There are some days I sit down and wonder what I am going to write about, today is not one of those days. Today is the “day the music died” – 60 years ago. The phrase comes from the classic Don McLean song “American Pie.”
The Winter Dance Party Tour
In January of 1959, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts set out to do a tour of 24 Mid-West cities in 24 days. The first problem was that no one had really thought out the tour stops and instead of circling from town to town, the tour was zig-zagging from state to state and sometimes the travel between cities was over 400 miles!
What made this even more difficult was that almost all of the travel was done on buses and there were break downs, and some didn’t have heat. The artists and band members were the ones loading and unloading the buses. Due to the cold, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens were starting to feel ill, complaining of flu-like symptoms. After driving 350+ miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin, the tour arrived at Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2 to play the Surf Ballroom.
When they arrived it became clear that Buddy Holly was over all of the bus issues. After the Surf Ballroom show, the next stop was over 350 miles away in Minnesota. Because of the poor planning of tour stops, this meant that the buses would have to pass through towns they had already played. Buddy decided that he needed some rest and so he chartered a plane to take him and his band (which included Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Carl Bunch) to Fargo, North Dakota. They would rest there and get picked up by the buses when they came through town on their way to the gig.
There are a few versions of what happened next, but the widely accepted story is this: The Big Bopper, who was feeling the effects of the flu, asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. Waylon agreed to let him have the seat. (Some say that Waylon gave him his seat voluntarily.) One story says that when Buddy found out that Waylon was taking the bus instead of flying, he said “I hope your old bus freezes up” to which Waylon replied, “Well, I hope your old plane crashes”. In an interview later, Waylon said that even though the response was meant as a joke, his words still haunted him.
Richie Valens asked guitar player Tommy Allsup if he could have his seat aboard the plane. (There is some question as to whether Valens or the Big Bopper was the one with the flu.) It was decided that they would flip a coin to see who would get to go on the plane. A radio DJ who was working the show that night flipped a coin in a room off the stage and Richie Valens won the coin toss – and the seat. Ironically, Richie, at one time had a fear of flying.
After the show, the manager from the Surf Ballroom drove Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper to the airport. At the time the plane took off, there was light snow falling. The weather was supposed to get worse along the planned flight path. At 12:55 am, the plane took off from the airport. At 1:00, pilot Roger Peterson was supposed to radio to the airport to check in, but didn’t. The airport continued to try to reach him, but there was no answer.
In the morning, Hubert Dwyer, the owner of the flying service and the plane, took off in his own plane to retrace the path of the plane carrying Holly and the others. At about 9:30, less than 6 miles from the airport, he spotted the wreckage of the plane carrying the singers and pilot. The sheriff’s office was immediately dispatched to the cornfield where the plane had crashed, in Clear Lake, Iowa.
It is estimated that the plane hit the ground at almost 200 mph and did cartwheels before coming to a stop. The bodies of Buddy Holly and Richie Valens were thrown from the plane and were close to the crash site. The Big Bopper was ejected and thrown over a fence into a cornfield. The pilot’s body was wrapped up in the wreckage of the plane.
When this happened, there was no protocol for withholding names of victims before notifying their family. Because of this, Buddy Holly’s widow found out about her husband’s death from a TV news story about the crash. They had only been married 6 months at the time of his death, and she was pregnant. She suffered a miscarriage shortly after because of “psychological trauma”. She did not attend her husband’s funeral and has never visited his gravesite. She blames herself for him getting on the plane, stating that if she had been with him, he would not have got on the plane.
An investigation into the crash found that despite the fact that the pilot had passed his written flight test, and had flown many hours, he was not prepared to fly in situations where he must rely solely on instruments (Which he would have had to do on this flight because of weather conditions). Another possible factor is the older equipment on the plane may have cause the pilot to believe he was ascending, but instead was descending. He was also not properly briefed on the weather conditions that he was flying into.
The tour continued for a couple weeks afterward with Waylon Jennings taking on the role of lead singer. Bobby Vee came to national attention due to the crash, because he was brought onto the tour because he basically knew all the words to the songs.
22-year-old Buddy Holly left behind some songs that, despite his short career, have become rock and roll classics. Peggy Sue, Every Day, That’ll Be the Day, Rave On, True Love Ways, Raining In My Heart, and “I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Any More” remain on the play lists of oldies stations across the country. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has released an album of his music with his original vocals with a more orchestral background (they have done this with Elvis, Aretha Franklin, and Roy Orbison), giving the songs a fresh new sound.
The Big Boppper, AKA JP Richardson, will forever be remembered for his classic hits Chantilly Lace and The Big Bopper’s Wedding. He had a career as a radio DJ and also had great success as a songwriter. He wrote George Jones number one song “White Lightening” and Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear.” He was only 28 at the time of his death
Richie Valens was a mere 17 years old when he perished in the crash. His career was only just beginning, having begun just eight months earlier. He left behind three songs that remain fixtures in the first decade of rock and roll: Come One Let’s Go, Oh Donna, and, of course, La Bamba.
Like Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Jim Croce, John Lennon, and Stevie Ray Vaughn – all who left this world too young – we can only sit back and ponder how the face of music would have changed if they hadn’t died so young. Each of their careers cut short by a tragedy. Three voices silenced by fate.
Every year, there is a memorial concert held at the Surf Ballroom to honor the memory of these three rock and roll icons. Outside the venue is a four-foot tall monument that had the names of the pilot and the three singing legends. This was placed there in 1988. At the crash site, there is a large steel structure which looks like a pair of glasses (much like the ones Holly wore), which stands as a memorial.
The most popular tribute is Don McLean’s 1971 American Pie. The song refers to the date of the crash as “the day the music died”. While some take this song to be about Buddy Holly, McLean insists that while the crash is referenced in the song, it is not really about Holly – it’s “about America.” He states, “Buddy Holly’s death is what I used to try to write the biggest possible song I could write about America. And not a ‘This Land Is Your Land’ or America, the Beautiful” or something like that. I wanted to write a song that was completely brand new in its perspective.”
The song will no doubt be played many times on radio stations across the country today.
60 years later, artists such as The Beatles, Elton John, and Bob Dylan have all cited Buddy Holly as a musical influence. His songs have been covered by numerous artists including Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and Martina McBride. There have been movies made surrounding the lives of Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. And the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra album with Holly’s original vocals is available now, too.
So has the music really died? I don’t think so. Today, as we remember the 60th anniversary of their tragic deaths, we must also look back and remember their music and the mark that they left on musical history. Their voices may now be silent, but their influence continues to trickle down through music today. Rave On!