This is the Johnny Rabbitt Report regarding February 3rd, 1959 — the date that’s infamously known as “The day the music died.” But, that phrase wasn’t used until the release of Don Mclean’s song ‘American Pie’ in November, 1971, which had that line that referred to the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens. The first tribute song for this incident was 1959’s Three Stars’ by Tommy Dee with Carol Kay that got to #11 in Billboard and was awarded a Gold Record. Eddie Cochran also recorded it in ’59 but I wasn’t released until 1966 in England and 1972 in the U.S.
At the time of the tragedy, I was manager, program director and morning DJ on KCKN in Kansas City, which was then a Top 40 station and these were 3 of the top artists we played. We got the shocking news of the crash and deaths that Tuesday morning from the International News Service. It was a very emotional moment for all of us in radio, and 59 years later I still vividly recall the shock of getting that report and having to break the story to listeners.
The last place on earth that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper would play was the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on Monday, February 2nd, 1959. It was billed as The Winter Dance Party and ran from 8 to midnight at that ballroom which had been in operation since 1933. The show, which was for kids from 12 to 21 was promoted with the line, “See there recording stars in person.” And stars they were.
At the time of this dance party concert, Buddy had had 4 major hits on the Billboard magazine charts in 1957 – That’ll Be the Day, a #1 million-seller, Peggy Sue, another million-seller that got to #3, Oh, Boy which made it to #10, and then Maybe Baby in ‘58, which went to #17. But of his next 5 releases in ’58, the highest-charting song was Think It Over that topped out at #27.
‘Chantilly Lace’ by J. P. (Jiles Perry) Richardson ‘The Big Bopper’ got to #6 in late ’58. The Big Bopper was a DJ at KTRM in Beaumont, Texas, and a songwriter who wrote ‘Running Bear’ that was a hit song for Johnny Preston months after the death of the Big Bopper.
And there was Richie Valens, who had started his recording career with ‘Come On, Let‘s Go’ that Came out in Sept. of ’58, and his hit record of Donna which stayed on the charts for 23 weeks hit the #2 spot and won a gold record. It had just been out for 6 weeks at the time of their date with fate, plus the flip-side La Bamba was also a hit.
Also on the bill at the Surf Ballroom were The Crickets, Dion & The Belmonts and a singer named Frankie Sardo who had a regional hit called ‘Fake Out’. Admission to the party was $1.25 plus 10 cents for checking your coat. DJ Bob Hale was the M.C. and spun records before the live acts started. Bob became a DJ at WLS in Chicago and TV host of WMAQ’s ‘Chicago Today’ show.
These acts had been booked on a misguided mind numbing tour in the dead of a severe winter in the upper Midwest by General Artists Corporation, their booking agent out of New York. The Winter Dance Party tour was for 24 one-night stands in 3 weeks with the entire entourage being transported on very unreliable old school buses with little or no heat. Having worked in the music business for some years, I know it’s typical that people in NY or LA, who should know better, often don’t comprehend the sometimes considerable distances between towns or cities in the heartland, which in the case of this tour found the performers, who also served as their own equipment managers, to need to often travel from 300 to over 400 miles to the next gig.
And for the entire time of the ill-fated tour, they had to deal with weather that was at times snowy, icy and always downright bitterly cold with temperatures ranging from the 20s to as low as 36 degrees below zero. Buddy couldn’t take it any longer and he chartered a small plane, which was a 1947 V-tailed Beechcraft Bonanza, from a local flying service. The plane which could only hold 3 passengers and the pilot was to fly them to Fargo, N. D. which was near the site of their next date in Moorhead, Minnesota.
The passengers were originally to be Buddy and 2 of the 3 Crickets. The Crickets were Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch and Waylon Jennings, since Buddy was paying for the flight. But, on the toss of a coin, Richie got Allsup’s seat, and reluctantly Waylon gave up his seat for the Big Bopper who was ill with the flu. Joking before the flight Buddy told Waylon ‘I hope your damned bus freezes up again.’ To which Waylon replied ‘Well, I hope your old plane crashes.’ That casual remark would haunt Waylon for years. Jennings had gotten the job as one half of the Crickets as he and Buddy became friends when Jennings was a DJ in Lubbock, Texas. In ’58 Jennings produced Holly’s first record ‘Jole Blon’ which was not a hit.
The doomed flight took off from the nearby Mason City airport at 12:30 a.m. piloted by a relatively inexperienced 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson. The official reported cause of the crash was poor flying conditions and pilot error. The plane came down in a corn field about 6 miles from where it had taken off. All 4 on board died instantly. When the flight failed to show up at Fargo the owner of the flying service searched for and discovered the snow covered wreckage and the bodies of the 3 stars that had been thrown from the wreckage. That was at 9:35 a.m. It was calculated that the plane was flying at 170 mph when it crashed nose down and cart wheeled some 540 feet across the field.
Buddy’s pregnant wife Maria miscarried, and J. P. Richardson’s wife not long thereafter gave birth to a son, who became a singer and toured as Big Bopper, Jr. He died in 2003. Richie was just 17.
After the tragedy, the other tour members continued to the next scheduled date where they were joined by replacement performers Bobby Vee & The Shadows and Frankie Avalon. At that time, Bobby Vee had not yet had a national hit song, but Frankie Avalon had just had 2 top 10 hits, was a regular on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and was in the movie ‘Jamboree.’
There’s a persistent rumor that will never be resolved, that a gunshot on board the plane was the actual cause of the crash. This is due to the fact that 2 months after the crash, a farmer found a 22-caliber pistol that had belonged to Buddy Holly. A request was made in 2015 to re-investigated the cause of the crash but it was rejected by the National Transportation Board.
The music of those stars who fell from the sky on that fateful snowy and bitterly cold night still resonates, and their influence on the music of our lives remains strong to this day.
In early ’62 the Belmonts of Dion & the Belmonts fame, who were on that tour, were in St. Louis on a promotional tour, and I interviewed them on my show on KXOK, and introduced them at an aud session at Soldan High School. That night, we went to Buster Wortman’s Paddock Lounge for a late dinner, and they discussed the deep shock and sorrow they, and the others on that tour felt, and that the memories of that night would haunt them forever.
Every year since 1979, the Surf Ballroom holds an event to memorialize the day the music died, and to make some money as well. This is a 4-day event with the last day being today. Tickets ranged from $115 to $315, with the higher priced tickets being sold out. There were other events such as lunch with the family of Richie Valens and a dance from 11 to 2 today. Those tickets are still available for 20 bucks. But there’s an impressive nostalgic lineup for the big show tonight that includes Brenda Lee, Bobby Rydell, Freddy Cannon, the Tokens and The Elegants.