FARGO — Nick Kelsh was born in 1953, so he doesn’t remember Feb. 3, 1959, or the news that came out the following day about the tragic plane crash near Mason City, Iowa, that killed rock musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P Richardson, known as “The Big Bopper,” all on their way to a show in Moorhead.
Still, Holly has always been a part of the Fargo native’s life. His older brother was a big fan of the singer and often played his music around the house. Kelsh would later play Holly’s music in his own band, though, admittedly, not well.
The fact that Holly died on his way to a show in Moorhead was not lost on Kelsh, either.
Sixty-two years after what’s become known as “The Day The Music Died,” the photographer’s life keeps crossing paths with the late singer’s legacy.
“Buddy Holly’s been a thing all of my life,” Kelsh says from his home in upstate New York.
These days, Kelsh is as successful a photographer as he is a photography coach, having authored a handful of how-to books, like “How to Photograph Your Life” and “How to Photograph Your Family,” as well as publishing acclaimed collections of his own shots, including “Naked Babies.”
In the early 1980s, however, he was a photojournalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’d read a story that in the old Clear Lake, Iowa, courthouse, the personal effects of Holly and the others had been discovered and would be returned to the family.
Kelsh knew a photo of the iconic glasses Holly wore as he perished would make for a good story. He suggested the idea to a friend at Rolling Stone, pitching it to run around Feb. 3, 1983, the 25th anniversary of the fateful crash. The idea was accepted and Kelsh made an appointment to meet Holly’s widow in her Fort Worth, Texas, home and photograph the glasses.
Maria Elena’s house was pretty standard suburban fare, with no Holly memorabilia on display. She had remarried and, understandably, her life had moved on.
Kelsh set up his lights and she fetched a manila envelope on which was written “Buddy Holly,” and listed what he carried on him the night he died: a wallet, a little bit of money and his glasses.
“I thought, ‘How could this not be in a vault? This needs to be in the Smithsonian,'" Kelsh says.
When she pulled out the spectacles, they weren’t mangled from the wreck. Maria Elena told the photographer they came back twisted, so she bent them back into shape.
“I fixed them,” she said.
“Of course, as a photographer, my heart sank because the photo would look better if they looked like they survived a plane crash,” Kelsh says.
As he set up his shot, Maria Elena, a novice photographer, asked him about gear and technique and he cheerfully answered. She asked if he wanted to see their wedding album or the acoustic guitar Holly wrote on, and Kelsh was beside himself.
She had to dig through a closet to find the items. They looked through the nine shots from their wedding day in 1958 and Kelsh held the treasured guitar.
As he held the glasses, he cautiously asked her if he could try them on, and she happily said yes.
“I put the glasses on and said, ‘Let me know if I’m way out of line, but can you take a picture of me?” he remembers.
Again, she was happy to oblige.
Kelsh notes the look on his face in the photo is one of bemusement.
“I’m freaking out because I’m wearing Buddy Holly’s glasses,” he says. “She couldn't have been nicer. It was one of the best days of my life.”
He filed the photo of Holly’s glasses and Rolling Stone ran it with a paragraph from Paul McCartney about how influential Holly was to The Beatles.
Kelsh kept a shot of him wearing the glasses in his wallet, and has pulled it out from time to time when Holly comes up in conversation, like when he overheard a stranger talking about the influential star in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
At a dinner party once, he was introduced to Don McLean, whose epic 1971 hit, “American Pie,” coined the phrase “The Day The Music Died.” Kelsh told McLean he was a fan and pulled out the photo, which made MacLean pull back and ask, “Who are you?”
They talked and ate and drank — a lot.
“He was very cordial and relaxed,” Kelsh recalls. “I swear if there was a guitar in the place he would have sung ‘American Pie’ for us that night.”
Holly’s glasses are now in the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas, the late singer’s hometown. But the story of the glasses travels with Kelsh.
He recalls later taking photos of Dick Clark and asking him what he remembered about Holly.
“He was just a kid,” Clark responded.
Kelsh ran into Bo Diddley in an airport and when he asked the influential singer and guitarist what he remembered of Holly, the response was similar. “He was super talented, but he was just a kid.”
“It’s such a crazy crossover,” Kelsh says.
Kelsh now looks back on that day in 1983 in Maria Elena’s house and sees his request to have his picture taken wearing her dead husband’s glasses as a bit of a childish, fanboy move.
“It was a little presumptive. It was a little bit of bad manners,” he says. “If she hadn’t been so completely willing and sweet, I wouldn’t have done it. She couldn't have been nicer. It was one of the best days of my life.”