Most people have heard about the tragedy that occurred on February 3, 1959 . It was quite possibly the most tragic day in Entertainment History. It was the day that music stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash. It’s also known as “The Day The Music Died.” (If you don’t know the story, please read my post Today We Remember: February 3, 1959: The Day The Music Died )
That day, the world lost three amazingly talented young men in an accident that probably could have been avoided. As I learn more about that horrible tragedy, details come out that might or might not be considered trivial, but at any rate they are history; a part of an event that has been honored for decades since.
If you find any errors that need correcting, please contact me. I will be happy to revise any errors, just don’t jump down my throat.
This post is written for those interested in learning further information. It is by no means a complete list of facts, nor do I claim these facts to be 100% accurate.
The information in this entry comes from various biographies, documentaries and similar sources on the topic. This entry has been written in my own words, and has not been copied verbatim from any sources.
Facts & Trivia: The Day The Music Died
Ritchie Valens had a fear of flying. It stemmed from having a couple of his good friends die in a plane crash back in school. Going on tour meant getting over his fear, which he did.
On the tour, Ritchie played the drums after Carl Bunch was sent to the hospital.
Ritchie won a seat on the ill-fated flight by winning a coin toss with Tommy Allsup.
The coin tossed was a 50 cent piece.
When Ritchie won the coin toss he said: “I’ve never won anything before!”
At the time of his death, Ritchie was showing minor cold symptoms.
Ritchie died 3 months and 10 days before his 18th Birthday.
Buddy had no planned set of songs to sing on the Winter Dance Party ’59 tour. He always opened with “Gotta Travel On”, then decided what to sing from there.
In addition to his own hit songs, Buddy also performed “Salty Dog Rag” on the tour. There are no known recordings of him singing that song.
Buddy (as well as Ritchie) filled in for the drummer in some of the shows.
The last song that Buddy Holly performed was Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”.
At the time of his death, Buddy did not appear to be showing any cold or flu symptoms.
Buddy’s final photo was taken from the audience by a young woman named Mary Gerber.
In his final phone call made in the dressing room of the Surf Ballroom, Buddy Holly told his wife, Maria Eléna that all he wanted was some clean clothes and a warm bed to sleep in.
Maria Eléna was supposed to go on tour with Buddy as she always did. But she was pregnant and not feeling well. Shortly after the tragedy, she miscarried.
Buddy’s trademark glasses were not found until the snow melted in the cornfield that April. After that, they sat 21 years in a drawer at the police department in Cerro Gordo county. His wife won them in a dispute against Buddy’s parents.
Buddy Holly was 22 years and 5 months old when he died.
J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper)
J.P. Richardson’s wife, Adrienne was 7 months pregnant at the time of the tragedy. She gave birth to a boy, Jay Richardson, that April.
J.P. purchased a sleeping bag from an army store to keep himself warm on the bus.
At the time of his death, J.P. had the cold virus that was going around, which is what prompted Waylon Jennings to give up his seat to him.
It was J.P.’s first and last tour.
J.P. wrote the hit “Running Bear” (by Johnny Preston) It was released after J.P.’s death and was a huge hit in early 1960.
J.P. Richardson was 28 years and 3 months old when he died.
Tommy Allsup, 27, flipped a coin with Ritchie Valens to see who would get the seat on the plane. He lost the toss, thereby saving his life. He died in 2017 at the age of 85.
Strangely enough, that night, Buddy asked Tommy to check if they had everything. This was not a usual request. Tommy went to check anyway, and ran into Ritchie Valens who begged one more time to go on the plane. That’s when they had the coin toss.
When the bus got to Fargo, Tommy went to the hotel and asked for a room next to Buddy’s. He was then informed that Buddy never arrived.
The only way Tommy and Waylon could handle doing the show in Moorhead on the night of February 3rd was to get extremely drunk .
Waylon Jennings played electric bass on the tour. Although he was billed as a Cricket, he never considered himself one.
Waylon kindly gave up his seat to J.P. who had a cold. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this saved Waylon’s own life.
Waylon’s mother was shocked and relieved to hear from him. The first news she heard was that “Buddy Holly and his bandmates” were killed in a plane crash. (That would have included Waylon.)
After the accident, Waylon put Buddy’s guitar in a locker and mailed the keys to Buddy’s wife.
Waylon was forever haunted by his final exchange with Buddy Holly. Before getting on the plane, Buddy joked, “I hope your ole bus freezes up again.” To which Waylon replied, “Well, hell, I hope your ole plane crashes.”
Waylon was grateful for the friendship he had with Buddy Holly and credits Buddy with giving him his start in the music industry.
Waylon Jennings passed away on February 13, 2002 at the age of 64.
Carl Bunch, the 16-year-old drummer, suffered frost bite and was sent to get medical attention. He found out about the tragedy when he called his mother from the hospital.
Carl and Ritchie became very good friends on the tour.
Carl was in awe of Buddy; he was his idol. Playing in his band was a dream come true.
Buddy looked out for young Carl. He wouldn’t let him gamble, even though Carl wanted to. Buddy told him, “I don’t pay you enough.”
Buddy’s nickname for Carl was “Goose”.
After Buddy’s death, Buddy’s father, L.O. Holley, told Carl that he should continue on with the tour because people paid for tickets.
Carl, Tommy and Waylon didn’t get paid for the tour dates after Buddy Holly’s death. They went home with less money than they set out with.
Dion (and The Belmonts)
When the bus broke down in a blizzard, Dion and The Belmonts began lighting paper on fire to keep warm, but they were told to stop.
Young Dion was not a contender for a seat on the plane because he could not afford the $33 plane fare. It was more than his rent at the time.
In an interview, Dion recalls February 3, 1959. He remembers he and his tour mates gathering around a TV in Fargo and seeing the news report that 3 Rock N Roll stars were killed in a plane crash.
Frankie Sardo was the opening act for Winter Dance Party ’59. He was a little-known singer from New York who was born in Sicily, Italy.
Frankie’s hit “Fake Out” was misspelled on the advertising poster as “Take Out”.
The tour had a total of 12 buses, many of which had no heat and were frequently breaking down.
The performers entertained themselves by gambling with dice on the bus.
The tour dates were so disorganized that the schedule has been described as if someone were “throwing darts” at a map to decide where they’d go next.
The Final Venue
The final venue for Buddy, Ritchie, and J.P. was The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA. It is now a National Historical Landmark.
The Surf Ballroom was built in 1933. In 1947 it burned to the ground. It was rebuilt and reopened across the street from the original location in 1948.
The date of Buddy, Ritchie and J.P.’s final show was February 2, 1959 (Groundhog Day)
The ticket price for the show was $1.25. The show was for ages 12- 21 only.
The final show for the three lost stars was sponsored by KRIB Mason City (1490 on your dial!) The station still has tribute shows to the victims each year.
Since 1979, The Surf has hosted a 3-day concert also called “Winter Dance Party” in honor of the lost stars. A vast array of legendary artists have played there and fans have visited from all over the world.
The plane was a 1947 single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza model 35 with the registration number N3794N. It had no known defects. However, that particular model was known for crashing due to the aerodynamics of the V-shaped tail.
The Beechcraft Bonanza model 35 was especially designed for people with high-paying jobs who frequently traveled, such as doctors.
The Beechcraft Bonanza model 35 was advertised as being heated with ample room for luggage and had a max. speed of 184 mph and a cruising speed of 175.
The flight’s destination was Fargo, ND. The next tour date was in Moorhead, MN, which is only 1.3 miles from Fargo.
The pilot was 21 year old Roger Peterson, a family man from Mason City.
The plane took off from Mason City Airport at 12:55 AM CT.
The estimated flight time was four minutes before the plane crashed into a cornfield, just a few miles away from The Surf Ballroom.
The estimated time of the crash is 1:04 AM, CT.
They were traveling at approximately 170 mph when they crashed.
The crash was most likely due to spatial disorientation when the pilot flew into an area with little to no visibility.
Jerry Dwyer, owner of Dwyer Flying Service, set out to retrace the plane’s route when the flight failed to show up in Fargo. He found the crash site at approximately 10 AM CT.
News of the crash didn’t reach the public until around 3PM.
Found among the bodies at the crash site were the following items:
- a .22 caliber Colt pistol belonging to Buddy Holly
- Buddy’s broken watch, stopped at approx. 1:17
- candy bars
There has been speculation regarding Buddy Holly’s gun since it had been shot. One theory is it went off in the cockpit. This has never been proven and is not likely the case. The other theory was that J.P. Richardson committed suicide out of desperation after the plane crashed. This was disproven when his body was exhumed in 2007.
Teen idol Bobby Vee performed for the first time onstage when he filled in on the night of February 3, 1959.
Other stars who came onto the tour after the deaths of the three headliners were: Frankie Avalon (who previously toured with Buddy and The Crickets in the Summer of ’58) and newcomer, Fabian.
Eddie Cochran was supposed to be on the tour, but was busy in CA doing a project for Dick Clark. 14 months later Cochran died in a car crash in Bath, England. He was 21.
Also interesting to note: In the early afternoon of February 3, 1959, American Airlines flight 320 crashed into the Hudson River in NY killing 65 of the 73 people on board. (The Very. Same. Day.)
Thank you for reading. If you want further information, there are some good videos on You Tube and many far more detailed articles about the tragedy throughout the internet.
Documentaries are also available. I highly recommend “The Music of Buddy Holly and The Crickets: The Definitive Story”
Regarding biopics, they are entertaining, but I suggest you do further research and cross-referencing if you are looking for actual facts.
And of course there are books; but always consider who, where and when they were written, and most of all, why.
Listen to “The Grooveyard” following “Rick’s Redneck Ranch” each Saturday night at 7 PM on 88.1 FM on Long Island or by clicking the 88.1 FM link on wcwp.org, via the TuneIn app. or the WCWP app on your iPhone or Android device. You can also follow us on Twitter.
Join us for the Greatest Hits and Forgotten Favorites on. . .