February 3, 2017

February 3, 1959: The Day The Music Died

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

From "American Pie" by Don McLean

Most people have heard Don McLean's classic 1971 tune "American Pie" and sung the lyrics but few know the meaning behind those words.

Photo: kopr94.net 
The song was born from a winter day in Iowa, back in 1959, when a small plane crash snuffed out the lives of four people and put a cloud on the end of the otherwise sedate decade and taking away the presumed innocence of the early rock and roll period.

J. P. Richardson, a Texas native, had studied pre-law and done a stint in the Army before working at a local radio station as a disc jockey.  During his Monday through Friday shift of 11 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., a sponsor wanted him for a new time slot and, given his larger than life, exuberant personality, a specific show that would air from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m.  J.P. had seen college students doing a dance called "The Bop" and adopted a modified version of that name to come up with his professional moniker.  His radio show was a success, leading him to become the station's program director. Within a few months (May 1957), he broke the record for continuous on-air broadcasting, performing for a total of five days, two hours and eight minutes and spinning 1,821 records.  He took showers during 5 minute news broadcasts.   In 1958, he became a trailblazer by creating the first music video, recording an image of himself.

J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson
Photo: thechive.com
J.P. had enjoyed the band and chorus while in school and played the guitar.  He began writing songs and Harold "Pappy" Daily, a promotion director for Mercury and Starday Records, signed J.P. to Mercury.  His first single, "Beggar to King," failed to ignite but his second - - "Chantilly Lace," with its rockabilly, folksy flavor - - initially cut for Daly's D label but bought by Mercury was released in the summer of 1958 and made him a star.  It reached as high as #6 and spent 22 weeks in the Top 40, with an "answer" to Richardson's pretend phone conversation from the tune being provided via Jayne Mansfield in the sequel-ish song "That Makes It."

J.P. had also written "White Lightening," recorded by George Jones (and which became Jones' first #1 country hit) and "Running Bear" for Johnny Preston (in which J.P. sang background.)  "Running Bear" would not be released until after J.P.'s death and would become a #1 hit for three weeks in 1960.

With these successes, and more apparent in the horizon, J.P. chose to take time off from the radio station and join "The Winter Dance Party" tour, with Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch, Frankie Sardo, Ritchie Valens and Dion and The Belmonts.  The tour began on January 23, 1959.

Ritchie Valens in a promotional photo
Ritchie Valens, a Los Angeles native, was the youngest musician on tour and would become the youngest victim of February 3, 1959.  Despite his abbreviated age of seventeen, he was a rock and roll pioneer, a forefather of the Chicano rock movement.

Ritchie was born into a Mexican family and, from the age of five, expressed an interest in making music of his own. His father encouraged him to take up the guitar and the trumpet and Ritchie later taught himself the drums.  Left handed by nature, he was so determined to learn the guitar that he mastered the traditionally right handed version of the instrument.

At sixteen, Ritchie was invited to join The Silhouettes, a local band, as their guitarist.  Soon after, the main vocalist left the group and Ritchie stepped into the role, making his performing debut on October 19, 1957.  He was also still attending school in Pacoima, where he would bring his guitar, sit on the bleachers and sing and play songs for friends.

On January 31, 1957, an event occurred that would shape Ritchie Valens' life and provide an eerie foretelling into his death.  On that date, Ritchie attended his grandfather's funeral and missed school.  He was not present when two airplanes collided over the school's playground area; falling debris killed some of his friends and injured others. The tragedy caused Ritchie to develop an intense fear of flying.  

In May of 1958, Bob Keane, the owner and president of Del-Fi Records in Hollywood, was given a tip about a Richard Valenzuela (Ritchie's birth name), a kid that was so good he was known as "The Little Richard of San Fernando."  Curious, Keane auditioned Ritchie and promptly (and smartly) signed him.  On May 27, 1958 he took the name of "Ritchie" to distinguish himself from the "Richards" already in the industry and shortened his surname from "Valenzuela" to "Valens" to provide a wider appeal, outside of any particular ethnic group.  

Ritchie demoed several songs for Keane, showing not only his musical talents but also the ability to improvise new lyrics and add new riffs to popular songs he was playing.  One of the demoed songs became "Donna," one of Ritchie's most popular songs.

In July 1958. at Gold Star Studios, and in a single session, Ritchie recorded "Come On, Let's Go," and "Framed."  "Come On, Let's Go" was a success, putting Ritchie's name into the public consciousness.

His next record, the last one to be released in his lifetime, was a double A side containing the previously mentioned "Donna," written about a real life girlfriend, and "La Bamba." "La Bamba" was an upbeat version of a traditional Mexican wedding song and would become insanely popular, the song Ritchie Valens would best be remembered for.  The record would sell over a million copies and was recorded a gold disc by the Record Industry Association of America.

To concentrate on his career, Ritchie decided to quit school in the autumn of 1958. He was booked in venues across the United States as well as appearing on television shows.   He alleviated his fear of flying in order to further his career, going to Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand on October 6, 1958, where he sang "Come On, Let's Go."   In November, he flew to Hawaii, where he performed alongside Buddy Holly and Paul Anka.  He then went to New York City for a Christmas Jubilee, singing with those performers who had greatly influenced him - - Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran (who would later write a song about the coming tragedy) and Jackie Wilson.   On December 27, Ritchie returned to Philadelphia and American Bandstand for his second appearance, this time performing "Donna."

He returned to Los Angeles at the end of 1958, in time to appear in the movie Go Johnny Go! and return to Gold Star Studios to record what would comprise tracks for his two albums.

In January of 1959, Ritchie left Los Angeles for the final time in order to perform in "The Winter Dance Party" tour.   The show was split into two acts, with Ritchie closing the first act.

Buddy Holly
photo: Rolling Stone
Charles Holley was born in Lubbock, Texas to a musical family during The Great Depression, learning to play guitar and sing alongside his three older siblings.  Dubbed "Buddy" from an early age, he would also pick up the violin and ultimately be influenced by gospel, country and rhythm and blues.  He would eventually meld country and western with rhythm and blues for his unique sound.

Throughout his teens, Buddy would play locally and upon graduating from school in 1955, he chose to make music his full-time career. He saw Elvis Presley perform live in Lubbock and would open for him in April and June of that year.  In October, Buddy was booked as the opening act for Bill Haley and the Comets, a booking that would change the course of his life.

Nashville scout Eddie Crandall was there and was impressed by what he saw. He encouraged Grand Ole Opry manager Jim Denny to obtain a recording contract for Buddy.  Denny forwarded a demo tape to Paul Cohen, who would sign Buddy to Decca Records in February 1956.   In that contract, Denny misspelled Buddy's surname; instead of "Holley," he wrote "Holly," an error that would stick.

Buddy's first formal recording session was on January 26, 1956, with two more following, but he found it frustrating.  The producer would select the session musician and arrangements and Buddy wanted more creative control.

Denny included Buddy as the opening act for Faron Young, billing them as Buddy Holly and The Two Tones. Decca would later call them Buddy Holly and The Three Tunes but they made little impact.  Decca would release four singles without much movement, leading to their decision to drop him on January 22, 1957.

Better things were ahead for Holly.  He went to producer Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico and, along with Jerry Allison, Niki Sullivan and Joe B. Mauldin, recorded a demo of "That'll Be The Day," among other songs.  Petty, acting as the group's manager, sent the demo to Brunswick Records.  Brunswick released "That'll Be The Day" as a single and the quartet was dubbed The Crickets.

In September 1957, as the band was touring, "That'll Be The Day" became a #1 single. It was followed up quickly in October by the smash "Peggy Sue."   "Peggy Sue" would simultaneously reach #3 on the pop chart and  #2 on the R&B chart.  In November, the band's first album, titled "Chirping Crickets" dropped, reaching #5.   On December 1, 1957. the group performed "That'll Be The Day" and "Peggy Sue" on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Following that appearance, and with the increasing stress of touring, Niki Sullivan left the group and resumed his education.

On January 25, 1958, Holly and the Crickets would make their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  They would perform in Honolulu on January 27 and then depart for a week long Australian tour.

In February of 1958 the Crickets would play an astounding 50 concerts in 25 days in the United Kingdom.  That same month, Holly's debut solo album was released.

Once they returned to the States, the Crickets would join Alan Freed's "Big Beat Show" tour for 41 appearances.  In April, Decca released "That'll Be The Day," despite having cut Buddy.  In May, there was a new recording session in Clovis.  Buddy hired Tommy Allsup to play lead guitar and "It's So Easy" and "Heartbeat" were produced.  Buddy was happy with Allsup and invited him to join The Crickets.  In June, Buddy traveled alone to New York to record solo.   Not having The Crickets, he was backed by a jazz and R&B band, recording "Now We're One" and Bobby Darin's "Early In The Morning."

Prior to his departure to New York, Holly had found out that his hometown girlfriend had left him for a friend.  He would not be in a serious relationship again until his New York trip, when he met Maria Elena Santiago.  He asked her out on their first introduction and she agreed.  On their first date, Buddy proposed, she accepted and the two were married on August 15, 1958.

Manager Petty disapproved of the marriage and advised Buddy to keep it secret so that Buddy's female fans would not be upset.  This disapproval and Petty's suggestion caused friction between the two and Holly began questioning Petty's bookkeeping.  The Crickets were also frustrated with Petty, as he controlled all the proceeds.

While in New York, Buddy took his new bride to music venues, where he told her that he wanted to learn fingerstyle flamenco guitar and collaborate between rock and roll and soul singing.  He dreamt of making an album with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson.   To feed his dreams of working in film, he registered at Lee Strasburg's Actors Studio.

In order to hide the marriage, Maria Elena was presented as The Crickets' secretary, where she took care of laundry, equipment set up and collecting the revenue from the concerts.  The job wouldn't last long.

She and Buddy settled in Greenwich Village and he continued recording his solo work.  In December of 1958, he officially ended his partnership with Petty, although his band members would keep their relationship with the manager.  This, along with Buddy's desire to live in New York, led him to split from The Crickets.  Petty, however, was still holding monies from royalties, which led to Buddy forming a new band and picking up touring once again.

He would gather Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings and Carl Bunch for this new Midwestern winter tour, titled "The Winter Dance Party."  Their first stop was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 23, 1959.  Maria Elena would normally have accompanied her husband on tour but, having recently found out she was pregnant, chose to stay home.

Despite the professional split, it appeared there were no hard feelings between Buddy and The Crickets; Allison and Mauldin looked forward to rejoining Holly after The Winter Dance Party tour concluded.

Roger Peterson
photo: photorecon.net
Roger Peterson was born in Iowa to Arthur and Pearl Peterson, the oldest son of four children.  He graduated from high school in 1955 and earned his private pilot's license in October of that same year.

In 1958, he earned his commercial pilot's license and was hired by Dwyer Flying Service.  On September 14, 1958, almost exactly a month after Buddy Holly and Maria Elena Santiago married, Roger married his high school sweetheart, Deanne Lenz.  The newlyweds set up their home in Clear Lake, Iowa, a short drive from Mason City, where both worked.

In January of 1959, Roger received his certification as a Limited Flight Instructor.  He was still working on his Instrument Flight Rating and was not yet certified to fly at night.

February 2, 1959 was the eleventh day of the tour and the party was playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  Up to that point, the musicians had traveled to their destinations by bus, a generally arduous journey  - especially in freezing weather - in those days before cross country freeways.  When the schedule had been set, the distances between the venues had not been taken into consideration.  The bus they had chartered had already broken down twice and the musicians were exhausted.  The cold and abysmal conditions had led both Richardson and Valens to bouts with the flu and Carl Bunch to be hospitalized with severely frostbitten toes, a result of the lack of heating aboard the bus. 

Holly had commissioned an airplane from Dwyer Flying Service in nearby Mason City, Iowa, planning to fly himself and his bandmates (Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup) to their next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota via Fargo, North Dakota.  This would allow them time to rest up and, of all things, get laundry done since the bus journey made such a menial chore difficult, if not impossible.

The manager of the Surf Ballroom contacted Roger Peterson and tapped him to pilot the chartered plane and, despite having worked a 17 hour workday and being fatigued, he agreed.

Holly notified Jennings and Allsup of their revised plans and, in a friendly wager, Allsup and Valens tossed a coin for the one extra seat aboard the plane, with Valens winning the toss.  Valens reportedly said that coin toss was the first time he had ever won anything in his life.  Jennings, upon hearing that Richardson was suffering with the flu and complaining about how cold the bus was, as well as uncomfortable for a man of his size, voluntarily gave up his seat to the ailing musician.  Dion had also been invited on the flight but felt the $36 per passenger fare (equivalent today to over $300) could not be justified and passed.  The stage, as it were, was set.

Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly
Hearing that his band mates had given away their seats, Buddy Holly joked "I hope your ol' bus freezes up!" Not to be outdone, Jennings replied "I hope your ol' plane crashes!"   Those words would haunt Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.

Shortly before 1 a.m. on February 3, 1959, it was 18 degrees with moderate gusty winds and light scattered snow.  The weather was deteriorating along the planned route but this information was not passed along to Peterson.  Holly, Richardson, Valens and Peterson boarded a red and white single engine 1947 Beechcraft 35 Bonanza and, moments before 1 a.m., Peterson received clearance for takeoff from runway 17 to head to Fargo.

Jerry Dwyer, the owner of Dwyer Flying Service, watched the plane take off from a platform outside the control tower.  It took off normally and without incident.  He saw the aircraft's tail lights as it banked left and headed northwesterly to a climb of 800 feet.  The tail lights were then seen to gradually disappear.

Peterson failed to communicate with the control tower at 1 a.m. as scheduled and repeated attempts were made to contact the plane, at Dwyer's insistence, but they were unsuccessful.

Having not heard a word from Peterson since departure, Dwyer took off later that morning in an air search along the same path the Beechcraft was to have taken.  At 9:35 a.m. he spotted the wreckage in a cornfield belonging to an Albert Juhl, less than six miles from the airport.

The plane had slammed into the ground at full throttle, some five miles outside of Mason City, in farm country.  The right wingtip of the Beechcraft sliced into the frozen ground, causing the plane to cartwheel 540 feet across a cleared cornfield at 170 mph.

Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens were ejected from the plane upon impact and the wrecked aircraft came to rest on a barbed wire fence.  The bodies of Holly and Valens, which with Richardson's had likely tumbled along with the plane, would end up resting several feet from the plane, on open ground.   Peterson's body was trapped in the horrifically mangled fuselage.  Richardson's body was thrown 100 feet clear of the wreckage, over the barbed wire fence and into the neighboring cornfield owned by an Oscar Moffett.  All four had died instantly of massive head and chest injuries.

With the rest of the musicians on the bus, en route to the next venue, it sadly fell to the Surf Ballroom's manager, Carroll Anderson, who had driven the flight party to the airport, to identify the bodies.

Buddy Holly's widow, Maria Elena Holly, would learn of his death from news reports on the television.  Pregnant at the time, Maria Elena, a widow after only six months, would suffer a miscarriage from the stress.  Maria Elena Holly, distraught,would not attend her husband's funeral nor would she ever visit his gravesite.  Holly's mother, at home in Lubbock, Texas, would learn of her son's death from a radio report.

The "Winter Dance Party" tour did not stop, continuing for another two weeks, with Waylon Jennings taking over in Holly's stead as lead singer.

On February 6, 1959, pilot Roger Peterson was buried in his hometown of Buena Vista, Iowa.

On February 7, 1959, Buddy Holly was buried in Lubbock.  His grave marker would bear his correct surname (Holley) and a carving of his Fender Stratocaster guitar.

J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson's body was sent to Texas, where he was buried.  Ritchie Valens' body was returned to California, where he was buried.

The families of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens would send condolence letters to Roger Peterson's parents and widow.

On April 7, 1959, Buddy Holly's signature glasses, not found during the initial recovery, had been discovered and given to the local sheriff's office.  They were placed in an envelope, along with The Big Bopper's watch, a lighter, two pairs of dice and another watch.  (That envelope was misplaced during a move and would remain hidden until March of 1980.  Buddy's glasses, the lenses missing, were returned to his widow in 1981, after a legal battle with his parents.   They are now on display at The Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas.)

Also in April of 1959, J. P. Richardson's son Jay was born, two months after his father's death.

The Civil Aeronautics Board began their investigation. They found that Peterson had over four years of flying experience, one with Dwyer Flying Service, and had accumulated over 700 hours of flying time, 128 of which were on Bonanzas.  He had logged 52 hours of flight instrument training but had only passed his written exam, which meant he was not yet officially qualified to fly in weather that solely required instruments. He, along with Dwyer Flying Service, was certified to operate only under visual flight rules - - in layman's terms, the pilot must be able to see where he is going.  At the time of the accident, visibility would have been impossible, between the cloud cover, lack of a visible horizon and the absence of ground lights in a less populated area.

The CAB would conclude that the accident resulted from Peterson's "unwise decision to embark on a flight" that required instrument flying skills that he did not have.  His unfamiliarity with the old style altitude gyroscope that was fitted on board the Beechcraft made have made him believe he was climbing when he was in fact descending, something that is known as spatial disorientation.  Another contributing factor was the lack of weather briefing provided to Peterson.

In March of 2007, a subsequent investigation was conducted when J.P. Richardson's son had his father's body exhumed and an autopsy performed in order to address rumors that an accidental firearm discharge caused the crash.  (Two months after the crash, a farmer found a .22 pistol belonging to Buddy Holly at the crash site.)   Dr. Bill Bass, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Tennessee, conducted the autopsy, with Richardon's son Jay in attendance.  Both men were shocked at the remarkably preserved condition of Richardson's body, so much so that he was immediately recognizable.  Dr. Bass corroborated the initial findings, saying there was no sign of lead from a bullet nor any foul play.  He put to rest the rumor that Richardson had survived the crash, crawling away from it only to die in the field.  According to Dr. Bass, Richardson had not crawled or walked away from the crash but, like the others, had died instantly from extensive, nonsurvivable fractures.

Following the autopsy, Richardson's body was placed in a new casket and reburied next to his wife in Beaumont's Forest Lawn Cemetery.  The original casket, with Jay's approval, was put on display at the Texas Musicians Museum.

In March of 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board received a request to reopen the investigation into the February 3, 1959 crash.  L.J. Coon, a retired pilot from New England, felt the initial investigation from 1959 was inaccurate. Coon believed there may have been a failure with the right rudder or a problem with the fuel system, as well as improper weight distribution. He thought that Peterson might have tried to land the plane and his efforts should be recognized.  The following month, the NTSB declined his request, believing there was insufficient evidence to reopen the case.

The legacy of the doomed flight has been long lasting.

After Buddy Holly's wife and mother found out about his death from news reports, a policy was adopted by authorities in which victims' names were not disclosed until after families have been notified.

Many films and biopics have been done on the musicians and the crash, most notably in 1978's The Buddy Holly Story and in 1987's La Bamba.

Eddie Cochran became the first musician to memorialize the singers with "Three Stars" in 1959.  Don McLean wrote and recorded his ode in 1971.   In 1978 Waylon Jennings would mention the accident in his song "A Long Time Ago" ("Don't ask me who I gave my seat to on that plane; I think you already know.")

Since 1979, fans of Holly, Richardson and Valens have gathered for annual memorial concerts at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.  In 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, Richardson's son Jay was one of the participating artists and Bob Hale, master of ceremonies in 1959 and the person who reportedly tossed the coin for Valens and Allsup, stepped up once again to host.

In the summer of 1988 a four foot tall granite memorial with the names of Buddy Holly, J.P, Richardson, Ritchie Valens and Roger Peterson was erected outside the Surf Ballroom.  The event marked the first time the families of Holly, Richardson, Valens and Peterson gathered together.

In 1989, Wisconsin resident Ken Paquette, a fan of the 1950s era, made a stainless steel monument depicting a guitar and three records that was placed at the crash site.  Each record bears the name of one of the three musicians killed that night.

Paquette also created a similar monument outside the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Holly, Richardson and Valens played their second to last show on February 1, 1959.   This memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003.

In February of 2009, Paquette unveiled a memorial to pilot Roger Peterson at the crash site.

Clear Lake resident Michael Conner constructed a large plasma cut steel set of Wayfarer-style glasses, similar to those favored and popularized by Buddy Holly, at the entrance to the crash site.

A road originating near the Surf Ballroom and passing west of the crash site is now known as Buddy Holly Place.

The influence and impact that Buddy Holly, J. P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens had on music and future artists cannot be fully measured and reported.  John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Los Lobos, Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana . . all were influenced and inspired by the lost musicians.

Buddy Holly was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986; Ritchie Valens in 2001; The Crickets in 2012.  The Big Bopper, as of this date, has not been inducted into  the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but he has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, as well as the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In life . . .

May they rest in peace, never to be forgotten.

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