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‘The day the music died’

by Scott Kauffman and Tom Chillemi

The tragedy that inspired these lyrics had occurred a mere 12 years before Don McLean penned his famous song “American Pie” in 1971.

Fifty years have gone by since February 3, 1959. If you don’t remember what happened, this is a brief account.

The assets of musician Charles Hardin Holly had been frozen in New Mexico after a split with his manager and producer. With no jobs in the foreseeable future, and a pregnant wife, Holly signed on for a two-month tour of the Midwest called the “Winter Dance Party.”

It was winter and road conditions in the Midwest were terrible. It was bitter cold and the musicians’ bus, which had no heat, broke down often.

There were no breaks in the schedule and no manager to arrange things in advance. After being stranded several times, Holly decided to charter a plane for himself and two other members of his band: the now famous country legend Waylon Jennings and drummer Tommy Allsup.

Another musician on the tour, J.P. Richardson, had the flu and wanted to get to the next town to see a doctor, so he traded his sleeping bag to Waylon Jennings for a seat on the little four-seat airplane.

Another musician, Richard Valensuela, convinced Tommy Allsup to flip a coin for a seat on the plane. Valensuela won the toss and the seat.

After playing a show in Mason City, Iowa, that night, the temperature was 18 degrees, winds gusted to 40 miles an hour, and visibility was near zero in a blinding snowstorm. 

Two minutes after taking off, radio contact with the plane was lost.

The next morning, February 3, 1959, the frozen, lifeless bodies of Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Richard “Richie Valens” Valensuela, and the pilot were found strewn in the snow drifts of a corn field.

“The end of innocence”

Bill Hight of Urbanna was 16 years old at the time of the plane crash. He recalls how the news of the crash shocked his high school that February morning. “It was a very somber note,” he said. “Girls were crying.”

A stack of single-song 45 RPM records was the music system of the day. Hight’s aunt owned a record shop and would play records so customers could see if they liked them. “The 1950s was a golden time to be growing up,” said Hight.

“For a lot of kids it (the plane crash) was their first experience with celebrities losing their lives,” he added.

The devastating crash has been labeled “the end of the 1950s, the end of innocence.” And, as Don McLean wrote, “The day the music died.”

However, music has a timeless quality that echoes after the song is over.

Two of Holly’s most famous songs were “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be The Day.” Valens is best known for “La Bamba.” Movies have been made on both Holly and Valens.

Craig Hall of Urbanna was among the countless baby boomers who came of age listening to transistor radio broadcasts of powerful AM stations such as WBZ in Boston.

Electronic entertainment in the late 1950s was sparse—TV had three channels that were often fuzzy—but a few AM stations came in clearly at night, blasting rock-and-roll hundreds of miles, giving a large cross section of society something in common. It was the kind of music that broke the rules of tradition and energized a new generation. Who could have guessed it was here to stay?

The roots of rock-and-roll run deep. Hall said that every February he thinks about that plane crash in Iowa. “It was a shock to me . . . it hit me pretty hard.

“People say that if Buddy Holly had lived he would have been as famous as Elvis,” said Hall. “He would have been a phenomenal person. I still think he is.”

Early rock-and-roll has struck a chord with some of today’s teens. “My 17-year-old daughter can sing Buddy Holly songs,” said Hall. “The music never died.”

posted 02.11.2009

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