Singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were tragically killed in a plane crash in Iowa Feb. 3, 1959. (Special photo)
“So bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey in Rye
Singing this’ll be the day that I die, this’ll be the day that I die”
— Don McLean’s 1971 No. 1 hit “American Pie”
Even the casual “oldies” fan recognizes the importance in rock ‘n’ roll history of the date Feb. 3, 1959.
That’s the day that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed when their single-engine 1947 Beechcraft airplane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. The plane was en route to the singers’ next show in Moorhead, Minn.
Monday will be the 55th anniversary of that tragic accident.
The trio and Dion & the Belmonts had been headlining the one-nighters on the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour. Holly had rented the four-seater airplane from Dwyer Flying Service of Mason City, Iowa, because he was dissatisfied with the tour bus the troupe had been using, which lacked the necessary heat for winter use in the Midwest.
The cause of the crash, according to the Civil Aeronautics Board, the forerunner of the National Transportation Safety Board, was that 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson lost control of the aircraft shortly after takeoff and it crashed. The board also uncovered evidence that indicates the pilot had little experience in snowy, wintry weather.
The music world was stunned by the deaths of the three stars.
Holly, a 23-year-old Texan, had enjoyed the most success of the three as he had three Top 10 hits in 1957: “That’ll Be the Day” rose to No. 1, “Peggy Sue” to No. 3 and “Oh, Boy!” to No. 10.
Holly’s pregnant wife, María Elena, watched the first reports of his death on TV. A widow after six months of marriage, she miscarried the following day. The loss was attributed to “psychological trauma.” Holly’s mother, who heard the news on the radio in Lubbock, Texas, collapsed. Because of María Elena’s miscarriage, authorities implemented a policy against announcing accident victims’ names until their families were notified. María Elena Holly did not attend the funeral and has never visited the gravesite.
A 17-year-old Californian, Valens, born Richie Valenzuela, was one of the first Latin rock stars and he charted with “Donna” and “La Bamba.” “Donna” reached No. 2 in 1958 and “La Bamba” No. 22 in 1959.
Richardson, a 28-year-old Texan, scored twice in 1958 with “Chantilly Lace,” which reached No. 6, and “Big Bopper’s Wedding Day,” which got to No. 22. Richardson also was a DJ and a songwriter. Among his writing successes was “Running Bear,” a No. 1 hit for Johnny Preston in 1958.
One of the more amazing aspects of the first air tragedy to affect the rock ‘n’ roll industry was who didn’t gain seats on the airplane and why.
Waylon Jennings, a member of Holly’s backup band The Crickets and a future country superstar, originally was scheduled to fly on the plane. Richardson convinced Jennings to allow him to take his place on the airplane because he was suffering from flu-like symptoms and did not want to ride on the bus.
Holly learned of the switch and kidded Jennings, “I hope your ole bus freezes up.” Jennings is said to have jokingly responded, “Well, I hope your plane crashes.”
That phrase haunted Jennings until his dying day in 2002. He later admitted that he felt severe guilt for the accident and actually felt responsibility for it.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, Jennings charted 54 albums, with 11 reaching No. 1, and 96 singles, 16 of which were No. 1. In October 2001, Jennings was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.[
Valens earned the right to a seat on the plane when he won a coin flip with Tommy Allsup, a guitarist with Holly’s band.
There was only one problem: Valens had been petrified of flying.
In the fall of 1958, Valens quit high school to concentrate on his career. Bob Keane, head of Del-Fi records, booked appearances at venues all across the United States and performances on TV shows.
Valens, however, had a fear of flying caused by a freak accident at his Pacoima, Calif., Junior High School when, on Jan. 31, 1957, two airplanes collided over the playground, killing or injuring several of his friends. Valens was not at school that day as he was attending his grandfather’s funeral. He eventually overcame his fear enough to travel by airplane. One of his first stops was in Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” TV show on Oct. 6, 1958, where he sang “Come On, Let’s Go.”
Despite his well-documented fear, Valens opted to go on the ill-fated flight.
Because there were only three seats on the airplane, one of the four stars would be forced to ride the bus. Dion DiMucci, the 19-year-old lead singer of Dion and the Belmonts and the most successful of the white Doo-Wop groups, opted to take the bus.
Dion originally was going to take the plane but decided against it because of the $36 charge.
In his book “The Wanderer Talks Truth,” Dion wrote, “All of my childhood, I had listened to my parents argue about money, argue about the rent and the figure kept coming up. So I could never forget how much they paid (for rent). It was thirty-six bucks.
“I couldn’t bring myself to spend a month’s rent on an hour’s flight to Minnesota. I had too much of my mother in me.”
Dion’s maternal remembrance saved his life.
Despite the tragic crash, the Winter Dance Party Tour continued as Bobby Vee (“Devil or Angel,” “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Rubber Ball”), Jimmy Clanton (“Just A Dream” and “Go, Jimmy, Go”), Fabian (“Tiger” and “Turn Me Loose”) and Frankie Avalon (“DeDe Dinah,” “Ginger Bread,” “Venus” and “Why”) joined the tour. The group miraculously completed all of its remaining tour dates.
Dion and the Belmonts first hit the charts in 1958 when “I Wonder Why,” their first song for Laurie Records, reached No. 22. They followed later in the year with “No One Knows,” which climbed to 19.
The group gained national acclaim in 1959 with two smash hits: “A Teenager in Love” and “Where or When,” which reached No. 5 and No. 3, respectively.
After the group split in 1960, in part because of Dion’s drug habit, DiMucci struck with “Lonely Teenager” in 1960, “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” in 1961, “Lovers Who Wander” in 1962 and “Ruby Baby,” “Donna the Prima Donna” and “Drip Drop” in 1963.
After his popularity waned, in part because of his drug habit but also the effect of the British Invasion, he rebounded in 1968 with a No. 4 hit “Abraham, Martin and John.” Written by Dion, the song was a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John and Robert Kennedy.
The mailman cometh
How refreshing. An article of reflection and knowledge. There were the Ventures, then Duane Eddy, Bobby Darin and Roy Orbison. It was such a vibrant and promising era of music well before the corporate giants destroyed it all. I can still hear Duane now. Even younger adults in their 20s know they are missing a bygone era.
— Dr. Philip Lee Miller
Barry Levine writes entertainment stories for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.