KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- It was 60 years ago tonight that a plane went down just minutes after taking off from the Mason City, Iowa airport.
Four young men were killed: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson, and Roger Peterson.
It was a tragedy that shaped the music world forever. People still call it “the day the music died.” It also changed Clear Lake, Iowa forever and eventually led one family to Kansas City.
On Feb. 2, 1959 in Clear Lake, hundreds of teenagers flocked to the Surf Ballroom for a dance party as they did every week. Linda Muth and Russ Rippen were two of the young people there.
“I just remember standing in front of the stage,” said Muth. “I was in ninth grade, I was 14 years old, and it was just a big deal for Mason City and Clear Lake, Iowa.”
“My friend and I talked it over and we were like, ‘Well, we’d like to go see Buddy Holly,’" recalled Rippen.
Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, and Dion were all slated to take the stage that night at the Winter Dance Party. The teenagers all got rides to the Surf and waited outside in a long line to get in.
“It was snowing and kind of cold,” Muth said. “Actually, really cold.”
“It’s snowing and there’s no wind and it’s like Christmas snowflakes, you know,” Rippen said. “They landed on my coat.”
The Surf Ballroom first opened in 1948 and remains very much the same inside today. The room, which is so rich with history, can easily take a music lover’s breath away. Even the curtains on the iconic stage are the originals.
Everyone you talk to who was there that night remembers sitting in a booth and eventually making their way toward the stage once the show started.
“When The Big Bopper was singing ‘Chantilly Lace,’ he looked right at us and I’m sure each of us thought he was singing to us, because that’s the way it worked," said Muth
“Buddy’s standing here and then Richie Valens is probably standing here, as I remember,” recalled Rippen.
Muth and Rippen didn’t know each other back then, but the two have the same memories.
“I remember they were wearing suits and ties, and that was a little bit formal,” said Muth.
The young musicians took to the stage and played song after song. There was no real interaction with the audience and no stories told about how each song was written; there was just the music.
At one point, the D.J. pulled Holly aside for a quick question and asked him how long he planned to stay in the music business.
“He said, ‘Until I fall down,’” Rippen said. “I remember, the next day, I thought that was a very strange thing to say, but I swear that’s what he said.”
After the show, the young stars were driven about 10 minutes away to the Mason City Airport where they boarded a plane and took off at about 1 a.m. The plane went down just a few miles away from the airport and the crash went undiscovered until about eight hours later.
Twenty-eight-year-old J.P. Richardson, known as The Big Bopper, was found on one side of the fence. Twenty-two-year-old Buddy Holly was found on the other, laying just feet away from Richie Valens who was just 17 years old. The pilot, Roger Peterson, was found inside the plane.
It was a crash that stunned the world and the fans who were there that night.
“We always had KGLO radio on our radio, and that’s when I heard,” Muth remembers. “I went into my mom’s kitchen for breakfast and heard there’d been a crash.”
“I was walking down the hall and some girls were crying by the locker,” Rippen recalled. “There were two girls crying. It sounds like a movie doesn’t it? I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and she said, ‘Buddy Holly got killed in a crash.’”
“I just remember that it was unbelievable and devastating,” Muth said. “I just remember that, less than 12 hours before, I had seen these people at the Surf.”
The Surf is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Winter dance parties are still held there. It has been a popular venue for musical acts to perform now for decades, since the trio of musicians spent their last night playing on the stage there.
One member of The Crickets, which was Buddy Holly’s band, has a Kansas City connection.
Niki Sullivan grew up in Lubbock, Texas, but spent the last 25 years of his life in the KC metro. He and his wife raised their twin sons, Marty and Eryn, in KC and the twins still have some great stories.
Years after playing with Holly, Sullivan found out the two were actually third cousins. He joined The Crickets when another guitarist got too nervous to audition for Holly.
“Buddy’s like, ‘Nick, you’ve got a guitar. Why don’t you go grab a guitar real quick and we’ll just jam real quick?’" Marty Sullivan said.
Just like that, Holly had found his rhythm guitarist.
Niki Sullivan played on 27 of Holly’s 32 songs. All were released in just a year and a half. He even played to the nation on the Ed Sullivan Show alongside Holly and the rest of The Crickets. However, a massive nationwide tour, the days spent crammed onto buses, and being segregated at different hotels night after night took a toll on Sullivan.
“The way he always described it, he said, ‘We did 80 cities in 81 days,’” Eryn Sullivan remembers. “He’s like, ‘I woke up and didn’t know what city I was in.’”
Sullivan quit the band and was financially cut off. Most musicians would likely sue and, if they’re Sullivan, they’d probably win millions of dollars. However, despite the pleas from almost everyone he knew, Niki Sullivan wasn’t having it.
“He never wanted to tarnish Buddy’s name,” Marty explained. “I mean, if you think of all the artist contracts and disputes from Creedance Clearwater Revival to Led Zeppelin -- all these bands -- it tarnishes the legacy. And, my dad was adamant. He always said, ‘Buddy’s not here to defend himself and the last thing I’m going to do is tarnish his name.’"
They were close, after all. It was Sullivan who was tasked with calling Holly’s mother to break the devastating news after the plane crash.
“What he always said was that it felt like a piece of his soul, what he had in his life, ‘he’s like a part of everything I was going for,’ completely went away,” Eryn said. “That’s why he never did music again; it broke him.”
What he did do was honor Holly every chance he got. Sullivan performed several times at the Surf, including on the 22nd anniversary of the Winter Dance Party in 1979. His two little boys were by his side that day.
He also never lost sight of who mattered most in the music world: the fans.
“He would get fan mail and every time we’re like, ‘Dad, why are you taking the time? Let’s go do this.’” Marty remembers. “He’s like, ‘I’ve got to write them back.’ And, he’d hand write every person who ever wrote him. He would hand write back.”
It’s a special touch by Sullivan that no doubt made a difference not only to his fans but to those who loved Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens.
“What’s crazy to me is that 60 years, there’s still people interested in it,” Eryn said. “That’s what’s so awesome.” “Yeah, that we’re sitting here even having this conversation speaks about the impact they had on the music industry, but also on the nation,” his brother added.
For Muth and Rippen in Iowa, the impact was great. They want to preserve the memories for future generations.
“This is important,” Muth said. “We need this part of our history for our children, your grandchildren, my grandchildren. It’s a tribute to the music world.”
“American Pie,” the song Don MacLean wrote to commemorate “the day the music died,” holds memories and meaning in equal measure for Muth and Rippen.
“It’s who I am,” Muth explained.
“Yeah, I guess it becomes part of your life,” Rippen said. “I know it has mine. I can’t deny it.”