February 2, 2011 will mark the 52nd Anniversary of the last concert Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson “The Big Bopper” performed at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. On that cold winter’s night, their small private plane took off from Mason City, Iowa bound for the Fargo, North Dakota airport for their next performance. It never made its destination.
Their plane crashed around one o’clock, the morning of February 3, 1959, and claimed the lives of the three performers and their young pilot, Roger Peterson. Three of Rock and Roll’s most promising musical artists were gone. As Don McLean wrote in his classic song, “American Pie”, it was “the day the music died.”
After the crash, there was serious discussion of what to do: should they cancel the show, or find some local talent and carry on? I’m sure everyone involved was in shocked disbelief. The decision was to find some local talent to fill in. They picked a group of teenager musicians who quickly named themselves “The Shadows”.
Bob Korum, Dick Dunkirk, Bill Velline, and fifteen-year-old Bobby Velline, later known as Bobby Vee, comprised the group. Instead of attending the concert that night, they took the stage, and their musical careers were launched, which led to years of booked gigs and hit records. When Bobby Vee moved on to lead other bands, the Shadows continued without him.
So what was it like for the band members who stepped in to replace the three popular performers at the Armory in Moorhead, Minnesota on February 3, 1959?
There is a man at the health club I frequent who was in the band that night and continued with The Shadows all these years. I talk to him on a regular basis and one day asked if I could interview him for a blog. He told me there has been much written over the years and a lot of it is false. He said he didn’t think anyone would care after all this time. There were several others in the sauna who said they would love to hear about what it was like, but he declined anyway.
I was disappointed, but didn’t beg (for too many minutes). Over the course of many months, we’ve discussed a variety of topics, including his band, but those stories are mostly contemporary, their experiences when they have gigs. He said they’ve been lucky–their band never had to play in bars. He’s told me, more than once, “I never smoked, never drank, never did drugs.” That’s probably why he’s a very young-looking seventy-one.
He talks about Bobby Vee and his brother Billy, who died fairly young. About knowing Bob Dylan when he was Bobby Zimmerman. About how the British Invasion in 1963 really hurt American bands. About how in the older days, they were paid three cents every time one of their songs was played on a juke box, and five cents when it played on the radio.
But about the concert, the day after the music died, he doesn’t have much to say, except it was the first time the band had performed in public and that they knew only three songs. Maybe it’s difficult for him to put into words what it was like to be a teenager, shocked as the rest of the rock world to learn three young stars had been dimmed.
Yet they took the stage that memorable night when it was decided the show must go on and the music couldn’t die.
Christine Husom is the Second Wind Publishing author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, and An Altar by the River