On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson), and Ritchie Valens, all perished when their plane crashed near Clear Lake in the state of Iowa. The pilot, Roger Peterson, also died. The event shattered the Rock n’ Roll community as three of its brightest stars were extinguished in a single moment. Buddy Holly, in particular, was considered one of the most talented singer/songwriters of his generation. The tragedy became known as ‘The Day the Music Died’ after Don McLean mentioned it in his hit song American Pie in 1971.
It was very much an avoidable tragedy as Holly decided to charter a plane which subsequently took off in poor, wintry conditions. It is also a tale of near misses with several musicians either opting to give up their seat or, in the case of Ritchie Valens, ‘winning’ it in a coin toss. While it appeared to be a simple tragedy at the time, a range of theories have arisen, and while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) received a request to reopen the case in March 2015, it rejected it seven months later.
Countdown to Tragedy
By 1958, Buddy Holly was one of the biggest stars in America as he had several hit singles with The Crickets. However, he broke up the band in November of that year and assembled a new group which contained Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings, Frankie Sardo, and Carl Bunch. The new band embarked on a 24-date tour known as the Winter Dance Party. J. P. Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and Dion DiMucci and The Belmonts joined them.
The tour began in Wisconsin on January 23, 1959, but soon ran into logistical problems due to the enormous amount of travel. It was appallingly planned from the outset as the musicians were forced to zigzag around the Mid-Western region instead of a smoother and shorter set of journeys. In some cases, the groups had to travel 400 miles from one city to the next, a major issue in 1959 when commercial air travel was still in its relative infancy.
To make matters worse, the musicians were given poor quality buses to travel in which frequently broke down. In the first 11 days of the tour, the bands went through five buses, and they had no road crew, so they were forced to load and unload all their equipment. Add in the exceedingly low temperatures (as low as -36 Fahrenheit), and it was a recipe for disaster. Several musicians, including Valens and Richardson, started experiencing flu-like symptoms.
By February 2, when the tour arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly decided he had enough. The venue was not originally part of the tour but its promoter offered the show to Carroll Anderson, manager of the Surf Ballroom and he accepted. The tour was set to drive 365 miles to Moorhead, Minnesota the following day and 325 miles to Sioux City, Iowa the day after that. Holly realized that the only way to bypass these ridiculous journeys was to charter a plane to Fargo in North Dakota. It was a decision that cost him, and three other men, their lives.