Frankie Sardo is not a rock and roll star. He never sold a million albums or reached the top of the charts. He is not a household name. However, he is a vital character in one of the most important chapters of rock and roll history. Frankie Sardo was the opening act for the 1959 Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, which was the last concert performance for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The three music legends were killed when their plane crashed following their performance at the Surf Ballroom on February 3, 1959. A little over 51 years after that fateful night, Frankie Sardo returned to the Surf Ballroom for the first time.
In a continuing partnership with the Surf Ballroom, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum co-sponsored a luncheon with the Surf as part of the Winter Dance Party event on February 6, 2010, in Clear Lake. The luncheon featured a one-on-one interview with Frankie Sardo. This interview was the first time Sardo has publicly spoken about his memories and stories surrounding the tour.
Sardo never wanted to be a rock and roll star. He was invited to join the tour because he had a regional hit in the Midwest with a song his brother had written called “Fake Out;” his friends, the other artists already booked on the tour, asked him to come along as the opening act. He had just come back from a tour of duty in the Korean War and thought it sounded like it would be a fun trip. Sardo’s memories of the tour and the other musicians he traveled with are as clear as the day he first stepped on the stage at the Surf Ballroom. Upon returning to the Surf all these years later, he said that what came back immediately was the laughter. The conditions of the Winter Dance Party tour were horrible – zigzagging across the frozen Midwest in the dead of winter, with 35 degrees below zero temperatures in rickety old buses that kept breaking down. Even so, there was no shortage of practical jokes, card playing, story telling and song swapping. One of the best jokes, according to Sardo, was before a performance one night, he and the other guys re-strung Buddy Holly’s guitar upside down. Buddy ran on stage and grabbed his guitar, like he always did, started strumming… As the tour progressed, Sardo was musically and personally influenced by the other acts. Ritchie Valens’ roommate on the tour, Sardo remembers how polite Valens was – calling everyone sir. Sardo grabbed the “kid” and explained to him that he was a rock star, he had a major hit record and he should be telling people to move over and give him a seat! He remembers Bopper’s booming laugh and Buddy’s sense of humor. He remembers youth, the kids screaming in the audience – so much so, that for fun the singers would sing impromptu risqué lyrics to their well-known hits because the pandemonium from the crowd was so loud.
Sardo decided that he wanted to share his story after last year’s 50 Winters Later event that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum co-produced with the Surf Ballroom, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Winter Dance Party. His favorite memory from the Winter Dance Party tour happened one night while riding on the miserable, cold bus. Buddy Holly broke out his guitar and wanted to play the group a new song he had just recorded called “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” Buddy wanted their opinion on the song. Sardo explains how in this moment, he was flooded with emotion realizing just how special and talented this group of men he was traveling with really are.
Overall, Frankie Sardo is thankful for the Surf and the Rock Hall and the events they produce that keep the music and the memories alive, stating “You kept the music alive. Nothing died here…”