Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday. Also, join Alan Seltzer on The Grooveyard Saturday night as we pay tribute to “The Day the Music Died”.
Today we remember what is known as “The Day The Music Died”. If you’ve ever heard the 1971 song “American Pie” by Don McLean, in the song, he talks about “The Day The Music Died”. And this is what he was singing about.
It’s is a story you’ve probably heard a million times. But if not a million times, I’m hoping you’ve heard it at least once. It still remains, to this day, the most tragic event in entertainment history.
In early 1959, there was a tour called “Winter Dance Party ’59”. It featured the hottest acts at the time in the Music Industry. Each show was about 3 hours long and the headliners were Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, Dion and The Belmonts, Eddie Cochran and Frankie Sardo.
In those days, touring was pretty new to the industry. Record execs were just finding out what a gold mine they’d uncovered in marketing music to America’s Youth. The central hub of the United States in the 1950’s was the Northeastern Mid-West. Thus, many people were bringing up their families in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. Because of this, the early music tours centered around those general areas. It was a teen dream come true to see their favorite Radio Stars “live and in person”. The concept was simply thrilling.
For a moment, you will need to forget about what being on tour for stars is like these days. In the 1950’s, there were no “pimped out” tour-buses that resembled moving 5-star hotels. There were no 5-star hotels either. The Music Industry was just finding its footing, and while the stars of the day made far more money than the average man, they still were not getting paid millions upfront for a sold-out tour. When they went on tour in those days, they basically packed up, jumped on a bus and went. If they were lucky, they’d get to sleep in a decent hotel. Otherwise, they slept on the bus. The tours were poorly managed, (relative to those today which plan things down to the minute) and the acts had little notice as to booking and venues. Often, they got paid on-site at the venues after completing the shows.
So in short, similar to the stars in the early days of Major League Baseball, major recording stars did not have luxury accommodations.
Once you know that fact, you can see more easily what led up to this tragedy.
I’ve often heard this tour described as “ill-fated”, and it was, on no uncertain terms. What began as a normal 3-week tour ended up in tragedy just 11 days in. The tour began on January 23, 1959 in Milwaukee, WI. By the beginning of February, things had gone awry due mainly to the poor conditions on the tour bus. I don’t have to explain how cold it gets in the Northern Mid-West in January. Add to the mix that the bus did not have heat in the below freezing temperatures. And, of course, there were no cell phones to call for service help; people would have to go by foot to the nearest telephone, and hopefully, that wasn’t miles away.
To top it off, the flu was going around and spread quickly through the performers. After sitting for hours in freezing temperatures on their non-heated bus, drummer Carl Bunch got frost-bite and had to be sent to the nearest hospital. All this was happening while jumping from town to town with a schedule was completely non- logistical. (For example, one evening they would play in Iowa, then they’d go to all the way to Minnesota, then to Wisconsin and then all the way back to Iowa again.) It’s no wonder that by February 2nd, headliner Buddy Holly decided to take an alternative route to their next destination.
The final show for the departed singers was at the (now historical) Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was there that Buddy Holly chartered a private plane for himself and his two band members, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup.
The plan was for the three of them to pay a $33 fee per person (about $264 in today’s money) to the charter company to fly them to their next tour date in Moorhead, MN. By bus Moorhead was a good 5 hour drive which the performers were supposed to sleep through on a freezing cold bus, provided that it didn’t break down yet again. So it made perfect sense for Buddy to have chosen an alternative solution.
J.P. Richardson (aka “The Big Bopper”) was suffering from the flu. Waylon Jennings decided that it was only right to give up his seat on the plane to J.P. so that J.P. could get to a hotel and get some rest.
At some point, Ritchie Valens expressed his interest in escaping the bus nightmare for a place on the plane as well. Tommy Allsup agreed to flip a coin with Ritchie and whomever won would get the spot on the plane. Ritchie called heads and heads it was, sealing his fate.
The plane took off at 12:55 AM from Mason City Airport on February 3, 1959 in questionable weather conditions. There was no storm, but it was a dark, snowy night. The pilot, 21-year-old Roger Peterson did not have a license to fly by instruments or Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). His pilot’s license was only for Visual Flight Rules (VFR), yet he was about to take off in a situation that had the high potential for poor visibility. (Something that quite frankly, doesn’t make a lot of sense.)
From the ground, Buddy Holly’s best friend Waylon Jennings recalled seeing the tiny Beechcraft Bonanza take off. He and the others watched the plane’s tail lights until they faded from view.
The Day the Music Died
When the plane failed to show up the next morning at the airport in Moorhead, the owner of the charter company re-traced their route. Only a few miles from the Surf Ballroom itself, just outside of a cornfield, the wreckage of N3794N could be viewed from the air. The plane had crashed just shortly after takeoff.
When the Sheriff’s department finally arrived on the scene after 10 AM on February 3rd, 1959, it was clear that there were no survivors. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson were all ejected from the aircraft and lay motionless in the field. Roger Peterson’s body remained tangled inside the plane’s wreckage.
The Sheriff’s department removed the bodies of the 3 singers and sent them to Wilcox Funeral Home in Cerro Gordo County, IA where a basic post-mortem examination was performed.
The injuries were horrific and the bodies were barely recognizable. It was incomprehensible that just 24 hours before, they were three healthy, young men at the height of their careers.
The bodies were flown to their respective hometowns where they were laid to rest. A chapter in American History had closed, but would never be forgotten.
Charles Hardin Holley was born on September 7, 1936 to L.O. and Ella Pauline Holley in Lubbock, TX. He was the youngest of 4 children. Early on it was clear that Buddy (as he was always called by his family and friends) had inherited the musical talent on his mother’s side. He signed with Decca records soon after graduating from Lubbock High School. By 1957, he had received world-wide acclaim for his hits with The Crickets: “That’ll Be The Day”, “Oh Boy!” and “Peggy Sue”.
But Buddy was more than just a malt-shop hit maker. His early guitar work and song-writing skills were the inspiration to many current-day musical legends.
Buddy Holly will remain an International Legend and a National Treasure for the duration of mankind. He is repeatedly recognized as one of the main founding-fathers of Rock n Roll.
At the time of his death, he was just 22 years old.
Richard Steven Valenzuela was born on May 13, 1941 in Pacoima, CA.
Born with a natural talent for performing, Ritchie was discovered as a teen and blew the music industry away with his electric Rock n Roll adaptation of “La Bamba”. His other hits included chart-toppers “Come On Let’s Go” and “Donna”. At just 17 years old, Ritchie was beginning a bright career in Rock N Roll. His life was cut tragically short, but his music will never be taken from us.
Jiles Perry Richardson, JR. (known professionally as “The Big Bopper”) was born in Beaumont, TX on October 24, 1930. He began his career on local radio as an upbeat D.J., spinning the hits of early Rock n Roll. He is best known for the peppy sock-hop favorite “Chantilly Lace”. He was a family man and an American icon that will forever define the joys of early pop and rock music.
He was 28.