60 Years Ago, Tragedy Made History
60 years ago, Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens, along with 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson, all died in a plane crash just moments after they took off in a winter storm following a show in Iowa. It’s ‘the day he music died’-February 3, 1959.
The story goes that Holly was tired of riding the tour bus, which was constantly failing them in one way or another, so he chartered a private airplane to take at least part of the troupe on to the next leg of the tour in Minnesota. A coin flip won Valens his spot on the ill fated flight. Holly’s bass player gave up his seat on the plane to Richardson, who was sick with the flu. Legend has it that Holly somewhat jokingly said ‘I hope the old bus freezes up on you’. The bass player quipped back ‘I hope your ol’ plane crashes’. That bass player would be haunted by those words the rest of his life. He also went on to become one of country music’s biggest stars. His name was Waylon Jennings.
This story has been told over and over again many times in the six decades since it happened. Singer Don McLean immortalized that day with his hit ‘American Pie’ years later. You would think, after all these years, an event like this wouldn’t have so much of an impact, but yet it does. Here we are, six decades later, still talking about the men, their music and their untimely deaths. Holly was a pioneer, he sang, played guitar like few fellow artists could, wrote and arranged his music. He even filled in on the drums with Dion and Belmonts that fateful night at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Their usual drummer was sick. Holly was a multi-talented musician who clearly had no problem filling any role he needed to.
Richardson was a disc jockey before his breakout hit ‘Chantilly Lace’ was released on the Mercury label in 1958. He broke the world record for the longest continuous radio broadcast, broadcasting for five days, two hours and eight minutes in May of 1957. Richardson is also credited with creating the first music video, and first coining the term, in 1958. Valens was just 17 when he died, but he laid the ground work for the Chicano and Latino rock movements and the work of artists such as Santana, Los Lobos, War and others. Valens didn't live long enough to really profit from his talent or see the trail he was blazing.
Are there any young, contemporary artists today that will hold a place in hearts and minds of music fans sixty years from now the way any of these artists have for the past sixty years? The tragic and untimely deaths of Richardson, Holly and Valens cemented their places in rock & roll history. Had they lived, they would have had long and successful careers. But the music has changed. The way we consume it, the way it impacts us has changed. It’s not new or revolutionary anymore. And I’m not sure the fan loyalty is what it was back then, or even what it was just twenty years ago, before the digital music revolution. That loyalty has also helped to preserve the legends, the music and the influence.
Today, it just feels different. We have so many entertainment options today, so many ways in which to receive it. Times have changed in ways Holly, Richardson, Valens or any other artist of that era could have possibly imagined. No teenager today knows the joy of going to a record store to pick up their favorite artists new album, or sitting by the radio waiting for the newest single to be played. On-demand listening is great, but it has forever altered the way music impacts us.
Many rock acts of my generation (and the one before) do hold this sort of legend. The Rolling Stones, Metallica, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses, just to name a few, will have a solid following well into the future, long after we're all gone. 100 years from now, their music will still be known and their names will be etched in history. And The Big Bopper, Valens and Holly, will always have a prominent seat at the table.
Sources: Wikipedia, Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, YouTube