd standing in the center of the dance floor surveying the room allows one to imagine what a wonderful and lively place the Surf must have been during the big band era.

For modern concerts, the dance floor is filled with chairs to accommodate a greater number of patrons.

The white walls in the green room are covered with artists’ signatures. Among those she pointed out were Buddy Holly’s wife, Maria Elena Holly, guitarist Albert Lee and Don McLean who wrote and recorded “American Pie.”

On our return to the lobby, we inspected the pay phone Buddy Holly used to call his wife prior to his last performance. Ritchie Valens had also used the phone to call his manager.

We then walked over to the old piano signed by Duke Ellington when he had become stranded at the Surf during a winter storm.

After leaving the Surf, we hopped in the car and headed six miles north to the airplane crash site.

Visiting the site requires a quarter-mile walk down a lane surrounded by cornfields, but it was more than worth the effort. The makeshift memorial is modest, but appropriate.

Walking back to the car, we remembered something Laurie had mentioned during the tour.

“The music has always lived and continues to live at the Surf Ballroom.”

Source: Google News Music

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