The day the music (really) died

The Old Rocker

Remember Don McLean’s 1971 No. 1 hit “American Pie” and its signature line, “The day the music died?”

The song was inspired by the 1959 airplane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, that took the lives of three young rockers: 22-year-old Buddy Holly, 17-year-old Ritchie Valens and 28-year-old J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.


From left, "The Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens.

This was the first airplane crash that claimed the lives of rockers since the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era in 1955.

The crash was so shocking that the staid New York Times placed it on its first page.

Holly, a Texan, who recorded both as a single and with the Crickets, had seven Top 40 hits before his death. His most successful songs were No. 1 “That’ll Be the Day,” No. 3 “Peggy Sue” and No. 10 “Oh, Boy,” all in 1957.

Despite his youth, Valens charted two hits before his death. “Donna” reached No. 2 in 1958 and “La Bamba” No. 22 in 1959. “La Bamba” was the second song to become a hit that was performed in a foreign language. The first was “Volare” by Italian crooner Domenico Modugno, which placed first on the charts for five weeks in August and September in 1958.

The Big Bopper, who was a DJ in Beaumont, Texas, scored with “Chantilly Lace,” which rose to No. 6 in 1958. He also gained fame for writing “Running Bear” for Johnny Preston, a No. 1 hit in 1958. Richardson also did the Indian sounds on that song.

These were not the only rockers who met untimely deaths. Here are some of the others who met a similar fate. The list includes only those who died from accidents and not those who took their own lives.

While Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were the first rock stars to die in an airplane crash, Eddie Cochran and Johnny Horton were among the first to die in a car accident.

The 21-year-old Cochran was killed in a car accident in April 1960 in Chippenham, England. Singer Gene Vincent was also involved in the crash but survived his injuries. Cochran had three Top 40 hits: “Sittin’ in the Balcony” rose to No. 18 in 1957, “Summertime Blues” reached No. 8 in 1958 and “C’mon Everybody” hit No. 35 in 1959.

Horton, 35, died in an accident in Milano, Texas, in November 1960. Horton exploded onto the music scene in 1959 when “The Battle of New Orleans” stayed at No. 1 for six weeks. He followed with “Sink the Bismarck” and “North to Alaska” in 1960. Both were Top 5 hits.

Johnny Burnette, 30, was believed to be the first rocker to drown. In August 1964, Burnette was fishing at night on Clear Lake, Calif., when his unlit fishing boat was struck by an unaware cabin cruiser. The impact threw him off the boat and he drowned.

The rockabilly singer had four Top 20 hits: “Dreamin’” and “You’re Sixteen” in 1960 and “Little Boy Sad” and “God, Country and My Baby” in 1961.

His older brother, Dorsey, also was a singer, and he charted with “A Tall Oak Tree” in 1960. The brothers were also a highly successful songwriting team. They penned several of Ricky Nelson’s hits including “Believe What You Say,” “It’s Late” and “Waitin’ in School.”

Three of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll performers of all-time — Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and John Lennon — were all shot to death and, surprisingly, under different circumstances.

The son of a Baptist minister, Cooke struck gold when his first hit, “You Send Me,” reached the top of the charts in October 1957. The hit, which sold 1.7 million copies, established Cooke as a pop star.

Cooke had 28 other Top 40 hits before being murdered in December 1964. His other Top 5 hit was “Chain Gang,” which rose to No. 2 in the summer of 1960.


Sam Cooke

Cooke, 33, was partying in Los Angeles when he met Elisa Boyer, 22, at a club on Dec. 11, 1964. They opted to register at a motel as Mr. and Mrs. Sam Cooke. Boyer later left the room with most of Cooke’s clothing. Cooke, wearing one shoe and a jacket, broke into the motel’s office, where he thought Boyer was hiding. He then confronted Bertha Franklin, the motel’s manager, who shot him three times with a .22, killing him. Franklin claimed Cooke had tried to rape Boyer and then turned on her. The coroner’s office ruled the death a justifiable homicide.

Gaye charted his first song in March 1963 with “Hitch Hike,” which topped out at No. 30. The Washington, D.C., native had 40 Top 40 hits, 16 of which reached the Top 10. He had the first of his three chart toppers in November 1968 with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The others were “Let’s Get It On” in 1973 and “Got to Give It Up” in 1977.


Marvin Gaye

Gaye was fatally shot by his father, Marvin Pentz Gay Sr., as the singer/songwriter tried to stop an altercation between his parents at their Los Angeles home on April 1, 1984, one day before his 45th birthday.

Gay Sr. pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter on Sept. 20, 1984. Six weeks later, he was sentenced to a six-year suspended sentence and five years probation.

Lennon, 40, was shot and killed on Dec. 8, 1980, by Mark David Chapman at the entrance of the building where Lennon lived, The Dakota, in New York City. The former Beatle had just returned from Record Plant Studio with his wife, Yoko Ono.

After being shot four times, Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. Lennon was cremated on Dec. 10, 1980, in New York and the ashes were given to Ono, who chose not to hold a funeral for him.

A 25-year-old security guard from Honolulu, Hawaii, Chapman pleaded guilty to Lennon’s murder in 1981, against the advice of his attorneys, who wanted to file an insanity plea. Chapman received a life sentence, but under the terms of his guilty plea, he became eligible for parole after serving 20 years. Chapman has been denied parole at hearings every two years since 2000 and remains in a New York state prison.

Lennon enjoyed one of the greatest careers of any rock musician.

One of the original founders of the Beatles, the group had more than 45 Top 40 hits from January 1964 until it dissolved on April 10, 1970. Twenty of their hits reached the top of the charts, a record. Elvis Presley is second with 18 No. 1 hits during his career that spanned 25 years.

One of the Beatles’ signature songs and one of their No. 1 hits, “Yesterday,” has been covered more than 2,200 times, also a record.

After the Beatles split, Lennon formed the Plastic Ono Band. The group had 13 top 40 hits, two of which landed at No. 1.

Two rockers from Southwest Georgia also met untimely deaths.

Otis Redding, a native of Dawson, was killed in an airplane crash on Dec. 10, 1967, at Lake Monona in Madison, Wis. Also killed in the crash were four members of the Bar-Kays.


Otis Redding

From the time he first charted with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” in June 1965, Redding had 13 Top 40 hits. His most successful was “The Dock of the Bay,” which reached No. 1 in February 1968.

He was 26 at the time of his death.

Dave Prater, 50, a native of Ocilla, died in a single-car crash in Sycamore, about 20 miles from his hometown, on April 9, 1988, while traveling to visit his mother in Ocilla.


Dave Prater

Prater combined with Sam Moore to form Sam and Dave, the most successful duo in soul music history, according to Rolling Stone magazine.

Three of their songs reached the Top 20: “Hold On! I’m Comin’ ” rose to No. 20 in 1966, “Soul Man” to No. 2 in 1967 and “I Thank You” to No. 9 in 1968. “Soul Man” was part of the soundtrack and the title song for a 1986 film and a 1997-98 TV series. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd also performed the song in the 1980 “Blues Brothers” movie.

Sam and Dave split in June 1970 and reunited in August 1971. They remained together until Dec. 31, 1981.

After the breakup, Prater started touring with Sam Daniels in 1982, and they stayed together until Prater’s death.

Perhaps the strangest set of accidental deaths occurred with two 24-year-old members of the Macon-based Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman and Berry Oakley.

Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in the western part of Macon on Oct. 29, 1971. Oakley also was killed in a motorcycle accident on Nov. 11, 1972, in virtually the same spot as Allman’s crash.

Barry Levine is a writer with The Albany Herald and can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.