Buddy Holly And The Day The Music Died

On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and JP (The Big Bopper) Richardson died in a tragic plane crash. It’s an event that has come to be known as ‘the day the music died.’

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Buddy Holly
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It was February as Don Maclean’s song “American Pie” tells us, and it was cold. February 3, 1959, was a day that deeply affected not just Don, but millions of people across America and around the world. It was “the day the music died.” The day that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and JP (The Big Bopper) Richardson died in a plane crash.

They were all appearing on the aptly named Winter Dance Party tour along with Dion and the Belmonts and an unknown singer named Frankie Sardo. The shows themselves were fine, but the conditions were anything but. The band bus was so cold that Buddy’s drummer had to leave the tour with frostbite.

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On February 1, the tour played Green Lake, Wisconsin, and the following day they were due in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was a 350-mile drive. So slow was their progress that they never made a promotional stop at a Mason City record store. They arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake around 6 pm. After dinner in a nearby restaurant, Buddy told the manager of the Surf Ballroom that he wanted to charter an aircraft to fly to their next stop. It was a 500-mile drive to Moorhead, Minnesota and that meant at least ten hours on the bus, probably more.

The Surf’s manager called Dwyer’s Aviation in Mason City and was quoted $108 to charter a four-seat plane. Shortly after 8 pm, the show kicked off with Frankie Sardo, followed by the Big Bopper and then Richie Valens. After the intermission, it was Dion and the Belmonts and at 10.40 pm it was time for Buddy – his first song, “Gotta Travel On.” After “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” the final song of Buddy’s set, just about everyone got back on stage for “La Bamba.” It all wound up around 11.30 pm.

Around midnight, Buddy, J.P. Richardson, and Tommy Allsup, Buddy’s guitarist, were getting ready to leave the Surf Ballroom for the airport at Mason City. Allsup went back inside after Buddy had told him to check they had everything. Allsup bumped into Richie Valens who was signing autographs. Richie was anxious to go on the plane, as he, like everyone, hated the bus. He convinced Allsup to toss a coin for the place. Tommy Allsup lost.

Shortly after 12.30 AM, Buddy, Richie, and J.P arrived at the airport; it was snowing and the winds were increasing. Just before 1 am they boarded the 12-year-old Beech Bonanza; Buddy in the front with the pilot and the others in the back. Getting airborne just before 1 am, the plane headed northwest towards Fargo, North Dakota, the nearest airport to Moorhead.

What happened next, we will never know. It appears that the pilot misread the dials and, instead of climbing, he started descending. In the darkness and the conditions, with no real horizon visible, there is only the plane’s artificial horizon to depend on. The plane crashed five minutes later on farmland belonging to Albert Juel.

It was not until 5 am that an alert was issued for the missing plane and not until 9 am the next morning that the owner of Dwyer Aviation, flying his own plane and searching for any wreckage, spotted the crash site. All four men had died instantly and despite subsequent conspiracy theories that include Buddy forcing the pilot to hand over the controls, at gunpoint, there is little doubt that it was just a tragic accident.

Recorded and released little more than a decade later, Don McLean’s “American Pie” immortalized that night, dubbing it “the day the music died.”

Listen to the best of Buddy Holly on Apple Music and Spotify.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. David

    February 3, 2015 at 11:08 am

    On this day every year my paper cutting come’s out with black ribbon around it, and I play his music all day, the cutting shows all 3 of them in the show, and the wreckage of plane, Buddy is my number one.

    • Keithy

      February 3, 2015 at 11:49 am

      DITTO, David,my sentiments also,a very sad time for all of Buddys Fans

  2. Lucky

    February 4, 2015 at 11:33 am

    RIIIIIIITCHIEEEEEEEE!

  3. David

    February 4, 2016 at 6:23 am

    God blessed you with an Awesome Talent, R.I.P. Everybody’s Buddy.

  4. Ted Burrell

    February 4, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    I never heard the story about the gun. Was a gun found at the crash site?
    Was the flight data box ( if present then) preserved at the Smithsonian Institution?
    I also never saw a documentary about this crash that played audio recordings.

  5. Lucy

    February 4, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    I remember the day I learned about the crash. I was only 19 and a big fan of Buddy Holly. I arrived at my work place only to hear the news. I ran into the rest room and cried my eyes out. I still play his music in my car. It makes me feel young and good all over. What a tragedy for his family, fans and the music business.

  6. Charles

    October 19, 2016 at 4:36 am

    Was the airplane they chartered a V-tail Bonanza?

  7. SKR

    February 3, 2018 at 11:57 am

    I was 16 years old.
    I heard about the crash when I got to school & veryone was in shock.
    This was the beginning of Rock & Roll &
    we had no real hero’s back then.
    Big Bands were just dropping off &
    Elvis was just becoming famous. American Bandstand was the thing to watch on TV – if you had a TV.
    Buddy Holly, Richie Valens & The Big Bopper were up & coming & not the big stars they are known ho be today.
    What is really sad when great artists die young is what music the world will never hear by their death.

  8. Unicorn

    August 31, 2019 at 2:39 am

    My conspiracy theory: Elvis Presley was jealous of the success of these artists and set it up so that the three of them would die and when he came home from the army, the stage would be all his again.

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