Forty-five years ago today, after completing a performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clearlake, Iowa, Buddy Holly boarded a private plane that he had chartered to take him to Moorhead, Minnesota, the next stop on the Winter Party Tour. He had chartered the plane because it was a cold night, and the heater on the tour bus was not working properly. He was looking forward to getting a bit of extra rest before the next performance. Accompanying Buddy Holly in the single-engine plane were Ritchie Valens (who “won” the seat on the plane on a coin toss), the seventeen-year old singing sensation, and the Big Bopper, a well-known radio disc jockey from Beaumont, Texas who turned “singer” with his hit record “Chantilly Lace.”
Shortly after taking off in the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, the plane crashed, killing all three performers as well as the pilot, Roger Petersen. Thanks to the brilliance of Don McLean, February 3, 1959 will always be remembered as “The Day the Music Died.”
Buddy Holly, of Lubbock, Texas was born “Charles Hardin Holley” (the spelling of his name as “Holly” arose from a mistake on a contract). He studied guitar, violin and piano, and also learned how to play banjo and violin. By the age of twelve he had formed a bluegrass duo and was performing on a local radio station. In 1955, he recorded “That’ll Be The Day,” which was ultimately released in 1957. Link
Shortly after the record’s release, Buddy Holly (sporting his geeky, thick glasses) and his band made very successful appearances before largely black audiences at the Apollo Theater in New York and the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. “That’ll Be the Day” rose to number 1 the same year. In 1957, the group recorded other hits, such as “”Words Of Love”, “Maybe Baby” (Tony Soprano, if you recall, sang bits of this tune one in at least one episode.), “Not Fade Away”, “Every Day” and “Peggy Sue.” Link
His music was an inspiration to the Beatles, and his songs have been covered by scores of artists. He was one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 1986. He is buried in Lubbock, Texas.
Ritchie Valens, born Richard Steven Valenzuela, in 1941 grew up in a small town north of Los Angeles. Like Holly, Ritchie Valens learned to play guitar at an early age. While still in his teens, he was discovered by Bob Keene, the president of Del Fi Records, who gave him the name “Ritchie Valens” and a record contract. His first song, “Come On, Let’s Go” was a hit, selling 750,000 records. Link Thereafter, in 1958, he wrote and recorded “Donna,” a song about his then-girlfriend, Donna Ludwig. On the flip side of the record, he recorded “La Bamba,” a tune he had learned as a boy. “La Bamba” is perhaps the song he is best known for today.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. He is buried in Mission Hills, California.
The Big Bopper was born Jiles Perry Richardson a/k/a J.P. Richardson, in 1930 in Sabine Pass, Texas. Before and after military service, he was a disc jockey, and at one point remained on the air for 122 hours non-stop, thereby setting a record. He took to writing songs for himself and others, and in 1958, he recorded the novelty song “Chantilly Lace.”
I was just shy of being a teenager when that plane crashed in Iowa. I knew all of Buddy Holly’s hits, and I was absolutely captivated by Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.” And, virtually every pre-teen I knew, our hormones making their initial surge, could sing all the lyrics to “Chantilly Lace,” including the refrain, “Oh baby, you KNOW what I like.” I was devastated by the news bulletins about the plane crash that appeared on our black and white television set. Seeing the photos of the plane’s wreckage in the local newspaper the next day made it all the more real.
Don McLean got it exactly right.