The day the music died was 58 years ago yesterday. On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) died in a small plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa.
They were on a tour of 24 cities in 24 days called the Winter Dance Party. They were travelling by bus, but the bus was having heating problems, so Holly chartered the plane to fly his band, which then included Waylon Jennings, from Clear Lake to Moorehead, MN, where the 12th date of the tour would be.
Most people know the story of how Richardson asked to take Jennings’ place because he was sick. Holly joked to Jennings that he hoped that old bus broke down, and Jennings joked back that he hoped the plane crashed, a remark that haunted him his whole life.
And most people know that Valens “won” the last seat on a coin flip with Dion (of the Belmonts), though that story has been disputed. Apparently the $36 price of the plane ride was an important disincentive.
The Big Bopper was 28 years old. He was on the tour because of the success of his one hit record, Chantilly Lace, which elevated him from the menial jobs he had up until then. He was broke when he died, with only $8 in a savings account.
Hard to believe, but Ritchie Valens was only 17 years old! He’d already had several big hits including the immortal “La Bamba”, and was certainly destined for greatness. His work is still an important influence today. Seventeen. Wow.
At 22 years old, Buddy Holly was an old man compared to Valens, and was by far the biggest star of the three. He had recorded dozens of great tunes at that point, and wrote them all himself. It’s hard to overstate his influence on those that came afterward. That’ll Be The Day was the first song ever covered by the Quarrymen, John Lennon’s first skiffle band that morphed into the Beatles. But everyone listened to Buddy Holly and everyone wanted to be like him.
Most of the tunes were simple, using just three chords and about two minutes in length, as the AM radio format of the day required, but Holly’s brilliance was to show how much could be done within those primitive boundaries.
Holly basically invented the modern rock band. The original “Crickets” had Holly on lead and vocals, along with rhythm guitar, base, and drums. But the rhythm guitar, Niki Sullivan, quit the band after a year to go back to school, so the iconic line-up was lead, bass, and drums.
It’s all that was needed to make great Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Buddy Holly was one of the most important pillars of 20th century popular culture, and his music is as exciting today as it was all those years ago.