Glimpse: The Day The Music Died

  • Buddy Holly

When we walked into the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, crews were setting up for a concert. Images of Buddy Holly, forever remembered for his last concert here, stared down from the walls, across the original booths, hand-painted murals and maple dance floor. In the wee hours of a frigid February morning in 1959, a 21-year-old (apparently unqualified) pilot was at the helm of a small airplane that plunged into an Iowa cornfield, killing Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The musicians were touring the Midwest on The Winter Dance Party Tour, 24 stops in 24 days. But the tour was poorly planned, with the artists zigzagging back and forth across hundreds of frozen miles in a bus so cold that drummer, Carl Bunch, was hospitalized with frostbitten feet. Holly decided to fly from Clear Lake to Fargo, North Dakota, to skip the bus and get some rest. Richardson, who had the flu, took Waylon Jennings’ seat on the plane and, when Holly found out, Holly told Jennings, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” a comment that he said has haunted him all his life. Valens asked Tommy Allsup for his seat, and they flipped a coin. Valens would fly. The plane took off shortly before 1 a.m. from Mason City Municipal Airport. Pilot Roger Peterson flew into a cloudy, snowy sky, although he was not qualified for instrument flying and was not given an adequate briefing on deteriorating weather in his path. The plane crashed minutes later, less than six miles from the airport. Investigators think he may have misread the attitude gyro, which gave the opposite visual of the artificial horizon on which he had been trained, and that he flew into the ground, thinking he was ascending. The wreckage was discovered about 9:30 a.m. Holly’s pregnant wife learned of his death from television reports, and soon suffered a miscarriage, prompting officials to change their policies and withhold victim names until notification of next of kin. Don McLean memorialized the crash in his iconic song, American Pie, in which he references how he heard the news when he was folding and delivering newspapers the next morning. “February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver. Bad news on the door step. I couldn’t take one more step.”


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