Charles Hardin Holley – Buddy Holly (22)
Richard Steven Valenzuela – Ritchie Valens (17)
Jiles Perry “J.P.” Richardson, Jr. – The Big Bopper (28)
The single engine Beechcraft Bonanza took off around 12:30 a.m. from Clear Lake, IA, bound for Fargo, ND, nearest airport to the next gig in Moorhead, MN. Snow was blowing across the runway, but the sky was clear. Twenty-one year old pilot Roger Peterson, who was not instrument rated, wasn’t told he’d be heading into a blizzard. Five miles out, the plane’s blip dropped off the radar screen, having crashed in a cornfield going about 170 m.p.h. Authorities arrived 10 hours later. Their best guess was that the pilot, fatigued after a 17-hour work day, must have flown into the snowstorm, become disoriented, and accidentally banked the plane down instead of up.
The three rock and roll stars had played 2 sold out shows at the Surf Ballroom, the 11th night of a 24 days in 24 towns bus tour of the upper Midwest – the “Winter Dance Party”. The buses had already broken down twice. The tour was tired, hadn’t been paid yet, and their clothes were dirty. Between sets, Buddy hatched the idea of flying ahead with his band, guitarist Tommy Allsup, and bassist, Waylon Jennings, so they could catch up on some rest and have the laundry done.
Waylon Jennings -- Buddy Holly -- Tommy Allsup
The Big Bopper approached Waylon and told him he had the flu, needed to rest, and asked if he could have his place on the plane. Jennings told him it was okay with him, if it was okay with Buddy. Ritchie Valens asked Allsup to flip a coin with him for the last seat. He agreed and Valens “won”. As he left for the airport, Buddy told Waylon “I hope your ass freezes on that bus.” Jennings retorted “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Those last words to his friend and mentor haunted Waylon Jennings, and for years he blamed himself for the crash.
First reports of the tragedy went out on the radio and television around noon CST. Buddy Holly and his band had been killed in a plane crash. Waylon Jennings’ family in Texas heard the horrible news and went into mourning. No one on the bus tour was aware of what had happened until they arrived in Minnesota. Waylon went to check into the hotel and saw what he thought was a promo for that night’s concert on the TV. No, he was told, Buddy Holly and his band had been killed. He called his mother to assure her that he was alive. No such reprieve for Buddy Holly’s pregnant wife, Maria. She heard the news on television and suffered a miscarriage the following day.
What would Buddy Holly have become? As big as he wanted to be, considering what he accomplished in a career lasting a year and a half. In that time he charted 7 top 40 hits, including #1 “That’ll Be the Day”. He innovated recording techniques, like double-tracking a second voice and guitar on “Words of Love”. He pioneered the 2 guitars, bass and drum band configuration that would become the rock standard. Having moved to NYC, he was learning new guitar styles, adding jazz and orchestra sounds to his songs (“True Love Ways”) and had even signed up for acting lessons at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio.
Despite his short time on Earth, Buddy Holly’s influence on rock music and style was profound and long-lasting. John Lennon and Paul McCartney credit Holly as their main influence. John’s Quarrymen sets included several of Buddy’s songs, as did Beatles recordings. Beatles? Crickets. Get it. Lennon even adopted Buddy’s look for a time. Buddy made it okay to look ordinary. We would never have heard Roy Orbison’s voice if he hadn’t seen Buddy Holly and been inspired that he could perform, too.
Bob Dylan stood 3 feet from Buddy in Duluth, MN, 2 days before the plane crash, and felt his presence nearly 40 years later, while recording Grammy winner, Time Out of Mind. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Elton John, Eric Clapton, the Clash, and the Grateful Dead all spoke of Holly’s influence on them, and have recorded or played Buddy’s songs in concert. In an August 24, 1978, interview with Rolling Stone, Bruce Springsteen said "I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on; that keeps me honest".