The Day the Music Died

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Today marks the 62nd anniversary of a day that rocked the nation and altered music history. Three young musicians and their pilot perished in a crash on Feb. 3, 1959, only minutes after takeoff.

Rock and roll artists Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were headed to the next stop on the “Winter Dance Party” tour after performing in Clear Lake, Iowa on Feb. 2. They were traveling by tour bus until that night, when Holly arranged for a flight to avoid the unpleasant bus conditions.

A local municipal airport offered Holly and two others a flight piloted by 21-year-old Roger Peterson in a Beechcraft Bonanza for $36 per person. Originally, those two seats were for members of Holly’s band, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup; however, Jennings traded with Richardson, who was ill, and Allsup lost his seat to Valens in a coin toss.

An early Beechcraft V-35 Bonanza similar to the plane that crashed in February of 1959 via Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Years later, Jennings would share a haunting last exchange with Holly in his 1996 book, “Waylon: An Autobiography.”

Holly joked to him saying, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up,” before going to the airport.

Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”

At 12:55 a.m., the plane took off. Jerry Dwyer, the airport’s owner, lost sight of the craft after three minutes. Peterson did not respond to radio contact attempts. The plane never reached its destination in Minnesota.

Dwyer retraced the route in the morning. He found the wreckage less than 6 miles northwest of the airport. An investigation determined the cause of the accident to be pilot disorientation due to inclement weather.

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson made headlines across the nation on Feb. 3, 1959. Credit: PBS

News of the crash stunned America. Four young lives were cut short—the oldest of the victims, Richardson, was just 28 years old. He left behind a wife, who would later give birth to their son, Jay Perry.

Holly’s wife Maria was pregnant as well, but miscarried the day after the crash due to psychological trauma. Both she and Holly’s mother learned of his death from the media, leading to a policy that requires families to be informed before victims’ names can be released.

The youngest, Valens, was 17. Ironically, he was once afraid of flying.

According to Biography.com, the media “made little mention of Peterson, who had only just gotten married to his high school girlfriend the year before.”

One of the biggest tragedies in rock history, people have remembered it and honored the victims in various ways throughout the years. Annual memorial concerts have taken place at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, where the musicians played their last show, since 1979.

Numerous monuments have been erected since the crash. Fans pay tribute year-round, leaving flowers and other mementos near the crash site.

A large pair of black-rimmed glasses mark a trailhead on Gull Avenue at the Buddy Holly Memorial Site in Clear Lake, Iowa. Credit: Visit Mason City

The most well-known ode to the musicians’ deaths came in 1971 with the release of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

McLean’s song was a raging success, and Feb. 3, 1959 has since been dubbed as “The Day the Music Died.”

This monument is near the visitor entry doors at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, the last venue in which Buddy Holly played. Credit: Wikipedia user GravityIsForSuckers.

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