The Surf Ballroom’s annual commemorative event honoring the musical legacies of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson began in 1979.
The Surf Ballroom’s “Winter Dance Party”, the event began after an on-air jest by a Clear Lake radio personality known as “The Mad Hatter” back in the late 1970’s on local Clear Lake radio station KZEV. The Mad Hatter – whose real name is Darryl Hensley – was doing his show one day when he told listeners, “There is a time warp in my studio and Buddy Holly has just walked in.” He pretended to have an on-air conversation with the rock ‘n roll icon. “Buddy” suggested the idea of holding a memorial concert at the Surf on the 20th anniversary of his death, and the Mad Hatter told him he would make it happen.
Hensley recalls that the event’s beginnings were challenging. The original slate of entertainers for the first commemorative concert cancelled just 6 weeks prior to the show. The Mad Hatter asked fellow disc jockey Wolfman Jack to help put together a lineup and be master of ceremonies. Among the performers booked were Del Shannon, The Drifters, Jimmy Clanton, The Whitesidewalls and original Cricket Nikki Sullivan. The Hatter made it into a media event by giving away hundreds of tickets to media types from across the country. And so it began…the first memorial concert dubbed “The Tribute to Buddy Holly Concert” took place on Saturday, Feb. 3, 1979.
Unfortunately, the event lost $4,000, but it didn’t take long for word of the good times to spread or for the event to sustain itself…and the rest has carved its niche in rock history. The event ultimately has evolved into a celebration of the music of the fifties and early sixties, when the concerts expanded to a 2-day event format back in 1980 when the first Friday night “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” was held in the ballroom of the local Holiday Motor Inn (now the Best Western Holiday Lodge), featuring a performance by The Rondells. In subsequent years through 1989 – the last KZEV-sponsored tribute – the Tea Party was held at the Surf Ballroom on the first Friday and Saturday evenings in February.
By the mid-1980s, the Surf Ballroom was sponsoring some “warm-up activities” on Thursday nights, such as the “Darrel Hein Hospitality Night” on Feb. 5, 1987. By 1992, these became incorporated officially into the annual “tribute weekend” when it became a 3-day affair with a Friday night sock-hop and the six hour-plus Saturday night concert.
Today, the event has been further expanded to include a Wednesday night concert to accommodate even more rock ‘n roll fans. Hatter is credited with building an internationally renowned event.
Our small town ballroom has been covered by NBC, ABC, CBS, Entertainment Tonight, PBS, the BBC, Associated Press, UPI and more than 400 radio stations throughout the United States.
Perhaps a plaque given to Darryl by the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce in 1999 says it best: “In recognition and appreciation of your bold and visionary efforts from conception to production of the first annual Buddy Holly Tribute. Because of your efforts, the music will never die.” Thank you, Darryl, for a tradition that we hope lasts forever!