It was on this day Feb 3 1959 that Rock ‘n’Roll suffered its first tragedy.58 years ago on a very cold and snowy, winter night, a small 4 seat Beachcraft Bonanza charter plane took off out of Clear Creek Iowa heading for a tiny airport in Moorhead Minnesota for a Rock ‘n’ Roll show that will never happen, yet will live on forever in sad infamy…Between the inclement weather and the young pilots inexperience (he was only 21) the plane, carrying future “Rock Royalty plunged nose first into a cornfield just seconds after takeoff, instantly killing all 4 passengers on board.Three of the four passengers were budding musical Superstars who were destined to be the future of Rock and Roll. J.P. Richardson aka “The Big Bopper”, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly along with pilot Roger Peterson.
You certainly are familiar with the three young artists aboard the ill-fated flight, but perhaps you’re not sure why Don McLean proclaimed it as “The Day The Music Died” in his hit single “American Pie” from 1971. Consider this, The 1960’s ushered in a”sea change” on how popular music was created,The Singer/Songwriter was born. J.P, Ritchie and Buddy were all singer/songwriters.
However diverse their musical styles may have been, they were each on their own unique and original path and would leave their indelible imprint on Rock ‘n’Roll, even though each of their careers were barely two years old. “the Big Bopper” was a popular D.J. When he recorded “Chantilly Lace” in 1957. During his radio stint he would mix country records with Rock ‘n’ Roll believing there would be a time when the genres would become one. Best demonstrated by his song “White Lightning” a stone cold Rock song he wrote for the great George Jones a soon to be country icon. J.P. Also penned “Running Bear” a more mellow mix of his country/rock style Johnny Preston took the song to number one, as did George Jones. Unfortunately both were posthumous accolades for The Big Bopper. Lastly, just days before his tragic flight, J.P. did an interview where he stated that in the future, music will be recorded visually, and in fact at that point J.P. Had made 3 videos of his songs. IN 1959! Of course we should ad that “Chantilly Lace” stayed on The Billboard Top 40 for an unbelievable 5 months! The Big Bopper was one of the first successful singer/songwriters, an entertainer, a visionary and a pioneer. The perfect artist to flourish in the creative hotbed of the 1960’s.
Ritchie Valens…Hailing from a small superb in Los Angeles, Pacoima, just north of the San Fernando Valley. Pacoima (primarily a Latin community) was best known for its quantity and diversity of street gangs. Ritchie Valenzuela shunned the streets and focused on the music brewing inside him. His first hit “La Bamba” was an exciting and original mix of a Mexican folk song he heard as a boy and the more current rhythms he was hearing on the radio in 1957. fortunately, Ritchie’s record label ( Del-Fi records) asked him to write a “b” side to “La Bamba” so Ritchie delivered a song about his girlfriend who just left him “Oh Donna” was a plaintive ballad of love gone bad. It had none of the rhythm or ethnicity of “La Bamba” But it was a haunting, lonely plea every young man could relate to, and the stark contrast to La Bamba made it more of a “must hear” curiosity. But, most importantly this “b” side also went to number one making Ritchie Valens a charter member of the elite “Double Sided Hit” club.
However, Ritchie’s greater achievement was forging a path and encouraging young hispanic’s to pursue their dream of Rock ‘n’ Roll! A world that was previously dominated by young “white” men. History often cites Ritchie Valens as ground zero for “Latin Rock” A musical genre that exploded in the mid nineties and was initiated with Los Lobo’s cover of Ritchie’s arrangement of “La Bamba” But! Consider this, Ritchie had been writing and recording for less than two years and was only 17 years old when he climbed into that plane on that winter night in Iowa!
Buddy Holly….Argueably, there is no other artist who had a greater impact in shaping the sound of the 1960’s than Buddy Holly. His sound, his songs and his look influenced nearly everyone who made music in the 60’s. Certainly his greatest influence is reflected in the British Invasion. In 1959 John and Paul called themselves “The Beatles” a tip of the hat to “The Crickets” they were already working on their version of “Words of Love” while Mick and Keith were working on “Not Fade Away” Peter Asher cut his hair and bought his first pair of “Horn Rimmed Glasses and up north in Manchester, Graham Nash formed his first band called, what else?… The Hollies! However, more important than his look and sound, Buddy was the first “Singer” to write his own songs. Prior to Buddy’s success singers sang and professional songwriters wrote the songs.Believe it or not, Elvis never wrote a single note or word. Some of you may claim that you’ve seen Elvis credited with writing a song, but the truth is that was more of “The Colonel working his magic! Not Elvis!
The tragedy and events of Feb 3 1959 were part of “The Winter Dance Tour” an opportunity to bring new artists to new audiences in the Mid West. The tour was set to play 24 Midwestern cities in as many days, and the primary mode of transportation for the tour was a large school bus. The bus was old and suffered multiple mechanical issues, in fact when the troupe pulled into Clear Creek for their show, the bus’ heating system had failed and one of Buddy’s band members had to check into a hospital due to Frostbite on his toes! Cold, tired, and fighting off the flu an exhausted Buddy Holly decided to charter a small plane to FLY him and his band to the next show. Soon a debate began as to who would take the plane and who’d ride the bus. The great Waylon Jennings was there as Buddy’s bass player, he wanted no part of the airplane option and volunteered for the bus.As he boarded the bus Buddy called out to Waylon shouting “Hey, I hope your old bus breaks down” Waylon immediately shouted back “Hey I hope your old plane crashes”… A remark that haunted him and he regretted for the rest of his life!…Dion and the Belmont were also on the tour and Buddy offered Dion a seat on the plane, however each passenger had to pay $37 toward the charter fee. Dion was so broke that he declined Buddy’s offer. A blessing He reflected on his entire life, and refused to speak about it for 51 years!
Further details…..After the snow melted in the spring of 1959 a unique fragment survived and was retrieved from the crash site. Buddy’s horn rimmed glasses. They can be seen today, as they are on display at The Buddy Holly Center in his home town of Lubbock Texas. Buddy’s wife, Maria Elena was 6 months pregnant, the day after the crash she suffered a mis-carriage from “mental trauma” Lastly, after Don Mcleans hit in 1971 it was widely rumored that the plane was named “American Pie”
That was not the case. There is no record of the plane ever having a name. It simply only had a registration number of N3794N…. However, there is no question, Feb 3 1959 “That’ll be the day the music died”