February 3, 1959: The Day the Music Died

Brunswick Records, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Brunswick Records, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons / Brunswick Records, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On February 3, 1959, a plane crashed shortly after taking off from Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all four people aboard: pilot Roger Peterson and musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. The date became known as The Day the Music Died.

Buddy Holly

Charles Hardin Holley was born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1936. He was only five years old when he earned his first paycheck for singing—$5 at a local talent show. He formed a band in high school that performed on local radio and the country music circuit. They recorded several country songs for Decca in Nashville, but failed to find success. Holly (he dropped the "e" when his name was misspelled on the record contract) returned to Lubbock and played various venues, including opening for Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley. Elvis suggested Holly forget country music and start playing rock-and-roll. Holly's band, then known as The Crickets, recorded "That'll Be the Day" as a demo, which got them a contract with Coral/Brunswick records.

A string of hits followed in 1957 and 1958, including "Peggy Sue" and "Oh Boy." Holly wrote the songs, but had to share credit on some with producer Norman Petty. Holly split from Petty and The Crickets in October of 1958. Legal hassles following the breakup led to money problems, which led to Holly signing onto a winter tour in late 1958. By then he had married Maria Elena Santiago, a young woman he had proposed to on their first date. Holly's life story was detailed in the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story. Holly was just 22 years old when he died.

Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens was only 17 years old when he died. Born Richard Steven Valenzuela in southern California, Valens learned to play guitar at age 11. He was influenced by Mexican folk songs, country music on the radio, and singing cowboy movies. He played for school assemblies and parties in high school, then Valens joined a band called The Silhouettes, where he found steady work. A talent agent spotted him and brought him into Keen Records for an audition. The instrumental he played for that audition evolved into his first hit, "Come On Let's Go." It sold half a million copies in 1958.

Valens's follow-up single was "Donna", a song he wrote for his girlfriend, with a Mexican folk song called "La Bamba" on the flip side. Both songs were riding high on the charts when Valens signed on for a tour with Buddy Holly and two other acts. Valens's life was the subject of the 1987 movie La Bamba.

The Big Bopper

Jiles Perry Richardson recorded and toured under the name The Big Bopper. He was the oldest of the plane crash victims at 28. Richardson grew up in Texas, where he was active in school music programs. He studied pre-law in college, then dropped out to work full-time as a radio disc jockey. He once stayed on the air for five days straight, breaking the record for continuous broadcasting. Richardson also served a stint in the army, married, and fathered a daughter. He took the name The Big Bopper for a radio show.

According to some sources, The Big Bopper was the first person to use the phrase "music video". He was in the process of promoting a video business when he died. Meanwhile, Richardson was busy writing songs. He wrote 'White Lighting," a hit for George Jones, and "Running Bear," recorded by Johnny Preston. The Big Bopper recorded "Chantilly Lace" in 1958, which went to #6 nationally. The success of "Chantilly Lace" led to a slot on a winter tour with Buddy Holly.

The Winter Dance Party Tour

Valens, Richardson, and Holly were on tour with a show called "The Winter Dance Party Tour" with Dion and the Belmonts. The tour bus was so cold and miserable that one band member reportedly developed frostbite. Buddy Holly had had enough, and decided to charter a plane in Clear Lake, Iowa to fly to Fargo, North Dakota for the next gig. Dwyer Flying Service was hired for $36 a seat, and the plane was ready to leave after a show at the Surf Ballroom. Waylon Jennings, a backup singer for the show, relinquished his seat on the plane to Richardson because he was running a fever. Another backup singer, Tommy Allsup, lost his chance to fly in a coin toss with Valens.

At the time, it was reported: "When Holly learned that Jennings wasn't going to fly, he said, 'Well, I hope your old bus freezes up.' Jennings responded, 'Well, I hope your plane crashes.' This friendly banter of friends would haunt Jennings for years."

A stainless steel guitar marks the crash site of the place where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper died.
A stainless steel guitar marks the crash site of the place where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper died. / SuperDuty11, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The pilot, 21-year-old Roger Peterson, was not qualified to fly on instruments alone. The weather had been clear earlier, but a storm warning had been issued by the National Weather Service. Neither Peterson nor Dwyer Flying Service was aware of the weather alert. A blinding snowstorm enveloped the plane soon after takeoff, and it spun into the ground. Jerry Dwyer, owner of the plane, grew concerned when it hadn't landed in Fargo by morning. After the fog cleared, he searched by plane and found the crash about a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. All three musicians had been thrown from the plan; in order to extract the pilot, the plane had to be cut.

A lasting legacy

Holly and Richardson both left pregnant wives behind. Maria Holly had a miscarriage shortly afterward. Born three months after the plane crash, J.P. Richardson Jr. performed under the name The Big Bopper Jr. He played the role of his father in a tribute show called The Dance Party Tour. Richardson Jr. passed away in 2013.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets inspired the names of both bands The Beatles and The Hollies. The 1971 song "American Pie" by Don McLean was written about the events of February 3rd, 1959. Each year, the town of Clear Lake commemorates the anniversary of the first rock-and-roll plane crash. In January 2021, the Surf Ballroom, the site of the musicians' final concert, was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Holly, Valens, and Richardson had extremely short musical careers by today's standards, but their music and influence live on.

This story has been updated for 2021.