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Remembering 'the day the music died'

Lake Park's Lewis Ronken as Buddy Holly.

February 3, 1959 -- It's the date often referred to as "The Day The Music Died."

Immortalized in the lyrics of Don MacLean's "American Pie," that was the day musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, along with pilot Roger Peterson, were killed when their charter plane crashed shortly after takeoff from an airport in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Ironically, it was also the day that set Bobby Vee & The Shadows on the road to fame, as they were among the bands called to fill in for the deceased musicians at a big rock and roll show that was to take place in Fargo that night.

"They were going to cancel the show," recalled Shadows bass player Dick Dunkirk in a telephone interview.

But eventually, they decided to follow the old entertainment standard, "the show must go on," and Dunkirk's band was among those who got the call to perform.

The Shadows -- though they were not allowed to use the name to record because it had already been patented by an English band -- would stay with Bobby Vee (who changed his name from Velline) for the next four years, touring as his backup band from 1960-64.

"We did a lot of the recording and all of the touring," Dunkirk said of the band, which also included Bob Korum on drums and Bill Velline (Bobby's older brother) on guitar. "He (Vee) sold 13 million records. Bobby was one of the top 20 artists of the 1960s."

But eventually, the "British Invasion" of the late 1960s caused Vee's popularity to fade, and the band broke up. When Vee began touring again many years later, he used different musicians.

"We didn't want to go out on the road anymore," Dunkirk explained.

When Bobby Vee & The Shadows were inducted into the Mid-American Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, Vee was reunited with his old bandmates, Korum and Dunkirk, and they decided to do a reunion concert at the Medina Ballroom as part of the induction festivities. (Bill Velline passed away in 1997.)

After their reunion, Dunkirk and Korum decided to revive The Shadows, and a couple of years ago, they hired Lake Park resident Lewis Ronken to play the role of Buddy Holly in a tribute show.

Ronken, a retired Lake Park-Audubon teacher who was also a talented guitar player, bore an uncanny resemblance to Holly.

"I was asked by The Shadows to do a theater show with them, as Buddy Holly, and I got to thinking -- 'I can do that,'" Ronken said.

"I did some studying about him, and I learned some things I didn't know," Ronken said. "I got more and more interested (in Holly)."

In doing his research into Holly's life and career, Ronken realized that he and his alter ego had more in common than their appearance.

"I knew at a very young age that I wanted to play guitar," Ronken said. "My background was a lot like his (Holly's)."

But unlike Holly, Ronken had no desire to be a full-time musician. Though he continued to play in bands for most of his life, he also got a bachelor's degree in education, and became an industrial technology teacher.

"Later, I switched to computers," he said.

But he never entirely gave up on his music. Along with playing guitars, Ronken also makes them.

"I build guitars as a hobby -- that's my main passion," he said. "I've restored a number of cars as well...I'm kind of a hobbyist."

Since that first show with The Shadows -- a sold out performance at the Fargo Theatre -- Ronken has done a dozen or more similar tribute shows as Holly.

"I don't really consider myself a great singer, but I can play Buddy Holly really well," Ronken said.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5 -- the 50th anniversary of Holly's death -- Ronken will once again be performing with The Shadows at the Fargo Theatre.

The 8 p.m. show, called "I Remember Buddy Holly & Roy Orbison," will also include the talents of Wayne Luchau, who plays Roy Orbison.

"We've done a few shows with him, and it's turned out to be a tremendous combination," Ronken said.

Dunkirk noted that there is a historic connection between Orbison and Holly as well: The two musicians recorded in the same studio, and Orbison "was heavily influenced by him (Holly)."

"Wayne has an amazing voice," Ronken said. "It sends shivers up my spine when he hits those high notes."

The show will also include four string musicians -- two violins, a viola and a cello -- who will accompany both Holly's and Orbison's songs.

In addition, The Shadows will be playing some of the hits they recorded with Bobby Vee.

Tickets for the show are $26 in advance or $30 at the door. Seating is general admission. For more information, call 701-235-4152, or visit the Fargo Theatre's Web site,

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454