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'If I Leave Here Tomorrow:' Musicians Who Died In Plane Crashes

Music | October 5, 2018

Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, being interviewed on July 10, 1976 at Stouffer's Hotel in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

The course of rock 'n roll history took a turn when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper perished in a deadly airplane crash in Iowa -- an event Don McLean would later describe as "The Day the Music Died." Many musicians have died in plane crashes, among them Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Ronnie van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and John Denver. Most of the 12 hit-makers here were still in their artistic prime when they met their untimely ends -- just imagine how much more music they might have given us if these musicians hadn't died in airplane crashes.

"If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" Ronnie van Zant sang in "Freebird," a song some have called prophetic. Remember them? We couldn't forget the artists behind "Peggy Sue," "Crazy," "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay," "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," "Sweet Home Alabama," and "Country Roads, Take Me Home" if we tried.

February 3, 1959: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. 'Big Bopper' Richardson

Buddy Holly

The Day the Music Died – when Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. It was another case of an improperly trained pilot.  The group was on a Winter Dance Party Tour and, as they were traveling from one venue to another, there were problems that developed. Beginning with unheated tour buses that broke down twice in the freezing weather, things escalated when the drummer had to be put in the hospital with frostbite and Buddy decided to charter a four-seated airplane from Mason City, Iowa on to their next show in Moorhead, Minnesota. 

It was originally planned for Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup to be on that plane, but Waylon gave up his seat to J.P. because he had the flu and Tommy Allsup and Ritchie Valens tossed a coin for the other seat with Valens “winning” the toss. He said that it was the first time he ever won anything. The pilot was not certified to fly by instruments only so when they took off in the bad weather conditions, he was not able to properly control the plane due to spatial disorientation. Just after takeoff, around 1:00 am, on that fateful day, February 3, 1959, all four of them were killed instantly when the plane crashed into a cornfield only five miles northwest of the Mason City, Iowa airport.

March 5, 1963: Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of Patsy CLINE; Posed portrait (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

After the concert, due to inclement weather including heavy fog, Patsy Cline was not able to fly out from Fairfax airport. Dottie West and her husband offered her a ride with them back to Nashville, but she turned it down, saying “Don’t worry about me, Hoss. When it’s my time to go, it’s my time.” Instead, she made the mistake of going on a smaller plane with Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Randy Hughes, her manager. 

Randy Hughes was the pilot but was not properly trained. He and Jim Reeves were trained by the same trainer, who only trained them to navigate by VFR (visual flight rules) and not instrument flying so Randy was not prepared to fly in the driving rain and fog. It is also believed that he had spatial disorientation which complicated his ability to navigate. Jim Reeves’ plane also crashed a year later in a similar manner. Ryan had stopped to refuel in Dyersburg, Tennessee. The manager there suggested they spend the night and even offered them free rooms and food, but instead Randy just said, “I’ve already come this far. We’ll be there before you know it.” The plane took off again at 6:07 pm. Patsy Cline’s flight that night ultimately crashed. Later, when her wristwatch was recovered, it was noted that it had stopped at 6:20 pm on that fateful night. The plane was not found until the next morning 90 miles from their destination. It was determined that they all died instantly.  

In March of 1963, Patsy Cline, who sang “Crazy” and “Sweet Dreams,” did a benefit in Kansas City for the family of a disc jockey. There were other musicians at the benefit including George Jones and Dottie West. Patsy was sick with the flu that day but still gave three performances to standing room only crowds.

July 31, 1964: Jim Reeves

Jim Reeves

With one of his most popular hits being “Make the World Go Away,” Jim Reeves died in a plane crash at the height of his career in July of 1964. He and his business partner were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee after securing a real estate deal when they ran into a violent thunderstorm. Jim was flying the plane, who had been improperly trained for flying in hazardous weather.

An investigation showed that he suffered from spatial disorientation, which is the inability to determine your location, so he was unaware of being able to determine their location in reference to the ground. With both the lack of training and being disoriented, he could not effectively land the plane. They inevitably crashed into a wooded area not far from where he had planned to land but in the opposite direction of where he should have been heading.  

December 10, 1967: Otis Redding

Otis Redding in his last performance on the TV Show 'Upbeat' on December 9, 1967

Released on January 8, 1968, this song was written by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper and recorded by Otis Redding. He not only recorded it once but recorded it twice in 1967. The second time was just a few days before he died tragically in a plane crash. According to Cropper, Otis got the idea for the song while staying in a houseboat in San Francisco while watching the ships coming in and going out. Otis had planned on doing a “final version” of the song but never got the chance, because, on December 10 of that year, his plane crashed in Lake Monona, outside of Madison, Wisconsin, killing him and six others.

It’s kind of coincidental that his plane crashed into the water and this song is about watching ships from the shore of the water. Something else coincidental about the lyrics in the stanza of the song “I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay, Cause I’ve had nothing to live for, And look like nothin’s gonna come my way.” After his death, Cropper added the sound of seagulls and waves crashing into the background, because Otis had requested that, as he had heard those sounds while he was on the houseboat. 

September 20, 1973: Jim Croce

Jim Croce. Source: Pinterest

The phenomenally talented singer-songwriter Jim Croce released just a few albums during his life, but left a legacy of classics, including "Operator," "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," "I Got A Name," "Time In A Bottle," "You Don't Mess Around With Jim," and others. Croce and other passengers in his plane died when it crashed into a tree during takeoff from the Natchitoches (Louisiana) Airport. His hit single "I Got A Name" was released the following day.

October 20, 1977: Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Recognized for their songs “Sweet Home Alabama,”  and "Freebird," the group, Lynyrd Skynyrd boarded a flight from Greenville, South Carolina, after a performance on October 20, 1977, heading for Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The plan was to play the following night at LSU, but they met with tragedy after running out of fuel. As they attempted an emergency landing, they crashed into a forest five miles northeast of Gillsburg, Mississippi. Members of the group who died instantly that day were Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines (Steve’s sister), Dean Kilpatrick (assistant road manager), the pilot, and co-pilot. Others of the group that were not killed but seriously injured were Collins, Rossington, Wilkeson, Powell, Pyle, and Hawkins. Besides group members including the tour manager, Ron Eckerman and several road crew were also seriously injured.

Tragically, due to engine failure, technical malfunctions or pilot error,  lives have been lost and the talent of these musicians are gone forever, but will never be forgotten.  

December 31, 1985: Ricky Nelson

Ricky Nelson in 'Rio Bravo' (1959). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ricky Nelson was just 45 when he died, but he'd already had a longer career than most. He became a radio actor at age 8 when he began appearing on The Ozzie And Harriet Show with the rest of the Nelson family. He continued with the show when it made the switch to TV, where it aired from 1952-66. Nelson had a string of hits in his late teens and early 20s, including the chart-toppers "Poor Little Fool" (1958) and "Travelin' Man" (1961). 

October 12, 1997: John Denver

John Denver. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The singer-songwriter of "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine On My Shoulders," "Annie's Song," John Denver had been ever-present in the 1970s. He appeared on TV shows and even hosted several of his own, including Rocky Mountain Christmas. Kids of the '70s got to know Denver thanks to his frequent collaborations with Jim Henson and Henson's Muppets. Denver was a pilot, and was flying his own Rutan Long-EZ in 1997, with no other passengers aboard, when he fatally crashed into Monterey Bay.

Tags: Buddy Holly | Jim Reeves | Lynyrd Skynyrd | Otis Redding | Patsy Cline | Popular Lists Of Everything From The Groovy Era | RIP (Famous Deaths)

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Terry Claypoole


Terry is a lover of the beach, history, politics and has a passion for social media and technology. In her spare time, you can find her at the beach (of course) enjoying the sand and sun and listening to music from the groovy era.