It was the morning of February 3, 1959, around 9:30 a.m. Overnight weather had just passed through the state of Iowa, changing its skies from their dark grey, light snow, and cloudy conditions, to the next morning’s light. In his airplane above, Hubert “Jerry” Dwyer, owner of Dwyer Flying Service, was flying in the sky near Clear Lake, tracking the planned route of one of his planes that had gone up around 1:00 a.m. the night before. The pilot of the plane Roger Peterson was supposed to have contacted Dwyer when they were up and running safely, but Dwyer had never received any messages from the pilot. Now, eight hours later, Dwyer was about to come across the wreckage of one of the biggest tragedies that would happen to the music world.
The airplane that had crashed, a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza, held three of the most renowned rock n’ roll stars: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. All of them, including Peterson, were killed on impact.
The group had been travelling as part of the Winter Dance Party Tour, coming from their performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, to their next scheduled stop, Fargo, North Dakota, when they’d encountered bad weather during their flight. This was one of the reasons why the plane went down. The other reason was because the pilot was not instrumentally educated. Since the weather was bad, all Peterson could see were the dark clouds, making him rely solely on the instruments of the cockpit, which he was not educated with. The research that has been dedicated to the crash has come up that Peterson was suffering from spatial disorientation, meaning he thought the plane was flying level, when in reality the plane was flying downwards; six miles away from the airport, the plane finally crashed in a field at 170 miles per hour, killing everyone on impact.
The world was stunned and devastated with the loss of these three rockers.
J.P. Richardson was 28 years old when the plane crashed. He was born October 24, 1930 in Sabine Pass, Texas. When he was younger, he was a disk jockey, quickly becoming known for his big voice and big personality. While attending Lamar College, he worked at the radio station KTRM Radio; after college, he joined the United States Army for two years, where he was a radar instructor at Fort Bliss. After the army, he went back to KTRM Radio and found kids doing a dance move called “The Bop,” so he decided to go by “The Bopper.” Later, using his guitar skills, he began writing songs. Eventually, his songwriting led him to the Winter Dance Party Tour.
Ritchie Valens was born in a Los Angeles suburb with the name Richard Valenzuela. When the plane crashed, he was 17 years old. Valens had many hits, including, “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna,” and “La Bamba.” In 2001, Ritchie Valens was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Buddy Holly was 22 at the time and a pioneer in rock n’ roll, eventually becoming one of the greatest rock n’ rollers. He was born in Lubbock, Texas, as Charles Holley. In high school, he sang country music with high school friends, but eventually switched to rock n’ roll after he had opened for many rock n’ roll performers, including Elvis Presley. In the mid-1950s, he had a radio show with his band, The Crickets, and toured internationally, singing hits like “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!”, “Maybe Baby,” and “Early in the Morning.” He created The Crickets, which consisted of Buddy, Jerry Allison, and Joe Maudlin. Buddy and the Crickets were produced by a man named Norman Petty. As Buddy began to grow as an artist, he became more interested in the business side of the music and wanted to move to New York to be closer to the business aspect, along with the fact Buddy married a woman from New York named Maria Elena Santiago. When he split from Norman Petty as a producer, the remaining Crickets decided to stay with Petty. At this time, Buddy was low on cash and had no band.
As a solution, Buddy went to find new bandmates in the Lubbock area, one being the future country legend Waylon Jennings. When Buddy came to see Waylon, he handed him a bass guitar and told him he had two weeks to learn it, in which Waylon bought every record of Buddy’s and memorized the songs on the bass. In addition, Tommy Allsup was hired for the guitar and Carl Bunch for the drums.
Travelling for Buddy proved to be a hardship. The band travelled by bus, which often left the performers tired and restless; in addition, since they were traveling during the winter and the bus did not have a heater, the bus was always freezing, actually causing Carl Bunch to be hospitalized for frostbitten toes. The bus being such a hardship is what caused Buddy to get the plane for his band members; other than the pilot, only three people could fit on the plane, however, so Buddy, Waylon Jennings, and Tommy Allsup would ride on the plane, while the others would ride the bus to the next place. Things did not go according to plan, however. J.P. Richardson came down with the flu before the flight and asked Waylon if he could ride on the plane instead of the cold bus. Waylon ended up consenting and gave his seat to Richardson. In addition, Ritchie Valens was flipping a coin with Tommy Allsup about who would take the other airplane seat, and Valens ended up winning.
After Buddy found out Waylon would not be riding with them on the plane, he jokingly told Waylon, “I hope your ol’ bus freezes,” to which Waylon responded, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” This conversation would haunt Waylon for the rest of his life.
Especially to the survivors of the band, this day was one no one would forget. Buddy’s wife, Maria, had been pregnant with his child when the plane crashed, and when she heard the news, she had a miscarriage from the stress and grief. It was a devastating tragedy to the music industry as well, especially to the fans, friends, and families of the lost. Don McLean, in his song “American Pie,” which came out in 1971, coined February 3, 1959, truly as “The Day the Music Died.”