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What Actually Happened The Day The Music Died?

Updated September 23, 2021 92.8k views15 items

Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Don McLean all have at least one influence in common: Buddy Holly. As a young man, McLean was so affected by Holly, he later wrote "American Pie" about what happened on the day the music died; his poetic label for Holly's tragic demise. The day the song refers to was February 3, 1959, when rising music stars Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson, AKA The Big Bopper, perished when their private airplane impacted into a snowy field. All three were on the verge of success and were touring the upper Midwest on the Winter Dance Party tour when they made the fateful decision to skip a bus ride to their next destination and take a plane instead.

Holly was the biggest name on the tour, and sales of his records increased posthumously. In addition to influencing the way rock 'n' roll is performed by using one bass, one drum, and two guitars, Holly's embrace of his everyday-guy looks and thick glasses was appealing to fans across the country. Valens and Richardson each created a couple famous hits still featured in oldies collections, and could very well have had long, successful careers if they survived. Through "La Bamba," Valens is credited with helping to start Chicano rock, and who knows where Richardson's energetic stage presence may have taken him.

Like many popular people who passed while still young, the three musicians' final moments are riddled with conspiracies, and legends surrounding the event wonder who gave up their seat on the plane the day the music died, as well as who did not get on the plane the day the music died. Without witnesses, what really happened may never truly be known, but the day three promising musicians lost their lives will be remembered by history forever.

  • Photo: RCA Records / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Holly’s Bass Player Waylon Jennings Jokingly Said 'I Hope Your Ol' Plane Crashes' Before They Took Off

    Before he became a country music star, Waylon Jennings played bass for Holly during the Winter Dance Party tour. As part of Holly's group, he had priority seating on the plane. Although he was all for getting off the bus, Jennings decided to give his seat to Richardson who had come down with the flu and could use a break from the bus more than him.

    Holly teased Jennings for being stuck on the cold bus which had once broken down, saying, "I hope your damned bus freezes up again." Jennings responded with another joke, saying, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes." After events turned out as they did and Holly's plane really did go down, those words came to haunt him. "God almighty, for years I thought I caused it," Jennings remembered.

  • The Official Report Concluded The Pilot, 21-Year-Old Roger Peterson, Was Too Inexperienced To Be Flying In A Snowstorm

    According to the Civil Aeronautics Board's report, pilot Roger Peterson logged 711 flying hours and had been flying for over four years. Since the plane showed neither the engine nor other aircraft mechanics malfunctioned and the landing gear was still in the up position, officials blamed the incident on Peterson's lack of experience flying in snowy weather. They also found no evidence anyone told Peterson about two flash advisories issued by the US Weather Bureau that morning regarding an incoming blizzard that would greatly reduce visibility, but they believed he should have been more responsible in researching the weather through which he'd be flying.

    Although a pilot could successfully fly through this situation, they would need to rely on their instrumentation to navigate since they wouldn't be able to see the horizon line out the window. The board concluded Peterson didn't have enough experience flying in this manner. It's also possible he may have become confused at the plane's gyroscope, which operated in the opposite way of other planes he piloted, meaning Peterson may have believed he was ascending but was actually flying the plane toward the ground.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Ritchie Valens Was Terrified Of Flying Because Of A Childhood Experience

    Valens allegedly had a terrible fear of flying. As depicted in his movie biopic, La Bamba, Valens witnessed an airplane mishap in which two planes collided in mid-air and caused parts from the vehicles to rain down on his high school below. Although Valens was reportedly away from the school attending a memorial at the time, he saw the event, learned three students perished, and knew he could have easily been one of them. "He just had a horrible fear of small planes, and planes in general," recalled Donna Fox whom he wrote "Donna" about. "He indicated that he would never fly."

    Valens signed up for the Winter Dance Party tour knowing he would possibly face his fear. He attended a church service with a friend before setting off on the tour so he could pray for a safe journey. According to his friend Gail Smith, she worried about his fear of airplanes and asked what Valens would do if the plane went down. He reportedly replied, "I'll land on my guitar."

  • Photo: Coral Records / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Buddy Holly Did Not Want To Go On The Winter Dance Tour, But He Needed The Money

    After Holly first made a name for himself opening for Elvis Presley in 1955 and later signed with a record label who heard him performing at a skating rink, he formed the Crickets. Together, they scored seven Top 40 singles like "That'll Be the Day" between 1957 and 1958 before breaking up. Holly decided to embark on a solo career, but financial trouble from the split left him bankrupt.

    When the organizers of the Winter Dance Party tour asked him to headline the event beginning in January of 1959, Holly was reluctant to accept. It would mean leaving his pregnant wife at home while wildly crisscrossing the upper Midwest in the cold, bleak winter months. Knowing the exposure would help his rapidly growing stardom and realizing the paycheck would help pay off his debts, Holly decided to join the tour.