February 3 is known as “The Day the Music Died.” The name was taken from the song “American Pie” by Don McLean, and is a reference to the deaths of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The three were tragically killed on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash around Clear Lake, Iowa.
Holly, whose professional music career only lasted a year and a half before his death at the age of 22, is seen as one of the most influential pioneers of early rock ‘n’ roll music. He popularized the now traditional rock band line-up of two guitars, a bass, and drums, and he recorded in such abundance that “new” music of his was released for 10 years after his death. He has been cited as a significant influence by a plethora of famous musicians who followed him including the Beatles, Elvis Costello, Weezer, and many more. Valens’ life lasted even shorter than Holly’s – he was only 17 at the time of the crash. Valens is also noted for his impact on the world of rock ‘n’ roll, and was the leading figure in the Chicano rock movement with hits like “La Bamba” soaring him into fame at an early age. J.P. Richardson, more famously known as “The Big Bopper,” was well-known for his animated voice and personality, bringing hits like “Chantilly Lace” to #1. Though he was the oldest of the three (aged 28 at the time of the accident), Richardson’s career had just begun to take off when he agreed to tour with Holly.
After splitting from his manager and backing band, The Crickets, Holly formed a new band consisting of Carl Bunch, Tommy Allsup, and Waylon Jennings. They soon embarked on a 24-city Midwestern United States tour in late January of 1959 called “The Winter Dance Party.” They were also joined by other hit musicians of the time – Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts fame, Valens, and Richardson – for select performances. The travel logistics of the tour were not well thought out, causing there to be a great distance to trek between consecutive performance dates. The tour bus chartered for their long journeys was also ill-equipped to handle the cold weather of the Midwest and many members of the band caught the flu and suffered from frostbite due to a broken heater. Holly quickly became fed up with these travel conditions and chartered a plane after their show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa to take him to their next tour stop.
Originally, Jennings was going to ride on the plane, but gave his spot to Richardson, who had become sick with the flu. Upon hearing that Jennings had given up his space, Holly told Jennings, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings replied with, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Though said in complete jest, the remark is something that Jennings has been haunted by since the tragic crash. Allsup was also going to ride on the plane, but lost his seat to Valens in a coin toss. Dion was also asked if he would like a seat on the plane, but turned it down because of the $36 per seat fee, which at the time was the same amount he paid for rent at his apartment.
Once their performance at the Surf Ballroom was over, Holly, Valens, and Richardson boarded the small Beechcraft Bonanza plane and took off from the runway around 1 a.m. on February 3. Weather reports showed there to be a light amount of snow and 37 mph winds. There were deteriorating weather conditions on their flight path, but 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson was not relayed this information in his pre-flight weather briefing. The crash was investigated by the Civil Aeronautics Board who determined that the poor weather conditions combined with the pilot’s error caused spatial disorientation, and Peterson lost control of the plane leading to the crash. Peterson was not familiar with the way the attitude indicator in the plane functioned and was unable to find a visual point of reference because the sky was starless and the fields he was flying over had no lights. The tip of the right wing then hit the ground and the plane banked downward, hitting the ground at 170 mph.
The owner of the flight company had watched the plane take off and was unable to make a radio connection afterward. During the later hours of the morning, the airport in Fargo, North Dakota, where the plane was supposed to land, had not gotten word from the pilot. Troubled by his inability to make radio contact and the plane’s non-arrival, the flight company owner reported the aircraft missing to authorities. He then took off in his Cessna 180 plane and began to fly on Peterson’s route to search for the missing plane. He spotted the wreckage in a field six miles from the take-off spot mere minutes later, and dispatches from the Sheriff’s were sent to the site. The musician’s bodies were found outside of the plane and were identified by the Surf Ballroom manager who had driven them to the airport and witnessed the take off. Coroner reports stated that all three musicians and the pilot were killed instantly from “gross trauma” to the brain.
María Elena, Holly’s wife of only six months who was also pregnant with his child, heard the news of her husband’s death on the radio and miscarried the next day due to the psychological trauma she was effected by when hearing the news. Holly’s mother heard of her son’s death on the radio and immediately collapsed. A few months later, authorities implemented a strict rule of letting families know before releasing victims names due to the extremely adverse effects the news had on Holly’s family.
Several memorials have been constructed around the site of the crash, and all three musicians have received several posthumous awards and Hall of Fame inductions. Though their professional careers were all short-lived because of their untimely deaths, each of these three talented musicians have had an incredible impact and influence on the world of rock ‘n’ roll music.