The Day the Music Died

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The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly on the Winter Dance Party Tour, January, 1959

The Day the Music Died is February 3, 1959, referring to the morning after a plane crash which took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (Jiles P. Richardson). The plane crash took place during a snowstorm on the night of February 2, 1959 near Clear Lake, Iowa; killed was the pilot, Roger A. Peterson, and three aforementioned pioneers of rock and roll.

  • The news came to most of the world on the morning of February 3, which is why it's known as The Day The Music Died. [1]

The opening stanzas of Don McLean's 1970 song "American Pie" contain a reference to Buddy Holly, and the phrase "the day the music died" appears before each refrain.

Winter Dance Party

The Winter Dance Party Tour began January 23, 1959 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a planned coverage of 23 additional Mid-western cities within three weeks (January 23-February 15). The headliners were Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts, and J.P. Richardson. Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup were there as backups.

Facing the singers was the weather, in the teens during the entire trip, with colder wind gusts and snow. To make things worse the tour bus they rode on had a disabled heater; as a result the mood was foul among all members when February arrived, and two members had to leave due to frostbite. Still, the singers performed to delighted and enthusiastic crowds wherever they stopped.

Buddy Holly

Charles Hardin Holley with his Crickets had a number one hit in 1957 with the tune That'll Be The Day. Peggy Sue followed, referring to a girl he knew in Lubbock, Texas. Other songs included It's So Easy; Oh Boy!; Maybe Baby; and Love's Made A Fool of You. An appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show gave him national exposure. By 1959 Holly had moved to New York City, concentrating on songwriting, producing, and a new wife, Maria Elena Santiago. The Crickets were left behind.

"Buddy" was Charles' nickname. His last name had the "E" dropped by accident, due to a misspelling on his first contract.

Ritchie Valens

Born to Mexican migrant workers in California, Ricardo Valenzuela was just 16 when he was discovered singing in Pacoima by Bob Keane, a record producer for Del-Fi. A string of hits were generated in 1958: Come On, Let's Go; Rockin' All Night; That's My Little Suzie; and a love song for a girl he knew at his high school named Donna. Although Donna was his biggest hit, it was the flip side of that .45 recording that would become closely identified with him: a Mexican fiesta dance song with a heavy beat titled La Bamba.

To ensure that Ricardo was a hit with mainstream American audiences, Keane had his name Anglicized to Ritchie Valens.

The Big Bopper

Jiles P. Richardson was a Texas disk jockey who was known as "The Big Bopper" to his fans. His own belief in rock and roll was that it should be fun, and he would record just such a song himself with the 1958 hit Chantilly Lace.

The Crash

Angry over the tour bus' lack of a heater, Buddy Holly chartered a plane at Clear Lake airport, a Beechcraft Bonanza (#N3794N) piloted by Roger A. Peterson, with the intention that he would meet the rest of them in Fargo, North Dakota. Running a fever was Richardson, and a coin flip determined who gave up the third seat on the aircraft. The loser, Waylon Jennings (who would go on to his own fame in country music) would get a mild retort from Holly: "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up." Jennings replied, "Well, I hope your plane crashes." The remark would haunt Jennings for the rest of his life.

Singer Tommy Allsup flipped for the remaining seat and lost to Valens. The plane took off just after 1 a.m. on February 3, and crashed a few minutes later. The plane was not discovered until the following morning, its mangled remains resting in a cornfield. The three singers' bodies were ejected from the plane; the pilot's was still strapped to his seat. A gun was found nearby, belonging to Holly, leading to speculation that an accidental shooting of the pilot led to the crash. A more reasonable explanation for the crash was a "whiteout", in which snow conditions were such that all the pilot could see was white, and without depending on instruments he may have flown the plane into the ground.


The loss of Holly, Valens, and Richardson marked the end of a period of innocence for rock music; from that point on the 1960s saw the evolution of folk rock by such artists as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and hard rock and heavy metal by groups Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones. Drug use and American involvement in the Vietnam War were major themes, as were as activist issues during that period. Although considered founders of rock music, all three musicians were essentially forgotton until Don McLean released his ballad American Pie in 1970. An anthology, American Pie was McLean's answer to the loss that changed his own life, as well as a major hit on its own that reached platinum.

Buddy Holly was married for only six months when he died; his pregnant wife had a miscarrage soon after. Brought back in the spotlight by American Pie, his songs would be remade by Linda Ronstadt in the 1970s; a hit movie would follow starring Gary Busey in 1978. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Ritchie Valens would get his own movie biography in 1988, La Bamba. starring Lou Diamond Philips. He inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Jiles P. Richardson Jr. was born a short time after the death of his father; wanting to know who he was became an obsession. In March 2007 he had his father's body exhumed, hoping to put to rest the theories of the gunshot. J.P. Jr. also performed at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake on the 40th anniversary of the last concert.

Tommy Allsup would leave performing and run his own bar which he called the "Head's Up Saloon", in reference to the coin toss he made at Clear Lake.

Waylon Jennings would achieve a string of country hits over the years; his best known ballad was Just the Good Ol'Boys, the title hit from the Dukes of Hazard television series.


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