By Tanner Kent
---- — Connie Valens Lemos is no stranger to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Of course, the Surf is the legendary venue where J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, Buddy Holly and Connie's older brother, Ritchie Valens, played their last show before tragedy took their lives on Feb. 3, 1959. Though Connie was barely 8 years old when Ritchie's plane crashed in a bean field outside Clear Lake, she still has vivid memories of her brother and remains a steadfast supporter of his musical legacy.
As such, Connie has appeared several times at the Surf for memorial concerts and tribute events over the years. And oftentimes, the band would invite Connie onto the stage to sing one of her brother's tunes.
Still, when Connie made her solo performance debut at the Surf recently to sing a full set of Ritchie's songs, the emotions were almost overwhelming.
"It was like flashing back 50 years," said Connie, who moved to Iowa last year and will be performing during a fundraising concert Saturday in St. James. Proceeds will be used to add playable music to the 15-foot memorial sculpture at Three Stars Plaza that honors the trio of rock icons.
"Anytime my knees got wobbly, I looked at (Ritchie's photograph) on the back wall and I'd say, 'If you can do it at 17, I can do it, too.'"
Though more than 50 years have passed since the event that songwriter Don McLean dubbed "The Day the Music Died," music devotees continue to pay homage to the contributions made by the three pioneering rock and roll artists.
In Ritchie's case, the singer of "Donna," "Come On, Let's Go" and "La Bamba" is credited as being among the first Latinos to earn mainstream rock music appeal. His penchant for turning traditional Mexican songs into rock songs became an oft-repeated formula and his style paved the way for such musicians as Carlos Santana and Los Lobos.
To Connie, however, Ritchie was just a big brother.
She told the Mason City Globe Gazette in 2011 that she remembers Ritchie entertaining his younger siblings with his guitar during weekends when mom was working. It wasn't until she attended one of his concerts and saw teenage girls going mad for the dashing teenage guitar hero that Connie began to understand his fame.
During the filming of "La Bamba," the 1987 biopic with Lou Diamond Phillips in the lead role, Connie said her unreconciled feelings of grief rose to the surface when Phillips boarded the plane for the crash scene. Connie began weeping. When Phillips tried to console her, she responded by saying "Why did you get on that plane Ritchie."
In DVD releases of the film, the special features include an interview in which Phillips recalls the moment as well.
"It was about closure," Connie said. "I've always wanted to say that to my brother."
Here in south-central Minnesota, the ill-fated Winter Dance Party remains engrained in local music culture. The tour criss-crossed Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, playing the ballrooms and dance halls that dotted the Midwest landscape. The tour included a stop in Mankato on Jan. 25 as well as a stop two nights later in Montevideo.
In addition to Connie's performance on Saturday in St. James, she will perform a concert on Jan. 24 at the Kato Ballroom in Mankato.
If You Go What Three Stars Plaza fundraiser concert, featuring Connie Valens, and Denny and the DC Drifters When Doors open at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday Where The Hayloft, 1311 7th Ave. S. in St. James Tickets $25, with proceeds benefiting an addition to Three Stars Plaza. Tickets include food, soft drinks and birthday cake. More info Call 507-621-0168