Day the Music Died: A Rock and Roll Tragedy

Buddy Holly promotional photo from Brunswick Records.
Buddy Holly promotional photo from Brunswick Records.

Today is the 57th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and the plane’s pilot.

Here are some things you may not have known about The Day the Music Died.

Buddy Holly and his band were playing a tour called the Winter Dance Party across the upper Midwest. Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, whose real name was J.P. Richardson, and Dion DiMucci were the opening acts.

The tour started on January 23, 1959, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was scheduled to play in 24 cities in 24 nights.

The tour plan soon became a problem, as some of the towns were too far apart for a comfortable one-day drive.

The bus itself was also a problem, as the heater onboard broke on the second day of the tour. The flu spread among the musicians and Holly’s drummer was hospitalized with severe frostbite in his feet.

On February 2nd, which was originally scheduled to be a day off for the tour, the group played a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly wanted a chance to rest before the next stop on the tour and decided to charter an airplane to fly him between Mason City, Iowa and Fargo, North Dakota.

Originally the plan was to have Holly and the two members of his backing band, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, fly ahead and have Valens, The Big Bopper and Dion meet them in Moorhead, Minnesota.

The Big Bopper had come down with the flu and switched Jennings for his seat on the plane. Valens won a coin toss with Allsup for the other seat. Dion was offered a seat, but declined due to the expense.

The manager of the Surf Ballroom drove Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper to the airport in neighboring Mason City. Waiting for them was 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson and the plane, a Beechcraft 35 Bonanza. Light snow was falling with six miles of visibility and winds ranging from 20 to 30 miles per hour.

The plane took off at 12:55 a.m. on February 3. The owner of the flying service watched the plane until it disappeared from view.

The next morning, after not hearing from his pilot, the plane’s owner began retracing the planned route. He found the wreckage within minutes less than six miles from the origin of the flight.

It was determined that the plane crashed at around 170 miles per hour steeply banked to the right with its nose down. The plane cartwheeled 540 feet. Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper were all ejected during the crash. Peterson, the pilot, was tangled in the wreckage.

All of them died instantly.

After an investigation, it was determined that Peterson was not qualified to fly by instruments at the time. The weather forecast provided before the flight was also insufficient, failing to mention any adverse conditions along the route.

The tour continued with Waylon Jennings taking Holly’s place as lead singer.

Buddy Holly was 22 years old, Ritchie Valens was 17 and The Big Bopper was 28.

Our question: What was Buddy Holly’s only Number 1 hit in the U.S.?

Today is Heroes’ Day in Mozambique and Veterans’ Day in Thailand. It’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day, National Carrot Cake Day and National Wedding Ring Day. It’s the birthday of writer Gertrude Stein, painter Norman Rockwell, and actor Nathan Lane.

In 1959, the top song in the U.S. was “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters; the No. 1 movie was “Ben-Hur,” while “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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