The day the music died
On Feb. 3, 1959, a small airplane crashed in a field near Clear Lake, Iowa. The pilot and his passengers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, all perished. It was the day the music died.
"I can't remember if I cried ... When I read about his widowed bride ... But something touched me deep inside ... The day the music died." From "American Pie" by Don McLean.
A group of rock 'n roll bands, known as the The Winter Dance Party, was in the middle of a three-week tour covering 24 cities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. On Feb. 2, they had performed at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake and were scheduled to perform at the Armory in Moorhead, Minn., the following evening.
Buddy Holly had grown tired of riding the bus and decided to charter a flight to Moorhead. There was room for three passengers in the single engine plane -- his two band mates, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings.
Richardson had the flu and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. Jennings agreed to do it. When Holly found out about it, he told Jennings, "Well, I hope your bus freezes up." Jennings replied, "Well, I hope your plane crashes." Though the remarks were made in jest, Jennings was haunted by the incident for years.
Ritchie Valens then asked Allsup for his seat. They flipped a coin. Valens won the seat and sealed his fate.
The plane went down a mere five miles from the airport. It struck the ground at 170 mph. The three main attractions of The Winter Dance Party were thrown from the wreckage and on their way to rock 'n roll heaven.
"And as the flames climbed high into the night ... To light the sacrificial rite ... I saw Satan laughing with delight ... The day the music died." From "American Pie" by Don McLean.
But the show must go on. Dion & The Belmonts (the fourth headliner) and Frankie Sardo finished the entire tour, but Bobby Vee & The Shadows left the troupe after the Moorhead performance. Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Jimmy Clanton were brought in as the new headliners. Ronnie Smith took over as vocalist for The Crickets.
Buddy Holly (1936-1959), singer and songwriter, was considered to be one of the pioneers of rock 'n roll. He's ranked number 13 on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time."
Ritchie Valens (1941-1959) was a Mexican-American (and part Yaqui Indian) from Los Angeles. His music career had just begun, lasting only eight months. His songs "La Bomba" and "Donna" were huge hits.
J.P. Richardson (1930-1959) was a disc jockey, known as "The Big Bopper." He had a rich voice and an exuberant personality. He recorded a song called "Chantilly Lace" and soon became a one-hit wonder.
Having given up his seat to Richardson, Waylon Jennings (1937-2002) went on to become a successful country singer. He, along with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, started the "outlaw country" movement.
Buddy Holly's revolver was found by a farmer plowing the field in April of 1959. An autopsy performed on the pilot and the coroner's examination of the four bodies failed to find a bullet wound. On March 7, 2007, a forensic examination of the remains of the Big Bopper, requested by his son, put certain rumors of foul play to rest.
A decade after the accident, Don McLean wrote and recorded the song "American Pie" -- the classic music tribute to Buddy Holly. The song is also a parable on how music changed in the 1960s with the loss of pure rock and the coming of non-danceable pop music (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.) and folk music (Bob Dylan, etc.).
"American Pie" was a stunning achievement in songwriting; layered with meaning, innuendo and a fascinating historical perspective of a musical era. The rocking 1950s had ended and the helter skelter of the 1960s rolled in.
Various interpretations of the lyrics of "American Pie" can be found on the Internet, from the obvious meanings all the way down to what Billy Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
"And the three men I admire most ... The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost ... They caught the last train for the coast ... The day the music died." From "American Pie" by Don McLean.
Of course, the music didn't really die in the winter of 1959; it died when they invented Rap and Hip-Hop.
Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.
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Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.