Just think about the deaths of such legends as Elvis, Morrison, Janis, Jimi, Lennon and Cobain, to name a few. These were deaths that not only changed music, but left an indelible scar on generations worldwide. And those were just single deaths. Imagine if three huge music stars died in one evening.
That’s exactly what happened on February 3, 1959. The day was labeled “The Day the Music Died,” a line later used in the Don McLean song “American Pie.”
The 24-date Midwestern tour was billed as “The Winter Dance Party,” and would feature Buddy Holly; Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, among others. It sounded nice, but the problem was it was winter…in the Midwest…and the venues were strung too far apart for the musicians to brave the snow and make it on time. The poorly thought out tour also had another problem – the tour bus was a broken down heap with a busted heater and everyone was sick.
On February 2, the tour made a stop at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. This was an impromptu show booked by the promoters to fill an empty date on the tour schedule, i.e. a quick cash grab.
The next stop on the tour was Moorhead, Minnesota, and Holly who was so frustrated with everything about the tour that he told his bandmates they should charter a plane to Minnesota. The plan came together when they found pilot, Roger Peterson (a 21-year-old local pilot who worked for Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa), and scheduled their flight for after the Iowa show.
The small single-engine 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza 35 (V-tail) could seat three in addition to the pilot with Peterson charging just 36 dollars for his efforts.
The Big Bopper was severely sick with the flu and asked Holly’s guitarist Waylon Jennings, (yes, that Waylon Jennings) if he could have his seat on the plane. Jennings, being a southern gentleman, kindly gave up his seat to the ailing Big Bopper. When Holly found out about this, he jokingly said to Jennings, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up,” and Jennings jokingly responded “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” And it was this, the last conversation with Holly that would haunt Jennings for the rest of his years.
Another musician on the tour, Ritchie Valens, just 17, had never experienced flying in a small plane before and asked Holly’s other bandmate Tommy Allsup, if he’d give up his seat. Allsup told Valens he would flip a coin for the seat and Valens won the toss.
With Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper in tow, Peterson taxied the plane down the runway around 12:55 a.m. Nearly five minutes after takeoff, Hubert Dwyer, a commercial pilot and owner of the plane, observing from a platform outside the tower, “saw the tail light of the small plane fall from the night sky.” The tower made attempts to contact the plane without any success. When the Hector Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, had not heard from Peterson by 3:30 a.m., the authorities reported the aircraft missing.
Around 9 a.m., Dwyer took off in one of his planes and followed Peterson’s intended flight path and he quickly spotted the wreckage in a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl, just five miles from the airport.
It was estimated that the small plane Peterson was piloting with the musicians hit the ground at 170 mph, rolled over several times, then skidded another 570 feet across the frozen farmland before the crumpled ball of wreckage piled against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl’s property. The bodies of Holly and Valens lay near the plane, while Richardson was thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl’s neighbor Oscar Moffett, and the body of Peterson remained entangled inside the plane’s wreckage. It was determined all four had died instantly.
In such a devastating accident like this so many could be to blame – the promoters for pushing the tour too hard, the pilot, who was not rated to fly in conditions as they were or even the owner of the plane who let the pilot, who was still a student, take on the flight to Minnesota. No matter how many times you second guess things or point the finger, it won’t bring back Holly, Valens or the Big Bopper.
There have been countless movies and books written about ‘The Day the Music Died,’ but at the core of it all is the music. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson left the world far too soon, but left us with a catalog of great music, which should never be forgotten.
Rest in Peace.