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The Day the Music Died: The Plane Crash Which Killed Buddy Holly

Music | April 4, 2018

View of American rock and roll musician Buddy Holly's gravestone in Lubbock, Texas, 1975. The gravestone reads 'In loving memory of our own Buddy Holly, September 7, 1936 - February 3, 1959.' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Don McLean is a legendary American folk singer with scores of popular songs to his credit. He knew early on that music was in his soul and looked up to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly; Holly being his all-time favorite rock and roll musician. He was an extremely deep thinker and some of his songs had a gloomy undertone about them.

Buddy Holly Was Don McLean’s idol.

When Buddy Holly died, rock and roll seemed to come to a standstill.

When that record deal didn’t do anything to further McLean’s career, he was thinking he might be on his way to being “all washed up.” He decided to make a last-ditch effort to record another album and go for broke. He drew on his admiration for Buddy Holly as inspiration for the next album. Buddy Holly had unexpectedly died in a tragic plane crash at an early age. He was lost but not forgotten so McLean decided to, “bring Buddy Holly back to life,” to use his exact words.

February 3, 1959, was the day that rock and roll suffered, possibly, its most tragic loss. Four lives were lost on that cold winter night near Clear Lake, Iowa: the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Roger Peterson, the pilot that was hired supposed to take them to Fargo. Subsequently, this day would come to be known as, “The Day the Music Died.” This after Don McLean’s 1971 song, “American Pie” was released.

How could this heartbreaking accident happen?

It all started when Buddy Holly left his band the, Crickets, in November 1958. He departed in order to go to New York and become more active in the music industry; more specifically, publishing and recording. Soon after, Buddy Holly planned his “Winter Dance Party” tour. The winter tour was to take place throughout the northern Midwest.

The Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson

For purposes of the tour, Holly formed a band, along with Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar), and Carl Bunch (drums). Frankie Sardo joined in with the supporting vocals. Other musicians joined the tour as support artists, including Ritchie Valens (La Bamba), J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (Chantilly Lace) and Dion DiMucci and his band The Belmonts.

Their first show was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. From the get go, the logistics of the tour proved to be challenging. When making the schedule, the tour manager didn’t leave adequate travel time in between gigs. To add to their problems was that the bus the group was traveling on was uncomfortable and not suitable for the cold weather they came to experience.

The touring artists continued the journey in a school bus after their tour bus’s heat failed.

The bus’s heating system broke down, leaving the group exposed to freezing cold temperatures in the Midwest winter season. Soon after, the touring musicians began coming down with the flu. In such close quarters, it started to spread among the artists very soon. Eventually, a school bus, of all things, ended up being more comfortable than the tour bus they set out in.

What happened next was nothing that anyone could have foreseen. Monday, February 2, 1959 the touring musicians arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa. This stop had actually been a last minute detour. A gig was added to their calendar to fill an empty spot. The group had been booked at a local venue, the Surf Ballroom.

In the meantime, Buddy Holly was becoming increasingly frustrated by the poor conditions on the tour bus and decided charter himself a flight to Fargo, North Dakota. He planned to leave directly after the gig at the Surf Ballroom. He was determined to take a much needed, although short break before rejoining the tour in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Carroll Anderson, the Surf Ballroom manager, arranged a flight for Holly with the Dwyer Flying Service, a company in Mason City, Iowa.

The flight was booked on a 1947 single-engine, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza. The airplane was equipped to seat three passengers plus the pilot, for a total of 4. The designated pilot was Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old local boy with experience of 711 flying hours. The flight price was a mere $36 per passenger.

A V-tailed Bonanza, a plane similar to the one in the fateful crash.

The only problem with this new plan was that there weren’t enough seats for the entire group. They immediately began to make arrangements regarding who would take the remaining two seats on the plane. Richardson had the flu, so he wanted to take a break from the tiresome bus journey. He asked Waylon Jennings for his seat, and Jennings gave it to him.

When Holly heard about this, he jokingly said to Jennings, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings immediately responded, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”

This parting remark would haunt Jennings for the rest of his life. Another deal was made between Ritchie Valens and Tommy Allsup. A coin toss decided the next and final passenger to board the plane; a game of chance in which Valens won the seat.

The young and talented, Richie Valens.

The show ended, and Holly, Valens, and Richardson were taken to the Mason City Municipal Airport for their flight. The weather reports for the time of departure looked fine, but bad some bad weather was reported on their route. This report was never received by their pilot.

They took off at exactly 00:55, Central Time, on Tuesday, February 3, 1959. There was nothing initially remarkable about the flight. Their take-off was seen by the owner of the Dwyer Flying Service. He stated that the tail light of the aircraft was visible for almost the whole time during their tragically short flight. The plane made an initial left turn, climbed to 800 feet, and then the tail light started to lose altitude until it fell out of sight. Five minutes later, Peterson failed to make the initial radio call; Dwyer tried calling back but without any success.

The wreckage that was found at the scene of the accident was horrific.

Later in the morning, there was still no communication from Peterson, the pilot. Dwyer decided to take another plane and fly on the same route in an effort to check on the group. A few minutes after take-off, only six miles northwest of the airport, he found the devastating wreckage. The local sheriff drove to the cornfield where the plane crashed and began processing the scene.

The plane had hit the ground at high speed with its nose down. The right wing tip struck first which made the plane roll across the cornfield for about 540 feet. The plane stopped when it reached the wire fence at the end of the field.

Buddy Holly wasn’t the only talented musical artist lost in that plane crash. The tragedy took the lives of three great musicians too soon.

The lifeless bodies of the passengers were immediately found. Buddy Holly and Richie Valens were completely ejected from the plane and found near the wreckage. J.P. Richardson was found over a fence in a neighboring field, while, the pilot, Peterson’s body was trapped inside the wrecked fuselage.

The coroner stated that all of the four victims died on impact.

News about the tragic accident spread fast and soon reached the families of the victims. María Elena, Holly’s pregnant wife, heard about the death of her husband from the TV news reports. She was devastated, and soon she suffered a miscarriage because of the psychological trauma.

Buddy Holly’s young wife had become a widow after only six months of marriage.

While families and friends were grieving and burying their loved ones, the “Winter Dance Party” continued; Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup continued playing for the next two weeks. Jennings took Holly’s place as lead singer. This was a great loss for the families of these remarkable people, but also to the world of music.

Since 1979, fans of Holly, Valens, and Richardson have been gathering for annual concerts at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, in the memory of the early departed artists.

McLean had actually been contemplating just such a project for a long time. To McLean, the song, American Pie, which was the title track of his next album, was ultimately a reverent nod to his idol, Holly. Holly’s death had left a lasting void in McLean’s life, so the song proved to be very therapeutic. The opening lyrics of the song actually have personal meaning to McLean. He had really been a paperboy who learned that his favorite rock and roll star, Buddy Holly, had died in a plane crash. He was delivering the daily newspaper when he saw the headlines. It was crushing.

The meaning of the iconic song is considered to be somewhat ambiguous but that is by deliberate design. McLean wrote, American Pie, to symbolize the end of an era that began its decline coinciding with the death of Holly. He had more than one message to get out, but the main gist of the song was to have been the interpretation of his assessment of the “state” of American society at the time. The song was both soulful and mournful.

American Pie’s lyrics reference a lot of diverse characters. Besides Miss American Pie, the characters include a jester, a king, a queen and some good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye. It also makes refereces to Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin (some say, John Lennon), the Beatles, the Byrds, James Dean, Charles Manson, the Rolling Stones, the Vietnam War; and last but not least, the “widowed bride,” was to have been a reference to Jackie Kennedy. The characters were to represent the “real person.” It was a plethora of McLean’s emotions that spilled out in to one song.

This next album, American Pie, fared much better than the last. The album and the song itself ended up being a larger than life classic. The title track became a No. 1 hit and became synonymous with the phrase, “the day the music died.” It may well be among the best-known pieces of music in the world.

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.