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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The day the music died

Monday, February 2, 2004

On the 45th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death this coming week, Steve Lassiter will take out his black scrapbook, and run his hands once more over the rare black-and-white photos that remind him of more than "The Day the Music Died."

In 1987, Steve asked his mother Sharon if she wanted to go to a new movie, "La Bamba," the life story of musician Richie Valens, knowing that she had been a fan of early rock 'n' roll music as a teenager.

"Did you know that I saw him play once?" his mother asked.

And so she did. It turns out that on January 30, 1959, young Sharon Kay Lassiter was right at the front of the stage for the Winter Dance Party concert at the Laramar Ballroom in Fort Dodge, grabbing her one chance to see the youthful pioneers of pop music, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, Dion and others. A teenage Waylon Jennings was in Holly's Band that night.

By all accounts, it was a hot show full of excitement and great music. Holly and the others stayed around afterward to sign autographs, then got on a clunky old tour bus to ride to Clear Lake for the next show. Faithful fan Sharon was among the teenage girls who followed the bus for 17 miles, honking and waving to their idols as they moved on to the next show.

The last show. Three nights later, on February 2, Holly, Valens and Richardson climbed on a small plane piloted by a 21-year-old pilot named Roger Peterson, from Alta, and took off into a frigid and snowy night. The plane went down in a barren corn field moments later, killing all aboard instantly.

But in a little "Brownie" camera clutched in the hand of a starstruck young girl, the era was captured forever.

Sharon had taken some of the few surviving performance photos of the famed musicians. Many years later, her son and that movie brought to life her long-forgotten memories of that night at the Laramar. Her son Steve started digging, and found the photos, still in perfect condition, in an old scrapbook.

It didn't take long for word to get around. Holly and Valens remain legends, and since Holly was only 21, and Valens 17 at the time of their deaths, genuine memorabilia of their short careers is rare and valuable.

Sharon was always happy to share her memories and her photos. "She thought it was cool," Steve said. Her son, and his wife Lora, residents of Cherokee, got hooked on the Holly music as they dig in to research, and are now recognized world-wide as among the highest authorities and collectors of the Holly legacy.

Sharon passed away in 1996. But her photos of Holly and the teenage exuberance they reflect never fail to rekindle warm memories for her son.

From that handful of little black-and-white snapshots, the Lassiters' collection has grown into a vast array of memorabilia that continues to grow. They have signed photos from most of the photographers that covered Holly's life and death, albums, sheet music, magazines, show posters - even the federal aviation report and corronor's notes from the tragedy.

The couple attends the Winter Dance Party reunions held each year on the anniversary of the fateful show at the Surf Ballroom. They network with Holly fans in France, Australia, Canada and England, where the rock pioneer is especially revered.

They exchange Christmas cards with Holly's widow, members of Holly's original band The Crickets, Waylon Jennings, and fellow Holly fanatic Robert Reynolds, of the country band The Mavericks.

One of their fondest memories is meeting Jennings, where they showed him the photos, and gave him an enlargement of a picture Sharon had taken of him as a fresh-faced teen at the Laramar show.

"He just said, 'Oh wow.' He was so emotional that his wife, Jessie Coulter, had to take the photo book out of his hands. The experience and the photo are included in Jennings' autobio-graphy, "Waylon."

Jennings had sold his seat on the fatal charter plane to Holly, who had been feeling ill and did not want to ride the freezing tour bus. Holly gave him $36 for the ticket, and for decades, the country star had blamed himself for Holly's death. Even as an elderly icon, the emotion was still clearly etched on his face.

The couple has also met with Bobbie Vee, the singer who came to the final show to see Buddy Holly play, and wound up being signed on the spot to fill in on stage after Holly's death.

Sharon's photos have turned up on the television show "Behind the Music," in a book on Holly called "The Day the Music Died," and have been reproduced for a museum exhibit in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, as well as appearing in many newspapers and magazines. In only a few cases are they properly credited.

Steve and Lora know all the lyrics to all of the songs by heart, listing "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be The Day" among their favorites. Steve got permission to visit the spot in the rural Mason City field where Holly died, and did so despite -70 windchill conditions on the coldest day he can remember. "It was a weird connection. Just like I felt when I went to the Surf Ballroom for the first time. The hair on my arms just stood up, and it made a real impression on me," he remembers.

Photographers for TNN television channel took photos of him placing flowers on the site.

He has also visited the site of pilot Roger Peterson's grave at Storm Lake, and spoke to as many surviving witnesses of the accident and the final shows as possible.

But why after 45 years, are people still so fascinated with a skinny, bespectacled singer with a career that only spanned two years?

"Buddy Holly influenced music so much in such a short time. You can listen to one of those records today, and the music holds up and sounds just as good as it did to people all that time ago," Steve says.

As for the precious photos, and the rest of the collection, Lassiter said he almost lost it all once, when he loaned the items to a Texas man who took off with them, and for a while it looked like the memorabilia was gone forever. He is now much more careful.

"Now I'll just hang onto it. I'm not looking to make money off it, and someday I would really like to see it preserved in a museum for everyone to enjoy," Steve said.

Holly is gone, and so is the young Iowa girl who was so thrilled to snap his photo in that heady moment of rock 'n' roll innocence all those years ago. But whenever "It's So Easy" or "Maybe Baby" or "Rave On" come on the radio, it all comes flooding back.

As Don McLean's ageless Holly tribute song "American Pie" says,

"I can't remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride, something touched me deep inside, the day the music died..."

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