MASON CITY, Iowa -- 'I can't remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride. But something touched me deep inside ... the day the music died.'
The words in Don McLean's classic 1971 song 'American Pie' recall Feb. 4, 1959, when the tragic death of Buddy Holly shook the rock 'n roll world.
Exactly 25 years after Holly's death -- officials predict at least 2,500 people still 'touched deep inside' by the late Holly and his music will take a special trek to the site of his final performance.
It is an annual journey to northern Iowa, made every February as their way of paying tribute to the bespectacled rockabilly artist whose career was dramatically cut short by an airplane accident in Mason City.
The owner of KZEV-radio, known only as the 'Mad Hatter,' organized the annual Buddy Holly Reunion six years ago at the Surf Ballroom in nearby Clear Lake, where Holly and his band, the Crickets, played their last show.
Holly fans spend the weekend in Clear Lake, stirring up memories and grooving to '50s music provided by Bobby Vee, Tommy Roe and others.
'It's a special event every year -- the best thing I've ever done,' said the Hatter. 'This year, of course, is awfully special and it's sold out early. People are spending real money, coming from far-away places like England and Alaska to salute Buddy Holly and the special music of the '50s.'
On the night of Feb. 3, 1959, Holly and the Crickets held a concert at the Surf for 1,100 teenagers and their parents.
Joining the group on stage were two other popular acts: Ritchie Valens and the 'Big Bopper,' a Texas disc jockey, program director and singer known for the hit 'Chantilly Lace.'
After the concert, a chartered airplane was to take the three singers to Fargo, N.D., for their next engagement. They never got there.
The Beachcraft Bonanza crashed five miles northwest of the Mason City airport, killing the three singers and pilot Roger Peterson, 21, of Clear Lake. Authorities blamed bad weather for the crash.
'It was a real shock. The memories are really vivid,' said Niki Sullivan, 46, who quit as the Crickets' rhythm guitarist more than one year before Holly's death.
'I'll remember Buddy as a unique individual -- a shy kid from Texas with a dream,' said Sullivan, now a Kansas City, Mo., businessman. 'He tried to call me a week before his death but I wasn't home. He wanted to get the band back together, but we never made the connection. I often think about that.'
Carroll Anderson, former manager of the Surf, remembers driving Holly and the other musicians to the airplane, closing the plane door and wishing them good luck.
'The years go by, but I can never seem to get it out of my mind,' Anderson said. 'The boys were in such a jubilant mood after the show. The thing that gets me is that you could tell he (Holly) was on the verge of something -- he was close to really busting out nationally.'
Holly's widow, Maria Elena Holly Diaz, is remarried with three college-age children and lives in Irving, Tex., where she still handles her late husband's business affairs. She said she would be unable to attend this year's tribute because of a trip to London.
'I'm just happy he's still being appreciated and people are still enjoying his music,' she said. 'This is only a consolation to me. I still miss Buddy a lot. He'll never go away from my life as long as I live.'
Memories of Holly burn bright for a generation stirred by such hits as 'Peggy Sue,' 'That'll Be the Day' and 'Oh Boy.'
Another generation grew up listening to rock artists influenced by Holly -- most notably the Beatles, who borrowed their name from the Crickets.
Holly, born Charles Hardin Holley, started off as a country singer in 1956. The Lubbock, Texas, native recorded scores of rock songs from the summer of 1957 until his death in 1959 at the age of 22.
Holly was an innovator: the first rock musician to double-track his voice on a record; the first white rock artist to use a background orchestra with strings and one of the first to use the four rock instruments that later became standard -- lead, bass and rhythm guitars and drums.
Interest in Holly's music has heightened because of new versions of his songs by different performers, the popular 1977 movie called 'The Buddy Holly Story' and the continuing demand for '50s music, said Bill Griggs, president of the Lubbock-based Buddy Holly Memorial Society.
'I've listened to 'That'll Be The Day' every day of my life since 1957 and I can honestly say I don't get tired of it,' Griggs said. 'It's happy music and that's why it survives.'
Griggs, who never saw Holly in person, publishes a quarterly fan magazine called 'Reminiscing' for the 4,600 Holly Society members in 25 countries.
Last year MCA records released 'Buddy Holly in New York,' an album filled with previously unreleased Holly material. Another Holly album is planned for release in a few months.