When Ritchie Valens, Jiles Perry “J. P.” Richardson, Jr. (also known as The Big Bopper), and Buddy Holly boarded a four-person, single-engine charter plane to get to their next show, they had no idea they would instead be flying into the pages of history. They, along with their pilot Rodger Peterson and their plane, went down in harsh winter weather barely six miles from the take-off point. It was the first great rock and roll tragedy, and it showed the world that even the fearless young stars of the rebellious music movement were mortal.
The Day the Music Died: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper
All three of them were among the hottest acts in the nation. Buddy Holly had learned to play the guitar alongside his brother and sisters, and the Texas native was a fan of the mournful country and the rhythm and blues of his era. After a lucky gig opening for rising star Elvis Presley, Holly decided a career in music was the life for him. He embraced the new style of rock and roll, seeing it as a natural progression from his inspirations. His first record with backing band The Crickets championed several hits including “That’ll Be The Day” and “Oh Boy”.
Buddy Holly & The Crickets – “Peggy Sue”
Ritchie Valens was the youngest of the casualties, and arguably the most tragic. Only 18 at the time of his death, Valens had been making music since he was five years old. Truly passionate about the music that surrounded him, Valens incorporated mariachi and flamenco stylings of his heritage into the R&B that was filling the airwaves. He devoured all he could musically, and practiced incessantly. After a series of demo writing auditions, he quit high school to pursue a career in music and help support his struggling family. His meteoric rise over the next eight months saw him perform on national TV, appear in a movie, and perform on sold-out tours across the country.
Ritchie Valens – “La Bamba”
[Video: Zak Millington]
Jiles “The Big Bopper” Richardson was a disc jockey out of Texas who knew his way around a recording studio. Richardson, who played the fool for the cameras and his adoring public, was, in fact, a shrewd self-promoter. At one point, he held the world record for continuous on-air broadcasting, going for five straight days. He started as a songwriter, scoring a few hits for others from behind the scenes, but he knew he was destined for greater things. This kind of hucksterism, paired with an over-the-top stage and vocal presence, gave him a comical edge that was new to rock and roll and was well-received by the nation’s youth. As he saw his star rise, he took time off from his radio work to join the ill-fated Winter Dance Party.
Big Bopper – “Chantilly Lace”
The Winter Dance Party tour, featuring all three musicians, was in trouble from the first show. Organizers had not properly factored in travel times to the schedule, and the tour bus they had chartered was not equipped for the harsh winter conditions it was to face. Many members of the various acts fell ill, sharing the flu among them and a host of nagging aches and stresses. After one musician was admitted to a Michigan hospital for frostbite, the bus was replaced and the grind resumed. As the tour filled an open date by booking a show in Clear Falls, IA, Buddy Holly had had enough.
Holly reached out to the Dwyer Flying Service and chartered a plane to fly to the airport nearest the tour’s next stop, Fargo, ND. The service had pilot Peterson and a four-seater plane waiting at the Mason City Municipal Airport after the show. The Big Bopper, still suffering from the flu, persuaded Waylon Jennings to let him have one of the seats on the plane. A coin toss won Valens the final seat from Tony Allsup. Both Allsup and Jennings would spend the remainder of their lives haunted by the whims of destiny.
Rodger Peterson was a 21-year-old, able pilot but not yet trained fully on flying solely by instruments—that, and his unfamiliarity with an older altimeter likely doomed the travelers. He started his ascent unaware of the worsening conditions that lie before them, and the black and white skies closed around them as they climbed into the night. Not six miles from their departure, the plane went down at near take-off speeds, instantly taking the lives of all onboard.
The combined loss stunned the country. Though the older generation was wary of the new music coming out of their radios, the tragedy of youth lost touched the nation. Forced to unexpectedly confront their own mortality, a generation found a new spark of recklessness. The tragedy of that day was a watershed of pop culture as well, inspiring biopics that told each singer’s tragic story, and the ballad by troubadour Don McLean, “American Pie”, has taken a place in the annals of music history all its own.
Don McLean – “American Pie”
In cases of loss such as these, with such bright futures cut short so early, it’s tempting to think about what might have been. What these lost men could have made, the lives they could have touched. While such thoughts can be amusing to entertain, the true lesson is, as always, that life is wonderful but finite. The fact that the end could come for us at any time is not a reason to fear, but a call to make each moment count. The lives lost that day are a terrible price to pay for that reminder, and in their names, we would do well to remember how important each day truly is.
[Originally published February 3rd, 2019]