The Day the Music Died, Feb. 3, 1959 Part 1 of 5: 50 years later
By Richard Zowie
“We interrupt this program for a special news bulletin. Three young singers who soared to the heights of show business on the current rock and roll craze were killed today in the crash of a light plane in an Iowa snow flurry. The singers were identified as Ritchie Valens, 17, Buddy Holly, 22, and J.P. Richardson, 28-known professionally as the Big Bopper. The aircraft chartered from the Dwyer Flying Service crashed near Mason City…The pilot, Roger Peterson of Clear Lake, Iowa, was also killed. The three singers had appeared at the Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake, Iowa last night and were on their way to Fargo, North Dakota. Their small chartered plane crashed in a lonely farm yard about 15 miles northwest of Mason City. Cause of the crash was due to inclement weather conditions.” – News broadcast from February 3, 1959.
I was born 14 years and three days after this tragedy took place and only know about it from second-hand accounts such as from a friend and professional musician, Robert Maxwell Case, but I can imagine that when this broadcast aired, there were few dry eyes among music fans. Here we had three entertainers whose careers had nowhere to go but up. Between Holly, Valens and Richardson, only the Lord knows how many more number-one songs would’ve been written and how many platinum albums would’ve been recorded.
Fifty years later, news of that infamous plane crash still reverberates like a ripple in a pond that never seems to die out. How long has it been? Let’s put it into perspective: On February 3, 1959, my Dad (a Holly fan) was 22, in the Army and engaged to my Mom, who was 19. Today, Dad’s 72 and Mom’s 69. They are retired, the grandparents of 10 and just over three months away from their 50th wedding anniversary.
It seems hard to believe that if the three singers were all still alive, Valens would be 67, Holly 72 and the Bopper 78. Meanwhile, Valens (real name: Richard Steven Valenzuela), Holly (Charles Hardin Holley) and The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) remain youthful and frozen in time. When I look at the Bopper, for example, I wonder if he would’ve eventually traded in his trademark flattop for long sideburns. Would Holly have grown a beard like his friend, Waylon Jennings? I almost imagine Valens donning a cowboy hat and growing a bushy mustache like another famous Hispanic musician, the late Freddy Fender.
While working at AM 630 KSLR in San Antonio, our computers contained the complete catalog of songs from our sister station, AM 930 KLUP (which, at the time, played oldies). One of those songs, of course, was the Bopper’s trademark song “Chantilly Lace”. I remember playing that song constantly, thinking of how, courtesy of the digital sound recording, Richardson sounds alive and well. It seemed hard to believe I was listening to a song that had been recorded five decades earlier.
It’s the same feeling I get whenever I listen to Valens sing “Donna”, “Come On Let’s Go” or “La Bamba”, or whenever I hear Holly sing “Peggy Sue”, “Summertime Blues” or “That’ll Be the Day”. How is it that such gifted singers, performers and songwriters left this world far too soon? It seems so unfathomable, so unfair. Sadly, though, it reminds me of that saying that’s becoming truer as I get older: life is what happens when you’re making plans.
On that bitterly cold wintry night, I don’t think death crossed any of their minds. All they were probably thinking was that a plane ride beat a 10-hour bus ride with no heat and constant mechanical problems. With their ages ranging from 17-28, who could be thinking of death? Isn’t that something still decades away?
Besides, they were too busy and too young. Holly, I understand, wanted to get to their next scheduled performance in Moorehead, Minn., sooner so he could get laundry done. Richardson wasn’t feeling well and needed to visit the doctor. (It must’ve been extremely cold weather for the two Texans and the Californian). And, of course, we know Valens was on that plane because he won a coin toss with Tommy Allsup.
That being said, in retrospect, flying on that night wasn’t the best idea. A friend of mine, Len Hobbs, a licensed pilot and flight instructor, tells me about the NTSB report on the crash.
“The plane was being operated in completely unforgiving weather, wind, ice and snow,” Len said. “No light twin airplane should have ever been caught in that weather. They should have never taken off. It was foolish beyond any explanation.”
Furthermore, Len added, one engine wasn’t running when the plane crashed, indicating the high probability of carburetor icing.
The report also mentions the pilot, 21-year-old Roger Arthur Peters, as talented at aviation as he was, wasn’t properly certificated or qualified to fly solely on the instruments-which he would’ve had to do given the weather conditions and limited visibility.
The plane went down, and with it went the dreams of the men’s families, friends, associates and countless fans.
Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.