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 base, 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.
The Winter Dance Party began its tour on January 23, 1959, in Milwaukee, WI. The schedule required the musicians to zig-zag their way across the upper Midwest in a seemingly random pattern. "It was like they threw darts at a map," historian Bill Griggs recalled. To add to the stress, the musicians were forced to travel on "reconditioned school buses, not good enough for school kids," according to Griggs.
The buses were unheated and driving through the cold winters of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa over icy roads took its toll on the vehicles and its passengers. Holly's guitarist Tommy Allsup remembered driving through Wisconsin:
We had started up this incline, it was snowing real bad, and the bus just started going slower and slower, and the lights got dimmer and dimmer, and all of a sudden the bus stopped...The driver said, "The bus is frozen."
The musicians huddled together under blankets, burned newspapers in the isles of the bus, drank shots, and told each other stories. It was so cold, Holly's drummer Carl Bunch suffered frostbite in his feet and subsequently missed the next tour date; Holly's last. It's no wonder Holly chose to fly to their next show.
For more than a week, Holly, Richardson, Valens, and the rest of their bands traveled around the upper Midwest in a bus, facing challenge after challenge and growing tired and bitter. Not having any clean clothes didn't help matters. Part of the reason Holly suggested skipping the bus ride for the next leg of the tour and instead traveling via plane was because he wanted to wash his clothes.
He figured flying to Fargo, ND, and arriving at their next destination in Minnesota early would give the musicians time to do laundry and sleep before having to take the stage. Other musicians agreed and Valens, Richardson, and Holly took everyone's dirty clothing on board with them when they set off from the airport.
February 2, 1959, marked the 11th stop of the tour at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA. The musicians performed two shows, the last of which ended around midnight. A group of fans followed Holly, Valens, and Richardson to the airport and waved as the three men boarded the plane. As snow blew through the air, the small Beech Bonanza took off around 12:30 am on February 3.
According to the Civil Aeronautics Board's report, the aircraft "took off toward the south in a normal manner" before it climbed to around 800 feet and turned toward the northwest. After flying about five miles, witnesses back at the airport saw the plane's tail light slowly descending before completely disappearing. Radio contract with the aircraft disappeared as well. Aerial searches conducted the next morning found the plane in a snow covered farm field.
Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts declined a ticket on the plane, and Waylon Jennings gave up his seat to Richardson who was sick with the flu. While these decisions went down in history as life-saving, the reason Holly's guitarist, Tommy Allsup, ended up on the bus was entirely due to chance. After Richardson took the second seat, Valens decided he'd like to fly on the plane as well. He asked Allsup if he'd give up his spot, suggesting they flip a coin for it.
I don't know why, because I'd been telling him no all evening, but I pulled a half dollar out of my pocket. I've never understood what made me - it just happened. I flipped the 50-cent piece and said, "Call it." Ritchie said, "Heads," and it came down heads.