Buddy Holly Tribute – Surf Ballroom (Clear Lake, IA)
I bought my first drum set at a pawn shop in Lubbock, Texas. Answering an ad looking for a drummer, I soon met Paul Waters, a young man who bore a striking and deliberate resemblance to Buddy Holly. He came to my door lugging a Stratocaster and a scrapbook filled with pictures of him onstage in the full Holly regalia: suit, ascot, and those bookish glasses. There were also shots of him leaning over Buddy Holly’s grave with what I swear were tears in his eyes.
We eventually formed a band and played Holly songs around the clubs and barbecue joints of Lubbock. After the shows, we would end up at Holly’s gravesite with a six-pack of beer and some friends talking about the crazy night we’d had. That band eventually disbanded and I returned to my hometown of Houston, where I formed Sixgun, a rockabilly band with Brent Wilson on guitar and Jimbo Wallace on standup bass. We performed at the Buddy Holly Convention in Lubbock. It was there I met Buddy’s father and mother and performed “True Love Ways” with Maria Elena Holly sobbing in the front row. It was a moving experience and it made me proud to be a Texan.
At this gathering, I also met Monte Warden, who later become the singer in the Wagoneers, a band Brent and I joined upon moving to Austin. The Wagoneers performed Holly’s “Ting-A-Ling” in every set and encored with “Down the Line”; in 1995, we reunited to record the latter tune for the Austin Country Nights compilation on Watermelon Records.
I first visited the Surf Ballroom on April 13, 1996, my 35th birthday. I was now on tour playing snare drum with Junior Brown. We were opening for the Mavericks; it was their bass player Robert Reynolds, a fellow Holly-phile, who suggested the tour play a date at the Surf. It is one of the most sacred stages in all of rock ‘n’ roll, for once upon a time in 1959 it was graced by three young boys who would change the face of popular music forever. They performed as entertainers on that cold night in February, but by the next morning they would become a holy rock ‘n’ roll triumvirate.
Reynolds suggested we put together a band and return to perform at the annual Buddy Holly Tribute the following January. That notion sat on the shelf until our year-long tour was over, at which point we called the Surf and informed them we were interested in playing their party. They told us the bill was full, but given our enthusiasm, they were kind enough to make room for us on January 31, the Friday night before the sock hop. Now that the invitation had been extended, the next step was to assemble a band and transportation up to the frigid fields of Iowa.
The band was a crew of friends and musicians who all shared an affinity for Holly’s music. I enlisted Brent Wilson from the Wagoneers days to play guitar. Mandy Barnett, the velvet voice of Nashville, auditioned by singing “True Love Ways” over the phone to me. With Robert playing acoustic, we enlisted the fabulous Mark W. Winchester to play standup bass. Robert brought along Jerry Dale McFadden, also from the Mavericks, as well as Kenny Loveland, a guitarist and songwriter from his childhood — the only person he knew in Miami who loved Holly.
With the band complete, we rehearsed on a Thursday and left that night. We pulled up to the Surf on Friday afternoon. The ballroom was filled with booths of Holly memorabilia: pictures, T-shirts, posters, scrapbooks. There were few young people in attendance; it was mostly middle-aged couples paying their respects for a time since past. Gray-haired women in poodle skirts and overweight men in leather jackets with cameras around their necks prevailed. On the walls were pictures of Buddy Rich and other big-band greats who played the Surf in its postwar heyday. I also saw a picture of Paul Waters performing at a Holly tribute some years before. He still had the ascot and those glasses. The phone booth where Richie Valens and Holly placed their last calls, the steps where Holly sat after his set and signed autographs all remained the same. And the stage — that was what we came to stand upon. Flanked on both sides by palm trees, it stood four feet high but seemed much larger, knowing whose shoes we were there to fill.
We took the stage at 7 p.m. Starting off with Brent singing “Blue Days, Black Nights”, we quickly went into Robert’s rendition of “Think It Over”. The crowd was receptive but still a bit inhibited. Eyes fixed on Robert; they were seeing members of the Mavericks and Wagoneers, not hearing the music of Buddy. After all, we were the new kids at the party and they wanted some time to check us out. Next, Kenny sang a rousing version of “I’m A Gonna Love You Too”. Then we brought out Mandy. From the first note of “True Love Ways”, the audience melted toward us. Her beautiful voice was the perfect match for such a captivating song. When she finished, a wave of chills ran up the back of my neck. Then she moved into a rocking version of “Rave On” that sealed our acceptance. After we finished the set with some songs we all loved — “Reminiscing” , “Tell Me How”, “Maybe Baby”, “Ready Teddy”, “Not Fade Away”, and “It’s so Easy” — the crowd gave us a wild, screaming encore, and we gladly returned with a rocking version of “Peggy Sue”.
An incredible feeling of elation permeated the dressing room immediately after the set ended. We all felt a great accomplishment at having surpassed our musical goal. That Surf Ballroom dream I had been carrying ever since my Lubbock days came true. I finally had played those songs on that stage to a crowd who appreciated the music the most. They were there because of their love for the boy and the music he created.