Don McLean wrote American Pie about this fateful day in music history...

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa - It's been 50 years since a single-engine plane crashed into a snow-covered Iowa field, instantly killing three men whose names would become enshrined in the history of rock 'n' roll.

The passing decades haven't diminished fascination with that night on Feb. 2, 1959, when 22-year-old Buddy Holly, 28-year-old J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and 17-year-old Ritchie Valens performed in Clear Lake and then boarded the plane for a planned 300-mile flight that lasted only minutes.

"It was really like the first rock 'n' roll landmark; the first death," said rock historian Jim Dawson, who has written several books about music of that era. "They say these things come in threes. Well, all three happened at the same time."

Starting Wednesday, thousands of people are expected to gather in the small northern Iowa town where the rock pioneers gave their last performance. They'll come to the Surf Ballroom for symposiums with the three musicians' relatives, sold-out concerts and a ceremony as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designates the building as its ninth national landmark.

And they'll discuss why after so many years, so many people still care about what songwriter Don McLean so famously called "the day the music died."

"It was the locus point for that last performance by these great artists," said Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "It warrants being fixed in time."

Clear Lake is an unlikely spot for a rock 'n' roll pilgrimage especially in winter. The resort town of about 8,000 borders its namesake lake, and on winter days the cold and wind make the community 100 miles north of Des Moines anything but a tourist destination.