Aurora -- On "the day the music died" -- in the words of singer Don McLean in his famed song "American Pie" -- when young rock'n roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) perished in a plane crash in 1959, Aurora Economic Development Director Jack Burge was there for what was be their final concert.

"It was a horrible feeling," said Burge, recalling when he received the tragic news of the crash the next morning.

Burge, then a student at the University of Iowa, was recording the concert for KCHA, a 50,000-watt radio station that broadcast from dawn to dusk. He had worked at the station as a disc jockey starting when he was in high school.

Burge lived in Charles City, Iowa, about 30 miles from the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where the concert took place.

"I went there with my buddies so often, it was second-nature," he said. "During the summer, we'd sometimes go there two nights a week when there were good concerts."

Burge was home from college when "one of the fellows at the station asked me if I wanted to go with him to record a rock concert," he said. He quickly agreed.

On Feb. 2, 1959, Burge was backstage at the ballroom recording the concert on a tape recorder "that was the size of a small suitcase with two large reels of tape. There was a microphone on the stage. My job was to make sure we didn't run out of tape."

The headliner that night was Holly, who "had quite a few hits out by that time, including 'Peggy Sue,'" Burge said. "Ritchie Valens had two hits -- 'La Bamba' and 'Donna.' Big Bopper was a lesser known artist, but he had a huge hit titled 'Chantilly Lace.'"

Burge has a replica of a poster that was on display at the Surf Ballroom, promoting the concert, where a ticket cost $1.25. Since he was back stage, he heard the concert but did not see it.

"The concert was good, but there was nothing particularly remarkable about it," he said. "I didn't get to meet any of the artists except one -- Waylon Jennings, who was a guitar player in Buddy Holly's band the Crickets. I got to talk to him a little bit back stage. He was a little more easy to get to than the main performers."

Burge estimated there were about 300 people there that night. After the concert, despite a snow storm that blasted the region, the musicians were scheduled to travel to Moorhead, Minn., for another concert the next evening.

"In those days, that was sort of typical for the music circuit," Burge said. "There were ballrooms in Iowa in Clear Lake, Austin and Storm Lake. These up-and-coming rock'n rollers would perform there. It was a tough life. They'd tour around in cars and buses and hit all these places -- night after night."

Burge said Holly, Valens and Big Bopper normally traveled by bus.

"The plane flight was a fluke, spur-of-the-moment thing," he said. "It wasn't originally in their plans, but they found out there was a nearby airport in Mason City, Iowa. They elected to hire a pilot to fly them. It was probably ill-advised to fly into that weather, but the pilot thought he could make it.

"As the story goes, Jennings should have been on that plane," Burge said. "But Big Bopper wasn't feeling well. The folklore is Jennings gave up his seat so Big Bopper could ride on the plane and arrive more quickly. The rest of them were traveling in an old bus that lost its heat.

"According to Jennings, when they got on the plane that night Buddy Holly said something jokingly to him like 'You're an idiot for giving up your seat on the plane. I hope you freeze on that bus.' And Jennings supposedly responded jokingly ''I hope your plane goes down.'"

And it did.

Burge traveled home after the concert in the snowstorm. "We didn't know about the plane crash until the next day when the news came out," he said, and one of his friends called him to inform him. "I couldn't believe it," he said.

"In those years without all the distractions of technology that kids have today, the music was probably more a part of our lives than it is now," he added. "It was pretty powerful when you got to see an artist in person. That's what we did -- go to these concerts and see these artists. Most of them weren't much older than we were."

With the three headliners for the Moorhead, Minn., concert the next night dead and the rest of the band members grieving, a call went out for Minnesota bands to come down during the day and audition.

One of those which auditioned and was put on the bill was Bobby Vee, who went on to gain musical fame with the song "Take Good Care of My Baby." Vee died Oct. 24, 2016.

Burge said he never heard the recording of the final concert again and isn't sure what happened to it. "I wish I did," he said. "It's probably worth something."

"AMERICAN PIE"

In 1971, "American Pie," written and sung by McLean, was released. The song, which was partially about the plane crash that took the lives of the three young stars, became a classic. McLean dedicated it to Holly.

The lyrics were written, though, so that a listener might not know what the song was about. Burge admitted he was originally one of those listeners.

"McLean wrote, 'Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,'" Burge said. "I didn't know what he was talking about at first. Later, there was an analysis of the song that delved into all of its deep meanings.

"McLean wrote, ' the Father, Son and Holy Ghost -- they caught the last train for the coast' That was apparently a reference to the three of the singers climbing on an airplane."

When the Carousel Theatre operated in Akron, Burge went to see a play about Holly that focused on the last day of his life.

"At the intermission, I stopped the owner of the theater and asked him if anybody wanted to hear from someone who was there that night -- me!"

Burge was invited to the post-performance cast party where he was introduced to the cast members and spoke to them about his experiences the night of the last concert.

Recently, Burge had a chance to briefly revisit the Surf Ballroom during a trip to Iowa. "There was a brick wall backstage that artists signed throughout the years," he said, adding the autographs were still there when he visited. "It's kind of a monument to rock'n roll."

When Burge thinks back about that evening in 1959, the first word that comes to mind is "sad."

"The thing that's always struck me is we seem to lose some young stars too early," he said. "Elvis Presley was one. There are others like Ricky Nelson and Patsy Cline, who both died in plane crashes. And, of course, these three. It's a real shame that they lost their lives so early."

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

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