Feb. 3rd, 1959 has been called the “day the music died”. Perhaps instead of talking about how “the music died”, one should focus on the events the led to the demise of three of the most talented musicians of the 1950’s. The Winter Dance Party tour didn’t lead to “the day the music died”. The Winter Dance Party tour was simply “the tour from hell”!
Buddy Holly had recently broken up with his band “The Crickets”. Buddy became more and more interested in the New York music/recording/publishing scene, while his band mates wanted to go back home to Lubbock, Tx. He was also becoming disillusioned with Norman Petty, the groups manager. While in New York Buddy met, and fell in love with Maria Elena Santiago. They were married very shortly after. It was through her aunt Provi, the head of Latin American music at Peer-Southern, that he began to fully realize what was going on with his manager, who was paying the band’s royalties into his own company’s account. Buddy was having trouble getting his royalties from Petty, so he hired a lawyer named Harold Orenstein, who was recomended by Buddy’s friends the Everly Brothers. Unfortunatly, with the money still being withheld by Petty and with rent due (and a baby on the way), Buddy was forced to go back on the road.
The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 23, 1959. Along with Buddy was Ritchie Valens (La Bamba), The Big Bopper (Chantilly Lace), Dion & The Belmonts (I Wonder Why), and new comer Frankie Sardo. The amount of travel created one of the major problems with the tour. The problem was whoever scheduled the tour. They started in one place, then went four hundred miles to the next venue, and then went thirty miles from the first show for the next one. Essentially, hopscotching back and forth. Add to that a bus that was a reconditioned school bus with a faulty heating system, and you can imagine how miserable everyone was. They certainly didn’t let their fans see any sign of disgust. As always the musicians gave top notch performances, delighting the teens in the audience. When they played a show in Duluth, Minnesota one such teen made it his lifes goal to be a musician. His name was Robert Zimmerman. In three years time the world would know him as Bob Dylan.
The problem with the bus heating system got worse. The men took to setting fire to wads of paper in the middle of the aisle to stay warm. Some of the musicians caught the flu (including The Bopper), and the tour’s drummer, Carl Bunch, was taken off the tour and hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet. Because of this Buddy, Ritchie, and Dion took turns playing drums for which ever act was on stage.
On February 2, the tour arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa, for a show at the Surf Ballroom. This venue wasn’t a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called Surf Ballroom manager Carroll Anderson and offered him the show. Very excited to have such big names play his ballroom, he accepted and set the show up for Monday, February 2. When Buddy arrived at the venue he had had it with the bus. He and the rest of the musicians had been living on the bus, and had no way of washing their clothes. Holly decided to charter a plane to take him and his band to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota, to avoid traveling in the bus, and to have enough time to do laundry.
Carroll Anderson called the Dwyer Flying Service to charter the plane to get to Fargo, North Dakota. The pilot hired for the flight was Roger Peterson, 21-years old. Buddy and his band were to pay $36 per passenger for the single-engined, 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza. The Bonanza sat three passengers and the pilot.
J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), still sick with the flu, asked Waylon Jennings (Buddy’s bass player, who would soon become a big star in his own right) for his seat on the plane. When Buddy heard that Jennings wasn’t going to fly, he jokingly told Jennings, “I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded, also in a joking manner, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” It took Waylon a very long time to get over that. He and Buddy were very close. In fact, Buddy produced Waylon’s first records including “Jole Blon”.
Ritchie Valens, who wanted to know what it was like to fly on a small plane, asked Tommy Allsup (Buddy’s lead-guitarist) for his seat on the plane. Allsup and Valens decided to toss a coin to decide. They flipped the coin in the ballroom’s sidestage room right before the musicians left for the airport. Valens won the coin toss (by calling “tails”) for the seat on the flight. Dion had been approached to join the flight, but decided the $36 fare (roughly $270 in today’s money) was a bit much and declined.
The plane left at around 12:55 am on Tuesday, February 3. The weather report called for light snow and winds from 29 to 37 mph. Though there were indications of bad weather along the route, the weather briefings Peterson received didn’t relay the information. The results of the investigation made after the crash say that, soon after takeoff, Peterson became disoriented due to the unfamiliar way the attitude indicator in the plane functioned. His flight lesson instructors note that he would often develop vertigo at certain altitudes. He was also without visual reference on a starless night with no visible lights on the ground. He had previously failed the instrument flying portion of his his flight test. He lost control of the plane when the tip of the right wing hit the ground. The aircraft tumbled across a corn field belonging to a farmer named Albert Juhl. The bodies of Buddy and Ritchie were thrown a few feet from the plane. J.P. Richardson’s body was thrown over the fence (about 40 rows of corn in). Peterson’s body was entangled in the plane’s wreckage. Buddy Holly was 22. Ritchie Valens was 17. The Big Bopper was 29. Pilot Roger Peterson was 21.
Buddy’s wife, Maria Elena, watched the first reports of his death on television. Her husband of six months, and father to her baby was gone Saddly, she miscarried. Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup continued the tour with a new lead singer-Bobby Vee. Ritchie and Buddy’s friend Eddie Cochran (Summertime Blues) was so upset that he locked himself in his room listening to their records, and saying he would join them soon. A short time after the crash Cochran attempted to record a tribute song to his friends called Three Stars. At the end, as he sings about Buddy Holly you can hear Eddie’s voice break-up. It was too much to take. Eddie died in a car crash a year later in 1960. He was 21.
In 2007, J.P. Richardson’s son had his father’s body exhumed and an autopsy performed to verify the original finding. This was done, in part, because of the discovery of Holly’s .22 caliber pistol by the farmer in the cornfield two months after the wreck. This gave rise to the rumour that an accidental gun discharge had caused the crash. The Bopper’s son also wanted to know whether or not his father was not hurt as badly and tried to crawl for help, since his body was found farther from the crash site. The new autopsy was performed by William M. Bass, and confirmed the original report. It was also the first time The Bopper’s son had seen his father in the flesh, as he was born a couple of months after the crash. The body of J.P. Richardson was well preserved, but showed “massive fractures from head to toe” confirming that he, too, had died on impact.
My thoughts-where would they be now:
Buddy had recently started his own record company (to be called Prism Records), his own publishing company (Taupe Publishing). This tells me Buddy was gaining an interest in record production. It makes sense given his last records. In his October 1958 sessions at Decca’s Pythian Temple, Buddy recorded songs that featured the use of orchestral backing players. The tracks were were also his first stereo recordings. Buddy was experementing with sound as far back as his song “Words of Love”, which featured Buddy overdubbing his own voice and guitar ala John Lennon. In fact, this song was later recorded by The Beatles. Buddy frequented many of New York’s music venues, including The Village Gate, Blue Note, Village Vanguard, and Johnny Johnson’s. Buddyalso wanted to learn finger-style flamenco guitar, and other instruments. Buddy had an interest in developing collaborations between soul singers and rock ‘n’ roll. He really wanted to make an album with Ray Charles, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. With such eclectic tastes and interests he very well could have given George Martin a run for his money. As he lived in Greenwich Village, I could also see him embracing the folk scene of the early 60’s. He also had ambitions to become an actor, like his friend Eddie Cochran, and registered for acting classes with Lee Strasburg’s Actors Studio, where James Dean had trained.
Ritchie was 17 years old, and his career was eight months long. In that short amount of time he embraced his Chicano heritage and had a huge hit with a spanish language rock & roll song, La Bamba. He could also play some great guitar licks. Because of this, I see Ritchie as the proto-Santana. I see him further embracing his heritage, and perhaps making a career of blending rock and world music.
The Big Bopper-
There have been many claims on who made the first music video. Was it The Beatles, Elvis, Rick Nelson? It might have been The Big Bopper! in 1958, the Bopper actually recorded three music videos for his songs: “Chantilly Lace”, “Big Bopper’s Wedding” and “Little Red Riding Hood” (all three videos were recorded the same day). Plus, he also coined the term “rock video” in a printed interview in 1959. The Big Bopper was convinced that video was the wave of the future and, at the time of his death, he was preparing to start production on music videos for TV and a specially designed jukebox which would play videos. He was proud of his songs, there’s no doubt, but I think he would have become a major force in the industry if he had been allowed to continue on this path. In many ways, this idea would have blown Dick Clark out of the water!
While the song American Pie immortalized that horrible day as “the day the music died” , I have to say it’s not true. As far as I’m concerned, the music will never die. It’s too good!