Flashback: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, & ‘The Big Bopper’ Remembered
It was 63 years ago today (February 3rd, 1959) that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash after a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa. The three had been performing along with Dion & The Belmonts as part of the Winter Dance Party Tour, which would cover 24 cities in a short three-week period from January 23rd to February 15th. Holly, who had parted ways with longtime backing group the Crickets the previous year, was backed up by a then-unknown Waylon Jennings on bass, Carl Bunch on drums, and Tommy Allsup on lead guitar.
Dion DiMucci says that although the shows were always hot, his favorite moments from the tour were jamming on the near freezing bus on the way to the next town: “Well, we used to play in the back of the bus — Ritchie Valens, myself and Buddy Holly. The Big Bopper didn’t join in, he sat in the front with his beer. But we would rock in the back of the bus. You talk about tapes — I wish there was a tape going on.”
Throughout the tour, the musicians’ bus was either breaking down or often without heat. At one point, it was so cold that the tour’s drummer developed frostbite, resulting in the Belmonts’ Angelo D’Aleo — as well as Valens — serving double-duty by filling in on drums. When the tour finally arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2nd, 1959, Holly had made plans to fly out to the next city directly after the show, rather than brave the unheated 430-mile bus trip to Moorhead, Minnesota. He had hoped to get to their next stop with time to rest and do his laundry.
Dion says that the time he spent with Holly has left a deep and lasting impression on him, and he remembers him as a man wise beyond his years: “I spent two weeks with him. And he was very mature for his age. I mean, I was 19 — he was 22. He was a very decisive guy. I don’t know if it was his upbringing, but I couldn’t make decisions that fast. I mean. . . Well, he rented a plane! At 22 years old, ‘O.K. listen’ — y’know, he was recruiting people — ‘Let’s fly out and we’ll just split it.’ But you think of a 22-year-old chartering a plane, that was his kind of personality.”
Holly chartered a plane to fly him and his band to Fargo, North Dakota, near Moorhead. Jennings and Allsup gave up their seats to Richardson and Valens. Dion was supposed to be on the plane rather than Valens, but balked when he heard that his share would be a whopping $36 — the exact amount of his parents’ monthly rent back home in the Bronx. When Holly learned that Jennings wasn’t going to fly, he said, “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up!” Jennings responded, “Well, I hope your plane crashes!” This friendly banter would haunt Jennings for years. Valens, who was sick, told Allsup, “I’ll flip you for the remaining seat.” On the toss of a coin, Allsup lost the seat — but won the rest of his life.
The red Beechcraft Bonanza took off from Mason City, Iowa, ten miles east of Clear Lake, at around 1:50 a.m. on February 3rd, 1959. A cold wind immediately gave way to snow, which drastically reduced visibility. The ground was already blanketed in white. The pilot may have been inexperienced with the instrumentation.
The plane never made it to Minnesota.
Minutes after takeoff, one wing hit the ground and the small plane corkscrewed over and over. The three young stars and pilot Roger Peterson died immediately on impact. Over the years there has been speculation as to whether a gun was accidentally fired inside the plane, disabling or killing the pilot. The most logical explanation suggests that encased in a sea of white snow, Peterson simply flew the plane into the ground.
At the time of the crash, Buddy Holly was 22 years old. Ritchie Valens was 17, and the Big Bopper was 28.
Buddy Holly was born in Lubbock, Texas on September 7th, 1936 as Charles Hardin Holley. Although many of his greatest hits from the 1950s, such as “Peggy Sue,” “Not Fade Away,” “Every Day,” “Maybe Baby” “Well… Alright,” and “That’ll Be The Day” have stood the test of time, Buddy’s ultimate influence was not as a performer but as a songwriter. Buddy Holly helped spearhead a whole new genre, serving as a main inspiration for the next generation of rock songwriters including, most importantly, John Lennon & Paul McCartney, Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, Paul Simon, Pete Townshend, Brian Wilson & Mike Love, Ray Davies, and Bob Dylan.
Paul McCartney has long cited Buddy Holly as his main songwriting influence went on to purchase Holly’s songwriting catalogue. He recalled the scene for him on February 3rd, 1959: “I remember being in my old school playground, getting there in the morning, and we used to have a little thing called ‘Smoker’s Corner,’ where those of us who were about 15, 16, or something, would, y’know, think we were real hoods, smoke a quick Woodbine (cigarette) before we went to class early in the morning. And someone had a Daily Mirror — and there, on the headline: ‘Buddy Holly Died.’ Oh my God. The rug was pulled out from underneath us. It was quite shocking. It’s one of those events where people can remember where they were.”
Graham Nash recalls how he and fellow Hollies co-founder Allan Clarke dealt with the news of Holly’s sudden death: “I remember being on the street corner with my friend Allan Clarke, who later formed the Hollies with me — my best friend at the time — crying our eyes out. I mean we lost — not only Buddy, but the ‘Big Bopper’ and Ritchie Valens. Y’know, I wasn’t as much into their music, although I knew it, but I was totally involved in Buddy’s music and we were crying our eyes out.”
We asked Nash what he made of Holly upon first hearing him in 1957: “Unbelievable. He was one of us, he was a rock star that had glasses. It wasn’t a sex thing, y’know, like Elvis (Presley) was with his swiveling hips. Buddy Holly touched people’s hearts in how simple his music was and how attainable it was for everybody. I mean, who doesn’t know a Buddy Holly song? I was looking the other day at The Rolling Stone 500 Best Songs Of All Time and he’s got four of them in there! We called ourselves the Hollies for God sake. And he definitely without question influenced the Beatles.”
Paul McCartney has without a doubt been the biggest champion for Buddy Holly’s music over the decades: “It’s great music, Buddy’s. It’s very evocative for those of us who were around then. Y’know, it really sums up the period. And a lot of it still plays now, still sounds good.”
McCartney recalled that apart from songwriting, Buddy Holly actually inspired him and John Lennon in other ways: “The thing about Buddy was, whereas Elvis (Presley) was this unattainable, gorgeous, god; Buddy was the boy next door. And I remember John being particularly pleased — he could now put his glasses on. ‘Cause John had big horn-rimmed glasses that he always had to take off when we played or when there were girls around. John, of course couldn’t see a bloody thing — he really was very short-sighted — so, he was very pleased when Buddy came around, ’cause he (could) actually put his horn-rims on and felt like a dude.”
Back in February 1975 John Lennon premiered his covers album, Rock N’ Roll on New York City’s WNEW and shed light on re-recording a nearly-note perfect cover of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”: “In fact, when I was doing it, I did Deja vu. It came back to me, I didn’t even have to read the words, which I did on most of them. And this I was singing when I was 16, or something. And it’s virtually how Buddy did it — but not quite as good, but it’ll do!”
One of McCartney’s first major publishing acquisitions for his company MPL Communications was the Buddy Holly catalogue. Although McCartney has been outspoken regarding the use of his Beatles songs in advertisements and movies, he admits that its a slippery slope for him when dealing with Buddy’s legendary tunes: “It really is very difficult. With the Buddy Holly stuff I do have the right to sort of let people use it, ’cause we’re the publishers of that, we can do it. So I think, generally, I don’t like it — particularly with the Beatles stuff. I don’t know, there might be people out there who say that you shouldn’t do it with Buddy. I don’t know, I’ve done it once or twice with him, but I don’t really like doing it, I must admit. But you get your advisers saying, ‘Okay, so you’re going to turn down all that money, are you?’ It’s a very difficult decision, y’know? If I was being purist, I’d say, ‘No one should do it.’ I mean, my heart says that, but, y’know, you’re not always as pure as you think.”
At the Winter Dance Party’s January 31st, 1959 stop at Duluth, Minnesota’s National Guard Armory, a 17-year-old Bob Dylan was standing pressed up against the stage. At the 1998 Grammy Awards ceremony, while accepting his Album of the Year Grammy for Time Out Of Mind, Dylan paid tribute to Holly and spoke about the only time he saw his hero perform: “And I just wanted to say that one time when I was 16 or 17-years-old, I went to see Buddy Holly play, and I was three feet away from him. And he looked at me. I just have some kind of feeling that he was — I don’t know how or why — but, I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”
Mick Jagger explained Buddy Holly’s influence on all the future British Invasion rockers: “Every English person you talk to, from my generation, at least, will tell you that Buddy Holly was — he was a big influence as a songwriter. And he wrote all these songs in a very short period of time, and they’re all very simple. And he was very big in England, I think he toured only once; I saw him on stage. But he was a very big influence.”
Keith Richards recalled that Buddy Holly was the prototype for the rock musician who could write, record, and perform their own material: “The beauty of Buddy’s thing to me is the self-containedness of it all. He didn’t need anybody else, he didn’t need, y’know, songs, but just put it all together. He had a great band — God knows how he got it together, but he was the first one to do it. I mean, until the Beatles turned up and Bob Dylan, who strengthened, y’know, writing your own material, nobody was in that position — Elvis (Presley) hardly wrote a song in his life. Jerry Lee Lewis has written one, all the other guys didn’t do it. And it was in that respect, Buddy was streets ahead of his time.”
All three fallen stars, Holly, Valens, and Richardson, became far bigger in death than during their short careers. Although talented in his own right, Valens — who had only one double A-sided hit with “La Bamba” and “Donna” — was not yet a major star on Holly’s level. The “Big Bopper” — who in 1959 had written and produced Johnny Preston‘s 1960 Number One hit “Running Bear” — was a novelty act whose day job was as an outlandish disc jockey. Although Valens’ career might have gone on to reach further heights, it’s more than likely that “The Bopper” would have remained more a rock “personality” than a musical force for the ages. Dying along with Holly made them both rock immortals.
Several films featuring the tragedy have been made over the years, including 1978’s Oscar-nominated, but historically inaccurate, The Buddy Holly Story, and La Bamba, the 1987 biopic which chronicled Valens’ life.
According to several sources, including Jennings, Holly’s post-tour plans were to reconvene with the Crickets — drummer Jerry “J.I.” Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin — and carry on with Allsup on lead guitar. Holly was also planning on starting his own record label — Prism Records — and signing Jennings as its first artist. J.I. Allison recalled the deal that he and Holly made prior to him moving to New York City in 1958: “The last time I saw Buddy as a matter of fact he said, ‘O.K., if you’re not gonna move to New York, y’all just work as ‘the Crickets’ and I’ll work as ‘Buddy Holly’ and if it doesn’t work out for either one of us we’ll get back together, okay?’ And we said ‘Fine.’ And Waylon told me that Buddy was talking to him on that last tour and said ‘I’m going to get J.I. and Joe B. back.'”
Holly’s widow, Maria Elena, who miscarried their child shortly after his death, recalls their time living in New York City as being an eye-opener for him as he explored the Greenwich Village folk scene and jammed most mornings with musicians at Washington Square Park, which was practically right outside his apartment building the Brevoort: “He really liked the excitement, and at that time that’s where — as they say, where the action was. New York at that time was for musicians. On top of that, that’s where I’m from. That’s where the Brevoort is on Fifth Avenue, close to Washington Square Park. And that was something that Buddy really enjoyed, because that’s where he saw that he could start a new career.”
She remembers Buddy performing for free, almost daily, with local musicians at the Park: “Right in the fountain — y’know, they’d have the benches there in the morning. We’d walk to Washington Square Park, and that’s where a lot of musicians congregated. Bud would sit with a guitar and start playing, and then all of a sudden you see all these people gravitating towards him. They’d say, ‘Are you Buddy Holly — ‘That’ll Be The Day’?’ And then. . . little by little, we did that every day.”
The Everly Brothers frequently hit the road with the other forefathers of rock n’ roll, and both Don and Phil Everly struck up an immediate and close relationship with Buddy Holly. The late-Phil Everly, who was a pallbearer at Holly’s funeral in 1959, recalled the scene of rock’s earliest tours in an upcoming documentary called Inventing Rock N’ Roll, produced by Everly Films: “The first time I met Buddy Holly was. . . Don and I joined a big package tour, y’know. . . I believe it was the Fats Domino tour. Everybody was on it — it was something. And, what it was, everybody was down in the, like, locker rooms, like at a sports event y’know, with a — everybody had a hook (laughs), y’know, for your wardrobe, and we all sat on benches and we were all in the same room and that’s when we first met him. I was 18 at the time, so it was like going to college. Everybody was a contemporary and all that. It was like being in a fraternity (laughs), it was really, really something. We rode buses together on the tour and just was the best of. . . I always call it the golden age of rock.”
Over the years, Buddy Holly’s legend has continued to grow, with his music paving the way for the British Invasion and the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement of the late-’60s and the early-’70s. In 1971 Don McLean‘s Number One hit “American Pie” opened with the narrator learning the news of Holly’s tragic death, coining the phrase “The Day The Music Died.”
It’s come to light in recent years that Ritchie Valens had a direct effect on the Southern, California rock scene of the 1960’s. In the late-’50s Valens gave guitar lessons to Hawthorne’s John Maus. The now departed Maus — who later changed his name to John Walker upon forming the Walker Brothers — in turn gave guitar lessons to future Beach Boys‘ Carl Wilson and David Marks.
Buddy Holly’s music has lived on through various reissues over the years as well, with Paul McCartney buying his music copyrights in 1976 and starting the annual “Buddy Holly Week” every September 7th on Holly’s birthday.
The Crickets — led by J.I. Allison and Sonny Curtis — finally called it quits in 2016, the year after bassist Joe B. Mauldin’s death.
J.I. Allison told us that even now his biggest wish is to spruce up Holly’s final recordings that he recorded in his New York City apartment, in the weeks before he died. The 14 tunes include “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and others that have been overdubbed by additional musicians over the years: “I think it would be great fun to go do that, and, and I think those are some of the best songs Buddy ever wrote. The tape machine he did that on was the same machine that we recorded ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Peggy Sue’ and, you know, all those things (on). The quality of ‘The Apartment Tapes’ was great!”
Recently released is Buddy Holly With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: True Love Ways. The collection, which comes on the heels of similar sets by the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Aretha Franklin, features a dozen of Buddy Holly’s classic hits utilizing his original vocals with newly overdubbed backing tracks. The album is available now digitally and for pre-order on CD and two-LP vinyl.
The tracklisting for Buddy Holly With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: True Love Ways is: “True Love Ways,” “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” “Everyday,” “Heartbeat,” “Raining In My Heart,” “Oh Boy!,” “Rave On,” “Words Of Love,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Moondreams,” and “Maybe Baby.”