The 3rd of February is a day that may not come to mind as significant among those we know in our daily lives, since events that took place on that day in the year 1959 are now history from fifty years ago. But if most people were asked if they knew how Buddy Holly died, even a good percentage of today’s younger generation would know he died in a plane crash. However, ask them who else died in that plane and the number of knowledgeable contestants would drop. Then, ask them what day of the year that was and you’d be lucky to get an answer from anyone who wasn’t a diehard music fan or a resident of Lubbock, Texas, where Charles Hardin (Buddy) Holley was born.
Regardless, the 3rd of February in 2009 will mark the 50th Anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson, all successful, famous, and young musicians who were tragically lost in a plane crash in Iowa. The pilot who died was Roger Peterson. The aircraft that went down was a Beechcraft Bonanza, going down only minutes after takeoff. While there is no doubt the passengers of the four-seat aircraft died on impact, the wreckage wasn’t discovered until hours after the crash, and then only 8 miles from the airport.
The incident demonstrates many tragic things, but also shows how history of the world could be so different should the slightest change have taken place during the historic moment. The case in point is that Richardson died in that crash, but was on the plane in the first place after begging Waylon Jennings, who was among Holly’s backup band, for his seat because he was battling the flu. Valens won his seat in a coin toss with Tommy Allsup, another backup band member. For the world, things were truly this close for Waylon Jennings to be known to the world for a very different reason than for what we know now.
This is seen as such a tragedy in the realm of modern music because Holly, who died at the age of 22 with a music career spanning a mere year and a half, is recognized as among the most influential in the history of Rock & Roll. Numerous musicians of great fame and success attribute Holly as being a great influence in their professional careers, including Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and even The Rolling Stones. During his short time with us, he created so much music that his record label, Decca, continued releasing ‘new’ Buddy Holly music for nearly a decade after his passing.
Ritchie Valens is also recognized as an influential musician, and he died at the tender age of 17 with a music career spanning less than a year. But in that year, he became the forefather of what’s called Chicano Rock, and his song ‘La Bamba’ is still among the most recognizable songs in rock history. He was born as Richard Valenzuela, but took on the name Ritchie with the’t’ to be a bit different, and Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records suggested shortening Ritchie’s name to Valens to appeal to the white listeners. The thing is that Valens accomplished more in that short career than many musicians hope to accomplish in a much longer career. He worked with many of the top names of the day, including Buddy Holly, Paul Anka, Chuck Berry, and even appeared twice on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Many successful musicians recognize Valens as a big influence, including Carlos Santana. Los Lobos is another band influenced by Ritchie’s style, and they performed the bulk of the music in the movie of Valens’s life, starring Lou Diamond Phillips. Ritchie Valens was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
J.P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson may be the least recognized name among the three musicians who died in that infamous crash, but his song ‘Chantilly Lace’ is widely known even today. Richardson had done several jobs before losing his life with the others, including a stint as Radar Operator for the Army, and Supervisor of Announcers for radio station at KTRM, which is now KZZB. He adopted the nickname, ‘The Big Bopper’, after the popular song, ‘The Bop’. In May of 1957, Richardson accomplished a world record by continually broadcasting on the radio for 5 days, 2 hours, and 8 minutes. While he started his music career through song writing, his hit, ‘Chantilly Lace’ helped launch a career that was tragically cut short on the 3rd of February by a plane crash.
That plane crash and the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper is why this day is referred to as The Day the Music Died.
The Winter Dance Party was a three-week tour through several Midwestern cities featuring these and other musicians, and while famous, was surely infamous to the musicians due to the inexcusable conditions of the accommodations, including a poorly running bus with no proper heat, which caused Richardson’s flu and even frostbite requiring hospitalization on the feet of drummer Carl Bunch. That hospitalization prevented Bunch from being on that plane. In fact, it was due to Holly’s disgust with the tour’s accommodations that led him to seek the plane flight that took their lives. It is said that when Jennings agreed to take the bus, Holly said, “I hope your old bus freezes up,” to which Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your old plane crashes.”
That statement is said to haunt Waylon Jennings to this day.
Don McLean immortalized the touching phrase “The Day the Music Died’ in his world-famous song, ‘American Pie’. It would be interesting to know how many people grew up loving that song and never knew the significance of that phrase.