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The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, was never meant to be a stop on the Winter Dance Party tour, but, on Feb. 2, 1959, it was forever enshrined in rock history as the last show played by rock legends Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly. Sometime after 1 a.m. the next day, a single-engine plane carrying the three—chartered at Holly’s insistence because of poor tour-bus conditions—fell from the sky.
“I was at my mom and dad’s house in Lubbock, Texas [when I heard],” Jerry Allison, drummer for the Crickets, Holly’s original band, says today from his house in Lyles, Tennessee, where he, original Cricket bassist Joe B. Maudlin and current Cricket but original Holly session player guitarist Sonny Curtis all live within 30 miles of one another.
“Sonny was . . . sleeping on my folks’ couch, and I was asleep in my bedroom when this lady from across the street came over and said, ‘I heard Buddy Holly . . . was killed in a plane crash.’ But we knew he wasn’t supposed to be on a plane, so it was an unbelievable deal. Terrible day, it was.”
On Saturday, the Crickets (Allison, Maudlin and Curtis) will take the stage at Deke Dickerson’s sixth-annual Guitar Geek Festival to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their childhood friend’s death—“the day the music died,” as it’s now more famously known thanks to the famous reference in Don McLean’s “American Pie.” It’s one of only a few shows they’ll be playing as the anniversary approaches, with the last being on Feb. 2 back at the now-legendary Surf Ballroom.
“You couldn’t tell much difference there today,” Allison, now 69, says. “Even the look of the microphones. They’ve preserved it all these years. By the 3rd, we’ll be on our way back from Clear Lake. I always get a little sad that day.”
Buddy Holly and the Crickets had a profound impact on rock in the late ’50s and the ’60s, even partly inspiring four lads from Liverpool to call themselves the Beatles; Paul McCartney later bought the publishing rights to Holly’s tunes. It makes sense, considering the simple magnificence of the songs Holly and the Crickets recorded together, such as “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” (named for Allison’s then-girlfriend, now his wife of 40 years).
“The thing that is amazing is that although their music is minimalistic—Buddy Holly was the king of the three-chord song—the fact remains that it only sounds like the records when those original guys play those songs!” Dickerson, a legendary musician in his own right, says. It’s why he wanted the Crickets to headline his guitar festival. “The feel and style they put on the music is so individualistic only they can make it sound that way.”
Allison, a wildly creative drummer, inherited the role of bandleader from Holly when Holly opted to make a permanent move to New York in 1959; Holly’s band mates remained in Lubbock as the Crickets and would, after Holly’s passing, hit the road together as such. It took them a long time to accept the permanent relationship they would have with Holly’s memory.
“We were best friends, so of course we didn’t want to escape that part,” Allison explains. “Sometimes I wish we’d started back up not as the Crickets.”
By the ’60s, when they started touring again (often in England because all the Brits were away invading America), “I had the deal where I’d want ‘Don’t put “Buddy Holly’s Crickets” [on the marquee].’ But finally, I just learned to shut up because people were just going to do it anyway.” He lets out a chuckle. “Besides, it’s not a bad name to be associated with.”
The Crickets would go through many incarnations, tour with friends such as Waylon Jennings (who, backing Holly in ’59, gave up his seat on the infamous chartered plane to the Big Bopper), and record numerous albums and collaborations with such names as Jennings, Eric Clapton and Patti Griffith.
Their impact on those who came after them was obvious: Buddy Holly and the Crickets, geeks playing rock & roll, inspired two subsequent generations to believe that no matter how they looked, how uncool they were, they, too, could be rock stars. Maybe even change the way rock was played.
These days, though, the Crickets are only interested in having fun on the road, which is why they only take off for one or two days at a time. “We don’t turn the money down . . . but we like to hang out with old friends,” Allison says, laughing.