Buddy Holly And The Crash: Why The Day The Music Died Still Haunts Us

Culture | April 4, 2018

Buddy Holly poses for a portrait circa 1958 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

When Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959, rock and roll seemed to come to a standstill. Four lives were lost on that cold winter night near Clear Lake, Iowa: Holly, Ritchie Valens, J. P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, and Roger Peterson, the pilot who was hired to take them to Fargo. Holly was a 22-year-old rock innovator who'd scored a #1 hit two years earlier and had placed numerous other songs in the top 40. A decade later, singer Don McLean would aptly christen the date "the day the music died" in his biggest hit, "American Pie."

Buddy Holly Had Struck Out On His Own In The Weeks Before The Crash

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.

Holly Assembles His Band, And Supporting Acts

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. "Big Bopper" Richardson (known for the #6 hit "Chantilly Lace") and Dion DiMucci (who would later find chart success with "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer") and his band The Belmonts.

The Artists Suffered Extreme Cold Conditions On Their Tour Bus

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 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.

There Was Only Room On The Plane For Three Of The Musicians

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.

There Was Nothing Abnormal About The Flight, Initially

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 had 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.

The Event Was Emotionally Devastating For Family, Friends And Fans

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 dearly departed artists.

Tags: 1950s News | Air Travel In The 1950s | Buddy Holly | RIP (Famous Deaths) | The 1950s

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Rebeka Knott


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.