This snapshot by Mary Gerber, taken at the Surf Ballroom, is considered the last photograph of Buddy Holly. (Waylon Jennings, left, is playing bass guitar) Photo courtesy The Buddy Holly Center


Feb 3, 2021–On the morning of Feb 3, 1959, 14-year-old Tom LaVille opened up his bundle of newspapers to deliver like he did every day. But this morning was different. There, on the front page of the Mason City Globe-Gazette, was the news that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens had died in a wintry plane crash.

The news shocked the world. But for young Tom it hit closer to home. He had been at Buddy Holly’s final concert the night before, at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

“It was horrible news,” LaVille said. “I had no one to tell. I ran over to tell my mom that this is who we saw last night, and they’re dead now. I didn’t cry, but I was troubled because I had just seen them the night before. I remember thinking, I’m glad Dion wasn’t with them, because that’s who I went to see perform.”

Tom LaVille (pictured today with his wife, Cheryl) was a 14-year-old kid living in Mason City, Iowa, when he attended Buddy Holly’s last performance at the Teen Winter Dance Party on Feb 2, 1959.

After college, LaVille came to teach at our little high school in the middle of the prairie. I had not known of his connection to this pivotal event in rock and roll history until reconnecting on social media, where he casually mentioned he had been interviewed by a Canadian filmmaker producing a documentary about that night. The fact the world is still fascinated with something that happened more than 60 years ago is a testament to the power of rock and roll.

The Surf Ballroom

February 3 has always been referred to as the day the music died, etched in our musical memories by Don McLean’s American Pie in 1971. The release of that song stirred the emotions back up in LaVille.

“That is the day the music died,” LaVille said. “Music did change. After that The Twist came out, then the Beatles, then psychedelic music.”

LaVille incorporated American Pie into his American Lit classes on poetry, using it to show students the historical significance of all the nuggets buried in the lyrics.

“It matched my life,” said LaVille, who spent a year in Vietnam and taught for 33 years. “That was me.”

LaVille was privy to see a Top 40 of rock and roll stars cross that stage, including Jan and Dean, Leslie Gore, Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon of Palisades Park fame, and all three Bobbys–Vee, Rydell, and Vinton.

“You could see virtually anyone in that era perform there–all the one-hit wonders,” he said. “It was not an expensive outing. It cost one dollar to get in, and I had a job that paid 50 cents an hour, so it was only two hours of work.”

LaVille shared some of his specific memories of the evening:

The Weather
“When we drove there, it was winter in Iowa, of course, but decent. When we left, the wind had whipped up and started blowing snow around. But it wasn’t slippery on the highway.”

Dance floor at the Surf Ballroom (on another night)

The Crowd
“One of the misconceptions was that the floor was really crowded. The dance parties were common, so this night was no more or less special than all of the others we went to. During the performance of each of the stars people would move in and out of the front. The front was only about 10 feet deep, the rest of the floor was taken up with people dancing. I really liked dancing so I checked out Dion and Buddy Holly, but was on the dance floor for most of the other performers. Even with Dion and Buddy I watched a song or two then when back to dancing.”

The Surf Ballroom
“In a lot of films, it pictures the concert in an auditorium with people sitting in seats. The reality was it was shaped like a horseshoe, with people sitting in elevated booths around the sides, and in the gap of the horseshoe was the stage with the dance floor in the middle. There were maybe three or four rows of people standing in front of the stage, but everyone else was dancing. You went to the Surf to dance and meet girls.”

The Performers
“Richie Valens was a kid. It was interesting to see he was about the same age as we were. The Bopper looked to be in his late 20s. Buddy Holly had one of those faces where he could be 25 or 45.”

The Telephone
“The Big Bopper came out with a little tin toy phone. Backstage, someone rang a telephone and he sang into the phone. That just got me.”

Regrettably, LaVille has no memorabilia to commemorate that he was there that night.

“Concerts were different then. They didn’t have merchandise to sell. A lot of the stars would come out from backstage to get something at the concession stand, and you could just go up and talk to them.”

However profound the later memories were, LaVille still remembers the actual experience as a typical Teen Winter Dance Party.

“I wish I could say it changed my life,” he said. “Sure, I was sad. But I kept going to concerts at the Surf Ballroom, just to have a good time.”

Rock and roll survived.