Original publish date: January 31, 2019
60 years ago this Sunday was the day the music died. On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed along with pilot Roger Peterson in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The event was immortalized by Don McLean in his 1971 song “American Pie”. Sixty years of rumors, innuendo and urban legends have followed since that frozen Tuesday morning. The facts get twisted, the accusations become tangled and conspiracy theories are contorted to fit a new narrative. One thing that never changes are the facts.
Three months before the crash Buddy Holly terminated his association with the Crickets. For his prophetic “Winter Dance Party” tour of 24 Midwestern cities in 24 days, he assembled a new band consisting of Waylon Jennings on bass, Tommy Allsup on guitar, and Carl Bunch on drums. The tour also featured Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion DiMucci and his band The Belmonts. To save room (and money) Holly’s group was utilized as the backing band for all of the acts. The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The rigorous travel schedule soon became a logistical problem; instead of hopping from town-to-town in a logical pattern, the tour zig-zagged chaotically, sometimes with distances between cities over 400 miles.
All of the musicians traveled together in a series of reconditioned school buses prone to breaking down and poorly heated inside. Five separate buses were used in the first eleven days of the tour. The bands had no “roadies” back then, so the artists themselves were responsible for loading and unloading equipment at each stop. Because the tour was scheduled in winter, the travel route consisted of waist-deep snow and the weather featured temperatures from the 20s to as low as −36 °F. Shortly after the tour began, Richardson and Valens began experiencing flu-like symptoms. A bus breakdown in the middle of the highway near Ironwood, Michigan in subzero temperatures resulted in drummer Bunch being hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet. While Bunch recovered in the hospital, Carlo Mastrangelo of The Belmonts took over the drumming duties for Buddy Holly. When Dion and The Belmonts were performing, either Valens or Holly manned the drums. On Monday, February 2, Dion DiMucci took over the drums for the performance in Green Bay, Wisconsin and, after driving 350 miles, again took over the drum stool for that final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Clear Lake had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom and offered to do the show. When Holly arrived at the venue that evening, he was visibly angry with the ongoing problems with the bus. The next gig was 365-miles north / northwest to Moorhead, Minnesota, which took them directly back through two towns they had already played within the last week. To make matters worse, the following day, they were scheduled to travel back directly south to Sioux City, Iowa, a 325-mile trip. Holly decided to charter a plane to take himself and his band to the Fargo, North Dakota airport, a 2 1/2 mile drive to Moorhead.
A 1947 single-engine, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza airplane was chartered from the Dwyer Flying Service of Mason City, Iowa to fly Holly and his band to Hector Airport in Fargo. Tickets were $36 per passenger on the single-engine plane that could seat three passengers plus the pilot. One of the urban legends that sprang up years later was that the plane was called American Pie. In fact, the plane had no name other than its NAA code of N3794N.
Richardson was still battling the flu and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was taking the bus, he teased the future country legend by joking, “Well, Hoss, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded: “Well, then I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Jennings, who would be known by the nickname “Hoss” given him by Holly, was haunted by that bad joke for the rest of his life. Richie Valens, who was also struggling with the flu, asked Allsup for his seat on the plane even though he had an admitted fear of flying. Valens had witnessed a plane crash that took the life of his best friend on January 13, 1957. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide. Valens won the seat but lost his life.
Dion later said that Holly approached him along with Valens and Richardson to join the flight (the plane had 6 seats). In a 2009 interview, Dion claimed that Holly called him, Valens, and Richardson into a vacant dressing room and said “I’ve chartered a plane, we’re the guys making the money [we should be the ones flying ahead]…the only problem is there are only two available seats.” According to Dion, the coin toss for the seat was between Dion and Valens. Dion said that he won the toss, but ultimately balked at the $36 fare ($310 in today’s money) which equaled the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he could not justify the expense and opted for the bus instead. One report claimed that Buddy Holly wanted to charter the plane so that he could do his laundry. Reportedly, Holly was tired of traveling in cold uncomfortable buses and rattling through the Midwest wearing dirty clothes. Some witnesses claim that he chartered the plane in part so that he could arrive early and find a washing machine.
Holly, Valens, and Richardson departed from the Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet AMSL (above mean sea level) with sky obscured, visibility 6 miles, and winds from 20 to 30 mph. And it was going to get worse. The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today’s runway 18) at 12:55 am CST. A witness watching the take-off from a platform outside the control tower was able to see clearly the aircraft’s tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 ft. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view. Eight hours later, with no news from the pilot or sign of the passengers, airport owner Hubert Jerry Dwyer retraced the doomed planes route in another airplane. At around 9:35 am, he spotted the wreckage less than 6 miles northwest of the airport. The sheriff’s office dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl.
The Bonanza had banked steeply to the right and entered a nose-down death spiral before it augured in at around 170 mph. The right wing tip hit the ground first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet before coming to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl’s property. The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the torn fuselage and lay near the plane’s wreckage. Richardson’s body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl’s neighbor Oscar Moffett, while Peterson’s body was entangled in the wreckage. The County coroner certified that all four victims died instantly, citing the cause of death as “gross trauma to brain” for the three artists and “brain damage” for the pilot.
The official investigation was carried out by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, precursor to the NTSB) later concluded that the accident was due to “the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight” that required instrument flying skills he had not proved to have. A contributing factor was the “seriously inadequate” weather briefing provided to Peterson, which “failed to even mention adverse flying condition which should have been highlighted”.
The charter plane’s wreckage was strewn across nearly 300 yards of snow-covered cornfields. The death certificate issued by the Cerro Gordo County Coroner noted the clothing Holly was wearing, the presence of a leather suitcase near his body and the following personal effects: Cash $193.00 less $11.65 coroner’s fees – $181.35, 2 Cuff links: silver 1/2 in. balls having jeweled band, Top portion of ball point pen. Notably missing from the list were Holly’s signature eyeglasses.
On February 29, 1980, a pair of glasses were found in a filing cabinet of the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s office in Mason City, Iowa. The glasses were found in a manila envelope marked simply, “Charles Hardin Holley received April 7, 1959”. Along with the glasses, four dice, a cigarette lighter and a watch belonging to one Jiles Perry Richardson were also in the envelope. The lenses of the glasses were missing but the watch still ran pretty well. The relics had been resting unrecognized for nearly twenty-one years. They had been found at the scene of the February 3, 1959 plane crash, placed in storage as evidence and forgotten.
The wristwatch and cigarette lighter belonged to the Big Bopper and the horn rimmed glasses belonged to Buddy Holly. It is widely believed that the envelope had remained undiscovered because nobody recognized the innocuous plain sounding name Charles Hardin Holley written on the outside. The envelope was found while some records were being moved. Officials speculated that the leftover items had been found by a farmer two months later after the snow melted. The coroner’s office collected (and then misplaced) them in the process of moving to a new county courthouse. Buddy’s glasses had been thrown clear of the plane wreckage and buried in the snow. Those glasses were special, they were Buddy Holly’s trademark. The focal point of a carefully crafted look. They became the single item most remembered by his fans.
The Big Bopper’s watch was inscribed on back for a 1957 disc-a-thon, representing an important milestone in his life. In May 1957, at the Jefferson Theater in Beaumont Texas broadcasting from radio station KTRM, the Big Bopper beat the record for continuous broadcasting. His record was marked at 122 hours and 8 minutes (a little over 5 days) during which the Big Bopper stayed on air and awake the entire time. The dice were unattributed but played into an urban legend that circulated claiming that the crash happened after a game of chance went bad and one of the performers shot another (usually told as Holly and Richardson) which, like most urban legends, has no basis in fact whatsoever.
Another urban legend claimed that the plane crash was caused by some mysterious in-flight gunplay. The rumor claimed that Richardson’s death was the result of an accidental firearm discharge on board the aircraft that caused the crash. The rumor began two months after the crash when a farmer found a .22 pistol known to have belonged to Holly at the crash site. The rumor further claimed that Richardson survived the initial impact and froze to death while crawling out of the aircraft in search of help. The fact that his body was found farther from the wreckage than the other three was offered as proof of that theory.
On March 6, 2007, at the direction of the musician’s son Jay Perry, Richardson’s body was exhumed from it’s Lone Star grave for reburial in a more fitting part of Beaumont, Texas’s Forest Lawn cemetery. According to the autopsy report, when the casket lid was raised, it revealed a fairly well-preserved corpse dressed in a black suit with a blue & gray striped tie. The Bopper wore socks, but no shoes. The mottled, bluish face was slightly moldy and misshapen, no doubt owing to the shifting of mortician’s putty used to reconstruct the crushed skull. The fingers had “mummified into curled, dark brown talons.” X-rays of Richardson’s body concluded that the musician had indeed died instantly from extensive, non-survivable fractures to almost all of his bones; no traces of lead were found from any bullet. The report further stated that Richardson had probably died quickly from massive head injuries suffered in the plane crash. Putting any unsavory internet rumors to rest forever.
Remarkably, The Bopper’s thick brown hair was “still perfectly coiffed in his familiar, 1950s flat-top.” Strangely, the Bopper’s son Jay was present during the entire autopsy. On the subject of the Bopper’s still perfect flattop, his son stated, “It was awesome.” and went on to say, “I talked to him. I got to know my dad a little better.” Jay, showing signs that he inherited his father’s droll humor, joked that the Big Bopper would never have chosen to be buried in such a tie. The Bopper was re-interred in a replacement casket donated by the Batesville Casket Co. of Batesville, Indiana in March of 2007.
The toll was incalculable: The singers of “Peggy Sue” and “Come On Let’s Go” and “Donna” and “La Bamba” were all dead. Holly was just 22 and Valens only 17. Rock and roll would never be the same. Holly’s pregnant wife, María Elena, learned of his death by watching television. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, reportedly due to “psychological trauma”. Holly’s mother, at home in Lubbock, Texas, heard the news on the radio before she screamed and fainted. Following these inexcusable death notification circumstances, a policy was adopted by authorities not to disclose victims’ names until after their families have been informed. That policy remains in affect today. Holly’s widow did not attend the funeral and has never visited the gravesite. Holly and Richardson were buried in Texas, Valens in California, and Peterson in Iowa.
And whatever happened to those glasses? When that envelope was discovered, Holly’s parents claimed the glasses, as did his widow, and on March 20, 1981, a judge awarded the eyeglasses to María Elena in the same Mason City courthouse where they were discovered. Maria kept them until October 1998, when she sold them to Civic Lubbock, the nonprofit cultural organization that created the Buddy Holly Center. The price was $80,000. Today the glasses, visibly scarred from the plane crash, are on exhibit at the center, in a case near Holly’s Fender Strato-caster guitar. Other pieces in the collection include Buddy’s stage clothing, letters, photos, and a book containing handwritten song lyrics.
Thirteen years after the crash, Don McLean wrote a song about the tragedy: “American Pie,” an 8½-minute epic with an iconic lyric about “the day the music died.” Next week, in part II of this story, we’ll take a look at that song.