The day is immortalized in the legendary Don McLean song “American Pie.” It was a day that saddened music lovers all over the world and shocked the music industry. It was the day the music died.
We are of course referring to the plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa, that claimed the lives of rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The crash, which occurred on February 3, 1959, is now over fifty years old. Let’s explore some of the details of “the day the music died.”
The Winter Dance Party began at the Eagles Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 23, 1959. It featured the aforementioned stars, Dion Deuce as well as an aspiring teen idol named Frankie Sardou. The tour was set to cover twenty-four Midwestern cities in a span of three weeks. The tour was a logistical nightmare with the amount of travel that was required. Adding to this problem was a tour bus that was ill-equipped to deal with the weather conditions in that part of the country; its heating system broke down shortly after the tour began. In fact, one musician, drummer Carl Bunch, developed a severe case of frostbite to his feet that required hospitalization (Holly and Valens took turns on the drums). It got so cold on the bus that the musicians started burning newspapers in the aisle in a desperate attempt to keep warm.
What’s interesting is that the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was not intended to be a stop on the tour, but the promoters, hoping to fill an open date, contacted the manager of the establishment and offered him the show. He accepted and the date was set for February 2nd.
However, Holly was so frustrated and tired of the malfunctioning tour bus that he told his fellow musicians that, once the show was over, they should attempt to charter a plane to get to the next stop on the tour; which was Moorhead, Minnesota. So flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, who was a local pilot employed at Dwyer Flying Service, based in Mason City, Iowa. The fee was $36 per passenger and the single-engine plane could seat three musicians in addition to the pilot.
But there was a dilemma, who would fly and who would get to the next destination via the tour bus? Obviously, Holly and the pilot were aboard which left two seats open. Dion was approached to buy a seat, but he thought that the price of $36 was way too much. He recalled his parents arguing about the rent, which coincidently was $36 per month and he could not bring himself to pay an entire month’s rent for a short plane ride.
J.P. Richardson had come down with a bout of the flu and asked one of Holly’s band mates, Waylon Jennings, for his seat on the plane and Jennings gave up his seat. Ritchie Valens, who was also feeling the effects of the freezing tour bus, asked Holly’s other band mate Tommy All sup for his seat. Allsup replied that he would flip a coin, with the winner getting the last seat on the plane. Now, contrary to what has been depicted in the biographical movies, the coin toss was not done by Holly; nor did it occur at the airport. The coin toss occurred at the Ballroom shortly before they departed for the airport and was actually done by a DJ who was working the concert that night.
The plane took off at 1 a.m. on February 3, 1959 from Mason City Municipal Airport. Approximately 1:05 a.m., Jerry Dwyer, owner of Dwyer Flying Service could see the lights of the plane start to descend from the sky to the ground. The pilot was supposed to file his flight plan once airborne, but he never contacted the tower. By 3:30 a.m., after multiple attempts to contact his pilot and the fact that the airport in Fargo, Minnesota had not heard from Peterson, Dwyer contacted the authorities to report the plane missing.
The doomed aircraft had just made it a few miles from the airport. The pilot (who was not certified to fly at night) may have been confused by the darkness and the light snow that was falling. The plane hit the ground nose first at an estimated 150mph killing all four men instantly.
In 1976, when the first Buddy Holly Week was held, Paul McCartney was presented with the cuff links Buddy Holly wore the night of the crash. McCartney purchased the rights to Holly’s song publishing and began organizing the annual celebration five years later.
On February 29, 1980, an old police file containing Buddy Holly’s horn rimmed glasses and a watch owned by J. P. Richardson were located by the Mason City Sheriff. The items were recovered at the crash site.
In the 2000 film Almost Famous, the band's plane is caught in bad weather, at which point one of the band members begins to sing the Buddy Holly song "Peggy Sue.”
Deciding that the show must go on at the next stop, Moorhead, MN, they looked for local talent to fill in. Just across the state line from Moorhead, in Fargo ND, they found a 15 year old talent named Bobby Vee.
The crash that ended the lives of Holly, Valens, and Richardson was the break that began the career of Vee.
Tommy Allsup would one day open a club named "The Head's Up Saloon," a tribute to the coin toss that saved his life.
Waylon Jennings would become a hugely popular Country singer.
Dion DiMucci would enjoy a long lived solo career.
Valens was a pioneer of Chicano rock, Latin rock and was an inspiration to many musicians of Latino heritage. He influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana among countless others at a time when there were very few Latinos in American rock and pop music. He is considered the first Latino to ever successfully cross over into Rock mainstream.
"La Bamba" would prove to be his most influential recording; not only by becoming a pop chart hit sung entirely in Spanish but also because of its successful blending of traditional Latin American music with rock. He was a pioneer and was an inspiration for many after his tragic death. Valens was the first to capitalize on this formula which would later be adopted by such varied artists as Selena, Caifanes, Cafe Tacuba, Circo, El Gran Silencio, Aterciopelados, Gustavo Santaolalla, and many others in the Latin Alternative scene. Ironically, the Valenzuela family spoke only English at home, and Ritchie knew very little Spanish. Ritchie learned the lyrics of "La Bamba" phonetically in order to record the song in Spanish.
"Come on Let's Go" has been covered by Los Lobos, The Ramones and "The Paley Brothers”; (jointly, The Ramones on guitar, bass, and drums and The Paley Brothers on vocals), Tommy Steele, The Huntingtons and The McCoys.
"Donna" has been covered by artists as diverse as MxPx, Cliff Richard, The Youngbloods, Clem Snide, Cappadonna, and The Misfits among many others.
Robert Quine has cited Valens' guitar playing as an early influence on his style.
Donna Ludwig, Ritchie's girlfriend, is today still recognized as "Ritchie's Donna.” Her personalized license plate reads "ODONNA.”
Ritchie's nephew, Ernie Valens, has toured worldwide playing his uncle's songs, including a new version of the "Winter Dance Party" tour with Buddy Holly impersonator John Mueller. This tour has taken place at many of the original 1959 venues in the Midwest.
Valens also appeared in biopic films. Valens was depicted in the 1987 biopic film La Bamba, which was about his life. The film's time period was from 1957 to 1959, in which his age was 16 to 17. It introduced Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens and co-starred Esai Morales as his older half-brother, Bob Morales. Los Lobos performed most of the music in the film.
Valens was portrayed by Gilbert Melgar in the final scene of The Buddy Holly Story and Valens will also be depicted in the upcoming 2009 film The Day the Music Died. Valens will be portrayed by Joseph Thornhillas in the 2009 film Lives and Deaths of the Poet.
Notably, he has toured on the "Winter Dance Party" tour with Buddy Holly impersonator John Mueller on some of the same stages as his father performed.
In January 2007, Richardson's son Jay requested that his father's body be exhumed and an autopsy be performed to settle the rumors that a gun was fired or that Richardson initially survived the crash. The autopsy was performed by Dr. Bill Bass, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Jay was present with Dr. Bass throughout the entire autopsy and observed as the casket was opened; both men were surprised to find the remains well enough preserved to be recognizable as those of the late rock star. "Dad still amazes me 48 years after his death, that he was in remarkable shape," Richardson told the Associated Press. "I surprised myself. I handled it better than I thought I would."
Dr. Bass' findings indicated there were no signs of foul play. He was quoted as saying "There are fractures from head to toe. Massive fractures. ... (Richardson) died immediately. He didn't crawl away. He didn't walk away from the plane."
After the autopsy, Richardson's body was placed in a new casket made by the same company as the original, then was reburied next to his wife in Beaumont's Forest Lawn Cemetery. Jay then allowed the old casket to be put on display at the Texas Musician's Museum.
Buddy Holly Monument
McCartney owns the publishing rights to Holly's song catalogue.
A young Bob Dylan attended the January 31, 1959 show, two nights before Holly's death. Dylan referred to this in his 1998 Grammy acceptance speech for his 1997 Time out of Mind winning Album of the Year.
Various rock and roll histories have asserted that the singing group The Hollies were named in homage to Buddy Holly. According to the band's website, although the group admired Holly (and years later produced an album covering some of his songs), their name was inspired primarily by the sprigs of holly in evidence around Christmas of 1962.
After the death of Buddy he would leave a trail of followers from Bob Dylan, to Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, and The Beatles. Also, one of The Rolling Stones early hits was a cover of "Not Fade Away.”
Eddie Cochran, good friend and fellow rock 'n' roll pioneer was so distraught by the deaths of Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper that he recorded the song "Three Stars" as a tribute. The song was not released until after Cochran's own premature death, because he was too upset to allow it to be issued in his lifetime.
The Smithereens' song "Maria Elena" is a Buddy Holly tribute as sung to his widow.
Blink-182 has a song named "Peggy Sue" which is a tribute to Holly.
Buddy Holly on the Arthur Murray Dance Party 12/29/57
Phil Ochs famously sang a long tribute to Buddy Holly on the infamous Gunfight at Carnegie Hall album.
Mike Berry released a 1961 single called "Tribute to Buddy Holly.” It was written by Geoff Goddard and produced by Joe Meek, who was a great Buddy Holly fan. In the USA, it was released on Coral, Buddy Holly's label.
Weezer's self-titled debut album features the band's popular single "Buddy Holly.”
Musician Albert Hammond, Jr. has a cover of "Well... Alright" on his 2007 album Yours To Keep.
Don McLean's popular 1971 ballad "American Pie" is inspired by the day of the plane crash. He has also covered "Everyday.”
THE ANNOTATED AMERICAN PIE
(What the song is talkin' about!)
By Rich Kulawiec
The entire song is a tribute to Buddy Holly and a commentary on how rock and roll changed in the years since his death. McLean seems to be lamenting the lack of "danceable" music in rock and roll and (in part) attributing that lack to the absence of Buddy Holly et. al. (Verse 1)
A long, long time ago...
"American Pie" reached #1 in the US in 1972, but the album containing it was released in 1971. Buddy Holly died in 1959.
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance,
That I could make those people dance,
And maybe they'd be happy for a while
One of early rock and roll's functions was to provide dance music for various social events. McLean recalls his desire to become a musician playing that sort of music.
But February made me shiver,
Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during a snowstorm. The news came to most of the world on the morning of February 3, which is why it's known as The Day The Music Died.
With every paper I'd deliver,
Don McLean's only job besides being a full-time singer-songwriter was being a paperboy.
Bad news on the doorstep...
I couldn't take one more step.
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Holly's recent bride, Maria Elena, was pregnant when the crash took place; she had a miscarriage shortly afterward.
But something touched me deep inside,
The day the music died.
The same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also took the lives of Richie Valens ("La Bamba") and The Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace"). Since all three were so prominent at the time, February 3, 1959 became known as "The Day The Music dies”.
Bye bye Miss American Pie,
Miss American Pie *is* rock and roll music. Don McLean dated a Miss America candidate during the pageant. (unconfirmed)
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singing "This'll be the day that I die,
This'll be the day that I die."
One of Holly's hits was "That'll be the Day"; the chorus contains the line "That'll be the day that I die"