Rock and roll icon Buddy Holly died Feb. 3, 1959, in a plane crash in Iowa. He was 22 years old.
At the time, Holly was headlining the nearly month-long “Winter Dance Party” package tour across the upper Midwest. He was flying with fellow stars Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) in a chartered plane to Fargo, North Dakota, for a concert in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Their flight in the early morning darkness followed a concert the previous evening at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where they’d performed in a tour that included Dion and the Belmonts. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff.
Though Holly has been gone 58 years, his legend never fades in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, which celebrates his life and music career at the Buddy Holly Center.
The center sponsors special events throughout the year, and every Feb. 3 it offers free admission as it remembers the lives of Holly and his fellow musicians.
Head curator Jackie Bober tells us the center will mark this anniversary with narrated trolley tours that pass by the high school that Holly attended, the coliseum where he opened for Elvis, the radio studio where he performed, and the site in the City of Lubbock Cemetery, on the east side of this west Texas city, where he is buried.
For us, connections to this young Texan who died before he reached his prime – though not before he made his mark on the emerging genre of music known as rock and roll – are personal.
In 1971, Don McLean penned and recorded “American Pie,” a hit lamenting Holly’s death. His words rang true with us.
We each remember newspaper accounts of the crash and felt McLean’s lyric, “Something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”
Holly was born Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holley in Lubbock on Sept. 7, 1936. One of four children in a family that loved music, he teamed with a school friend to form several country groups that played parties, school functions, and talent shows throughout the area.
Holly signed a contract with Nashville’s Decca Records in February 1956, but sales were disappointing and the contract was not renewed. The contract would prove important, however, because it misspelled Buddy’s last name as “Holly.” He adopted the version during the remainder of his career.
Holly, along with his group, The Crickets, journeyed to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where on Feb. 25, 1957 they cut “That’ll Be the Day.”
The song hit No. 1 in the U.S. and United Kingdom. Buddy Holly and the Crickets were on their way to stardom.
During an abbreviated career, Holly and the band recorded a flurry of songs, including a handful that hit the Top 10 -- “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy!”
Despite recording for such a short time, Holly’s influence was enormous, especially in light of all of those who would later emulate his sound. In 2010, Holly was selected by Rolling Stone Magazine as No. 13 in its listing of 100 greatest artists of all time. The Beatles were No 1.
The Buddy Holly Center showcases this story in an expansion to the city’s old railway depot that later found use as a warehouse, salvage yard and restaurant. The 1928 building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 and purchased by the city in 1997.
The expansion used for the Buddy Holly gallery opened in 1999. The old station is used as a fine arts exhibit area.
We toured the center during a fall trip that included visits to a wind power museum, a glider museum, the Robert Bruno house and the campus of Texas Tech University. However, it was the lure of visiting Buddy Holly’s hometown, museum, and burial site that drew us here.
The center is filled with photos, keepsakes, posters and a large timeline identifying major events in Holly's life. An 18-minute movie is available for viewing.
Exhibits include a pair of Holly’s iconic eyeglasses recovered from the site of the plane crash, a recorder from Norman Petty Studio, the last guitar used by Holly at the Surf Ballroom, and a motorcycle owned by Waylon Jennings. Jennings played with Holly at the Surf Ballroom the night he died and was fortunate not to have been on the airplane.
The home of the other founding member of the Crickets, drummer J.I. Allison, has been restored and moved from its original location in Lubbock to the grounds of the center. Allison’s home is where he and Holly wrote “That’ll Be the Day,” the Crickets’ first hit. The house is open for tours.
Holly is buried in a large cemetery where small signs point the way to his grave.
His marker includes an engraving of a Fender Stratocaster guitar and is relatively small, due in part to a restriction on upright monuments when he was buried.
Its modest size is ironic given the vast influence of the young man whose life it commemorates.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at www.valdosta.edu/~dlscott/Scott