Tonight marks the 50th anniversary of the evening that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were all killed in a tragic plane crash over Iowa. Shortly after 1 a.m. on February 3, 1959 the three-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza plane they were traveling in crashed about five miles northwest of the Mason City Municipal Airport near Clear Lake, Iowa. The pilot was killed along with Holly, 22; Valens, 17; and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28.
The tragedy has been emblazoned in music history in Don McLean’s “American Pie” in the verse, “the day the music died.” We have no way to know how rock and roll would have continued to be shaped by the trio had they survived—but we can be certain music was changed forever by their loss. For 50 years, the crash has marked the end of an era—the roots of innovation and anarchy in American rock and roll.
Holly, Valens and Richardson’s last show was the Winter Dance Party, a tour that had started in Milwaukee, and was set to travel to small towns in Minnesota and Iowa. The promoter decided to continue with the show, despite the deaths. The trio was replaced by local bands, which incidentally led to stardom for other acts. Bobby Vee, one of the replacement acts was an unknown musician from Fargo. At the time, he was only 15-years-old, but went on to create hits like 1961’s “Take Good Care of My Baby” and 1967’s “Come Back When You Grow Up.”
The deaths of the musicians was not a major national news story at the time. News of their deaths was buried in papers—the New York Times placed the story on page 66. Rock and roll was not well-respected at the time. It was a threat to the status quo, and the musicians were virtual unknowns to the older generation. Even in Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, it’s said the people were embarrassed by him.
Of course, the music didn’t really die when the plane crashed in Iowa that February night. It’s impossible to say what the trio would have went on to accomplish or exactly what more of an influence they would have had on American music. Valens was already highly regarded for his role in the movie “La Bamba”. He career was still in its infancy, so we can only assume he would have produced more hits. Richardson had great instincts as an entrepreneur, and Holly, with his songwriting and arranging abilities, had plans to complete albums with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson.
If you’ve got a few minutes in the next day or two, take a moment to listen to Holly’s “Peggy Sue”, Valens’ “La Bamba”, or Richardson’s “Chantilly Lace.” Remember what was; and imagine what could have been.