Music fans the world over will forever remember the third of February as “The Day the Music Died.”
It all began on January 23, 1959, when the 24-city, three-week “Winter Dance Party Tour” kicked-off in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Buddy Holly, who left his band The Crickets just a few months prior and was now backed by a new band that comprised of Waylon Jennings and Carl Bunch, was part of the tour and so were musicians Dion and the Belmonts, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. But not long after the tour began, problems started to crop up like the organizers failing to consider the distance between venues and getting a tour bus that was inadequately equipped for the cold weather, with the latter causing the musicians to contract and spread flu among themselves. Brunch was even hospitalized for “severely frostbitten feet.”
On the night before the fatal accident, the group went on an unscheduled stop at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly, reportedly already at his wits’ end because of their faulty tour bus, decided to schedule for a chartered plane that would take him and a few others to Fargo in North Dakota, where they will then rejoin the others on their way to their next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. Among all the musicians in the tour, Holly, Valens, and Richardson were the ones who were decided to board the chartered three-seater Beechcraft Bonanza plane. According to anecdotes, Richardson asked Jennings for his seat while Valens and Allsup tossed a coin to determine who gets the other seat. In a chilling twist, Holly and Jennings were said to have exchanged a friendly banter before the flight where Holly told the other “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up,” with the other replying, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
The plane took off at around 12:55 a.m. Central Time from the Mason City Municipal Airport. It was piloted by 21-year old Roger Peterson, who apparently was unfamiliar with the plane’s attitude indicator. It was this oversight, combined with bad weather condition and his inability “to find a point of visual reference on a starless night with no visible lights on the ground” that led the plane to crash on a cornfield owned by a certain Albert Juhl near Clear Lake not long after takeoff. Official results of the investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board state that the crash was due to “a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error, resulting in spatial disorientation.” All four men died upon impact from “gross trauma” to the brain, their bodies scattered around the wreckage except for the pilot’s which was trapped inside and found only later in the morning.
At the time of their deaths, all three musicians have already carved a name for themselves in the industry. As such, the tragedy made ripples not only in the music business and their families but also the public. Holly’s pregnant wife Maria Elena, who first heard of the news of his death on TV, miscarried the following day due to “psychological trauma. In an interview, Maria Elena, who neither attended the funeral nor visited the grave, said that she blamed herself for her husband’s death. The young couple has only been married for six months at the time. Meantime, Jennings and Allsup carried on with the tour for a couple of weeks more.
Musicians in later years made songs to commemorate Holly, Valens, and Richardson. In April 1959, Eddie Cochran released the first tribute, “Three Stars”, which was penned by Tommy Dee. Perhaps the most popular tribute was Don McLean’s “American Pie.” It has been regarded that the line “the day the music died” referred to that fateful day in February, and the song’s lyrics itself referred to the accident. However, McLean himself never confirmed these speculations or offered explanations, having been quoted as saying things like, “You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me … Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”
But McLean did confirm that the American Pie album was dedicated to Holly, and that he learned about Holly’s death while folding newspapers as a paper boy (“February made me shiver/with every paper I deliver”). Also, annual concerts commemorating the accident have been held since 1979 at the Surf Ballroom. More, numerous memorials have also been erected by fans near the crash site over the years. All of these ensure that the legacy left by Holly, Valens, and Richardson will never be forgotten in generations to come.
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