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The Day the Music Died

LUBBOCK, TX – NOVEMBER 08: The headstone of Buddy Holly at the City of Lubbock Cemetery on November 8, 2008 in Lubbock, Texas. Februray 3, 2009 will be the 50th anniversary of what is referred to as “The Day The Music Died” when musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Fifty-four years ago a small plane took off from Mason City, Iowa carrying four passengers. Their destination was Moorhead, Minnesota but the plane crashed five miles northwest of the airport. On board the plane was Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson.

The Flight

Buddy Holly was asked to join a rock and roll tour called the “Winter Dance Party.” Other acts on the three-week midwestern tour were Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson.

Due to the cold weather and the broken down buses used in the tour many of the band had caught cases of the flu and one drummer had to be hospitalized for frostbite.

On the eleventh night of the tour in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly himself was not feeling well and decided to charter a plane for the next leg of the trip to Minnesota. The cost in 1959 was $36 per passenger or about $290 in today’s dollars.

The Holly back up band consisted of Tommy Allsup (guitar), future country western star Waylon Jennings (bass), and Carl Bunch (drums.) According to accounts, Jennings gave up his seat on the plane. Tired of riding the bus, Ritchie Valens won his seat on the doomed aircraft in a coin toss between himself and guitarist Tommy Allsup.

The Crash

Leaving the airport in the middle of the night, the crash went unreported until the following day. The bodies lay in the frozen snow all night before being discovered. No one knew that pilot Roger Peterson did not have an instrument rating at the time of the flight and that was a major factor in the crash of the plane.

Buddy Holly

Holly was a genuine pioneer of American Rock and Roll music. He formed the standard for rock and roll bands. Two guitars, bass and drums were all that was needed in rock at the time. He was one of the first performers to write, produce and perform his own songs. He proposed to his wife in their very first date.

María Elena Holly  was pregnant at the time of the crash and heard her husband had been killed on the news and suffered a miscarriage the following day. From that time on news organizations were not allowed to release names until next of kin had been officially notified of their passing.

Ritchie Valens

Valens was the youngest to die in the crash at the age of 17. Until being discovered he mostly performed as a solo act in Southern California at parties and movie theaters. Record producers in an effort to broaden his audience appeal shortened his real last name, Valenzuela, to Valens.

His biggest hit was “LaBamba” a Spanish song that he modified to a rock and roll beat and sang phonetically since he didn’t speak Spanish. His story is told in a movie by the same name starting Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens.

J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson

Most people know “the big bopper” from his one big hit “Chantilly Lace.” However, Richardson got his start as a radio DJ and named himself after a popular dance craze at the time called the “bop.”

He holds the record for most continuous time on the air by a radio personality by performing for five days, two hours, and eight minutes. He played 1,821 records and took showers between five-minute newscasts.

Richardson was also a songwriter and wrote two hits for other artists. He penned “Running Bear” for his friend Johnny Preston and also wrote George Jones #1 hit “White Lightning.”

Some Final Thoughts

I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up during the golden age and birth of rock and roll. It wasn’t just the music that changed our lives, it’s the experiences we had growing up during that time to that music. Drive-In movies, hot cars, dance crazes, famous DJ’s on the radio and the ability to see all these great talents in traveling shows like the one Buddy Holly was doing.

Their music inspired all the great bands that followed. Their kind will never pass this way again. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and others based their musical philosophies on the work of these musical pioneers. It most certainly was, “The Day the Music Died.”

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