Though Buddy Holly is a superstar today, his fame had dminished by the end of the 1960s but that all changed in 1971 with the release of 'American Pie'. In fact not only is Buddy's music highly popular, but his life story has been made into a successful movie and musical. The inspiration for the movie 'The Buddy Holly Story' was John Goldrosen's definitive biography of Buddy Holly written over a 12 month period in 1971-72.
John Goldrosen was one of the first to acknowledge Don McLean's success in rejuvenating interest in Buddy Holly. In 1975 John wrote to Don and this intriguing document has been made available to us by Don McLean. In it you will see how important 'American Pie' was in the Buddy Holly story. As Don says, "this is not patting myself on the back, it's just how it really was."
In Alan Howard's biography of Don McLean, McLean remembers his appearance at the Buddy Holly tribute concert in 1994 in Clear Lake, Iowa:
“On February 3rd 1994, I agreed to appear at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. I didn’t know they did a lot of surfing in Iowa, but I did know this was the last stop for Buddy Holly. It had been exactly 35 years since Buddy’s plane crashed in a desolate corn field near this surreal venue left over from the Big Band era of the 1930s and refurbished for post-war Big Bands in the late ‘40s. In 1948 a fire broke out in the ballroom, and after the ballroom was rebuilt, rock tours stopped there in the ‘50s. It was scheduled for demolition in the decades that followed, but nobody could be bothered. Now it is a shrine to Buddy Holly, Richy Valens, and the Big Bopper. It is a temple to the day the music died.
The Surf Ballroom looks like a brick planetarium with a central dome. It is located off of a Midwestern highway that cuts through endless fields and an occasional sleepy farm town and then passes miles and miles of corn fields, endless fields of dreams. Just outside Clear Lake and heading west, you make a left hand turn onto a side street that passes motels and bars that have not changed since February 3, 1959. Architectural appointments on some of these establishments mirror the era of cars with big fins. Soon you find yourself by the shore of a lake, in the middle of flat farmland, in the dead of the frozen Iowa winter. Inside the ballroom, the tables and booths have a tropical motif. The sides of the booths are painted with palm trees, yellow suns, and smiling, bathing-suited vacationers in the sand. You can almost feel an ocean breeze, except the breezes are sub-zero and come off oceans of grain outside the front door. They are the winds of death. The hall leading to the bar is papered with dusty, framed, sepia photos of the big bands that stopped there. There’s a picture of the Clooney sisters. I’ll bet few people realize that Rosemary Clooney began her career as part of a sisters act when she was a kid.
The guy who drove Buddy to the airport is here. Richie Valens’ nephew is here. Peggy Sue is here. Donna is here. And so is Tommy Allsop, who played with Bob Moore on my Chain Lightening and Believers albums. We’re old friends.
Tommy Allsop played in Buddy’s band and was with him on the last tour. He hasn’t seen the ballroom for 35 years. Niki Sullivan shows up with his children. He left the Crickets after the first album. As a teenager growing up in New Rochelle, I always wondered what happened to him. And of course Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena, is here.
The Fireballs play their guitar rock. They look like four guys impersonating the dying Howard Hughes, with shoulder length white hair. They do not have much fire left, and yet there are several thousand people here.
There is no place near Clear Lake, Iowa. Des Moines is about 200 miles to the south. Minneapolis is about 150 miles to the north. Eastern and western cities are even farther away. Everything else is just corn fields.
I’m part of all of this now. I carry ghosts with me wherever I go: van Gogh, Andrew McCrew, Jim Croce, Roy Orbison, Josh White, Lee Hays, Buddy Holly, and the rest. You don’t tour places like Clear Lake unless you have to, and never in the wintertime. But these performers come here once a year now, and by being here I feel I have come full circle. I sing my show and thousands sing along to the chorus of ‘American Pie.’ They’re all there with me on stage. Afterwards, I go to the dressing room and write the words to the opening stanza of ‘American Pie’ on the wall and sign my name.”
Don with the Jordanaires and The Crickets at the Buddy Holly Tribute
Extract from The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs by Alan Howard Copyright 2007 Starry Night Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction or translation of any part of this work without the permission of the copyright owner is unlawful. Used by permission