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.
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.”