It's Been 50 Years Since the Music Died

Fifty years ago today - February 3, 1959 - the world lost three of its early pioneering rock and rollers in a fiery plane crash over Clear Lake, Iowa. Texan Buddy Holly, Chicano rock godfather Ritchie Valens, and Sabine Pass-born disc jockey/songwriter J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson all lay dead along with inexperienced pilot Roger Peterson in a frozen cornfield.

They were on a Midwestern tour that had already suffered scheduling difficulties and bad weather at almost every turn. Half a century on, it's heartbreaking to think about what we lost that day and what the fallen could have done with a full life. The events of that day have been immortalized in Don McLean's anthemic song "American Pie" and a whole slew of tributes ranging from films and concerts remind listeners of the tragedy. 

At the time of his death, Lubbock native Holly was a one-man rock and roll revolution on par with Elvis Presley. He didn't have the swagger or matinee-idol looks that the Tupelo-bred crooner had, but what Holly had was tunes. "Not Fade Away," "Peggy Sue" and "Rave On" set the template for all that would follow.

The Rolling Stones and Beatles were immensely influenced by Holly and backing band the Crickets. In fact, as everyone now knows, Lennon and McCartney's moniker was a tribute to Holly's band. It's hard to think about Ritchie Valens and not see Lou Diamond Phillips, who starred as Valens in the 1987 biopic La Bamba. The film was a hit for Phillips and Los Lobos, who re-recorded Valens' music for the soundtrack.

Ritchie Valens, "Ooh My Head" (that's Chuck Berry on the left)

There was a pain and sadness in Valens' music that owed a lot to his being a teenage minority in a country that had yet to fully accept Hispanics. In fact, his real name was Valenzuela, but was Anglicized by the record label to have wider appeal to white teens. But songs like "Donna" and "We Belong Together" spoke to teens of all colors and creeds, and dealt with colorless themes like teen heartbreak and lovelorn angst.

"The Big Bopper" Richardson graduated from Beaumont High School in 1947 and soon began a career in radio in the area. A short Army stint as a radar operator interrupted his DJ tenure, but upon his return he took up where he had left off. Richardson was best known for spending five straight days on air playing records, losing a significant amount of weight and sanity in the process.

The Big Bopper, "Chantilly Lace"

"Chantilly Lace" is Richardson's most well-known track, and the success of that song was what put him on tour with Holly, Valens and others. Many will be surprised that Richardson wrote "White Lightning," later recorded by George Jones, who took it to No. 1 on the charts shortly after the deadly plane crash. Richardson's flu during the week of the crash that led to Crickets bassist Waylon Jennings cheating death and instead taking a bus that night to the next venue.

Holly and fellow West Texan Jennings had a playful exchange before the crash, with Holly saying "I hope your ol' bus freezes up"; with Jennings countering "I hope your ol' plane crashes." Jennings lived with the torment of that innocent conversation until his 2002 death.

It's interesting to think what might have become of the fallen idols. Maybe Holly would have dived full-force into the '60s, turning acid-rock and playing "True Love Ways" at Woodstock, with his trademark black-rim glasses sticking out of a mass of dark hippie hair. Valens could have taken Chicano rock even further and done untold things with acolytes like Carlos Santana, even touching on his own rockabilly leanings.

Richardson - about whom a movie is now in the development stages - was an early purveyor of music videos, and even coined the term himself. He certainly would have been at the forefront of that field. It's amazing to imagine what something like a music video could have done in the early garage and British Invasion era that relied so heavy on dark imagery.

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Craig Hlavaty
Contact: Craig Hlavaty