No matter what generation you are from, if you’re a music lover, you remember certain events: those of the Baby Boomer’s generation remember where they were when Elvis died, those of Generation Jones remember where they were when John Lennon was shot, and those of the MTV Generation remember where they were when it came out that Milli Vanilli were fakes. Different generations tend to remember different things. But, there is one event – due partly to Don McLean’s tribute song – that transcends eras: if you love music, then you probably know about the day it died.
The Day the Music Died is the term often used to describe a plane crash that took place on February 3, 1959 in Iowa. One of the biggest musical tragedies in history, this crash killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), and Roger Peterson, the pilot.
The events that led up to the crash were protocol in the music business. Holly, Valens, and Richardson, as well as their respective band members verse of the day, were on “The Winter Dance Party” tour, a tour that was to stop in 24 Midwest cities in the span of three weeks. When they had an open date, their promoters called The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa and booked a show. The Surf Ballroom, until that spur of the moment decision, was not a scheduled stop.
When Buddy Holly arrived at the ballroom, he suggested that he and his band mates charter a plane to an airport near Moorhead, Minnesota, the destination of their next performance. Holly, and many of the other musicians, were tired of riding in the tour bus. Not only was it crowded and confining, but it also suffered a broken heating system, causing all the band members discomfort and one band member to be taken to the hospital with frostbite.
The musicians found a plane they could charter and a pilot, Roger Peterson. The plane was a Beechcraft Bonanza, a single engine aircraft with three passenger seats. Holly and Waylon Jennings had two of the original seats but The Big Bopper, having grown ill, asked Jennings to give him his seat. Jennings obliged.
Tommy Allsup, Holly’s other band mate, procured the third seat but Ritchie Valens, having never flown in a small plane, asked Allsup if he could have it. Allsup agreed to a coin toss, whomever won the coin toss won the seat. Valens proved victorious, at least initially.
Dion DiMucci, the fourth act on the Winter Dance Party tour, was also offered a seat. He, however, refused, stating that the price was too high.
As for the crash itself, no one can say for sure what happened. A little after one in the morning on February 3, the plane left Mason City Municipal Airport. Peterson, at the controls, had planned to file a flight plan once he cleared the tower, but instead, he never called. Before take off was the last anyone ever heard from Peterson or the three musicians on board.
At nine a.m. that morning, Jerry Dwyer, the owner of the plane Peterson was piloting, boarded a plane to search for the missing Beechcraft Bonanza. This came after several unsuccessful attempts by Dwyer to reach Peterson.
After searching by air for only a few minutes, Dwyer spotted the plane’s wreckage in a cornfield below. The plane was found at a downward angle, sloped to the right. It was estimated to be traveling 170 miles an hour when it struck the ground, rolled 570 feet, and ended up balled against a wire fence. The pilot died inside while all three musicians were thrown from the aircraft. The medical examiner concluded that all four onboard died instantly from trauma to the head.
As investigators sought to piece together what happened, they concluded poor visibility brought on by bad weather conditions played a huge role in the crash. They also believed Peterson may not have been well versed in using flight instruments and may have been used to relying on his own vision. Investigators also believed he was not given an accurate account of the severity of the weather. Had he known how bad the conditions were, he may have never taken off.
When Buddy Holly’s .22 pistol was found in the cornfield a few months later, theories of foul play began to surface. However, no evidence ever supported these theories and the accident was ruled just that: an accident.
More devastating than the loss of musical talent was the loss of youth. At the times of their deaths The Big Bopper was 28, Buddy Holly was 22, Roger Peterson was 21, and Ritchie Valens was 17.
In memory of The Day the Music Died, Ken Paquette, a music lover from Wisconsin, built a monument of stainless steel. The monument contains a steel guitar, and three records. It bears the names of the three musicians who perished as well as the pilot’s. It is located near the sight of the crash.
A similar monument was unveiled on July 17, 2003 outside the Riverside Ballroom in Wisconsin. The River Side Ballroom was where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played on February 1, 1959, roughly thirty hours before the world of music changed forever.