Feb. 3, 1959, is deemed the day the music died: when Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and their pilot, Roger Peterson, crashed shortly after their plane took off following a gig in Clear Lake.
Their artistry lives on, however, every time someone like Zachary Stevenson steps into the spotlight.
Stevenson, 37, who is in the process of moving from his native Vancouver Island to join his wife in Chicago, is bringing Holly’s music, as well as that of Phil Ochs and some original tunes, to CSPS Hall on Friday night (2/2), the eve of the plane crash anniversary immortalized in Don McLean’s 1972 hit, “American Pie.”
Holly’s music still makes people smile and dance. Something about it touched Stevenson, especially when he visited the Surf Ballroom several years ago.
A singer, actor and songwriter, he frequently performs in “The Buddy Holly Story,” and his extensive research has taken him to various places pivotal in Holly’s journey, from his hometown and gravesite in Lubbock, Texas, to the studio in Clovis, N.M., where Holly recorded, to the Iowa ballroom where Holly would play his final concert.
“I felt a lot of things,” Stevenson said of his stop at the Surf Ballroom. “That place is beautiful. It’s a very well-maintained time capsule. They haven’t changed much about it structurally. I went during the day, and they let me take out my guitar and play onstage to an empty room. It gave me chills.
“I’ve thought about that (tragic) night so many times. When you pack up at the end of the night and head out for your next gig, you’re never thinking it’s going to be the last one,” he said, adding that walking out to the crash site and memorial also gave him chills.
Ochs, a protest singer, has his heyday a decade after Holly, but Stevenson sees parallels between them.
“I found them both to be very genuine, very passionate,” he said. “In many ways, they seem very different, but at the heart, they’re similar — two guys who grew up thinking a little differently, believing in themselves and following their passion. They are both very much a product of their time. They exemplify different elements of pop culture — one in the ’50s and one in the ’60s.
“Of course, Buddy Holly’s life was cut very short — he was only 22 when he died. One can only imagine what stuff (Holly) would have been writing if he’d lived into the ’60s, because he actually moved to Greenwich Village, which is the milieu where Phil Ochs really came of age, as well ...”
“Stylistically, they’re quite different, But Phil Ochs was actually a huge Buddy Holly fan — loved ’50s rock ’n’ roll, Elvis, Buddy Holly — but he grew up in a different time and place,” Stevenson said.
“The folk music was booming in the early ’60s when Phil Ochs arrived, and that became the conduit for his creative voice. If he was born in a different era, I don’t know that he would necessarily be a folk singer. It’s hard to say. I think it was easy to pick up a guitar, and very immediate, which appealed to him as a topical artist”
The two troubadours also had a similarity in vocal color, which suits Stevenson’s sound.
“My voice has a resemblance to both singers,” he said. “When I studied their music, it was in a theatrical context, so I was trying my best to recreate the sound ... I can do both some justice.”
WHAT: Zachary Stevenson
WHERE: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday (2/2)
TICKETS: $14 advance, $17 door, CSPS Box Office, (319) 364-1580 or Legionarts.org
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Zacharystevenson.com