At just after 1:00 am local time on February 3, 1959, a plane took off in light snow and strong winds from Mason City Municipal Airport in Iowa. After just a few minutes of flight, the plane plummeted to the earth a mere eight miles away from the airport, taking the lives of the pilot and the plane’s three passengers.
Earlier that night, at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa, young teens had danced the night away to the Winter Dance Party, a tour conceived by young Buddy Holly to showcase the fledgling art of rock ‘n’ roll. Playing alongside Holly were Ritchie Valens, Dion & The Belmonts, and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The icy Midwestern tour had been plagued by the cold weather, with the heat system in the tour bus giving out early on in the tour, a fact that would contribute to Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch contracting frostbite just three days before the crash. Fed up with the cold (and the lack of clean underwear), Holly arranged a charter flight to the next stop on the tour, Moorhead, Minnesota, for his two bandmates and himself.
The Big Bopper was sick with the flu, and he asked Holly’s bandmate, a young Waylon Jennings, for his spot on the plane. Jennings agreed, and in a playful exchange, told Holly, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” words that would haunt Jennings for the rest of his days. Dion was approached about joining Richardson and Holly on the flight, but he felt that the $36 price for a ticket was too high, and so he declined. Ritchie Valens asked Holly’s other bandmate, Tommy Allsup, for his seat on the plane, and a coin was flipped to see who would get it. Valens won, and his first plane flight would also prove to be his last. The plane briefly ascended into the night before crashing in a farmer’s field, and with it took three bright shining lights from the young world of rock ‘n’ roll.
Eleven years later, folk singer Don McLean would write a song featuring the event titled “American Pie,” coining the phrase that would enter the American lexicon when referring to that fateful night: “The Day The Music Died.” However, while rock ‘n’ roll lost three brilliant stars that night, it did not in fact die with those young men. The music would continue to grow and flourish even in their absence, and their influence could be felt in the music of the next generation of rock ‘n’ rollers, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones and all who came after. While Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper did die that night, fifty years later their music lives on.
Ritchie Valens – “Come On, Let’s Go”
The Big Bopper – “Chantilly Lace”
Buddy Holly – “Oh, Boy!”