The Story Behind “The Day the Music Died”

In the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, music died.

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Just minutes after taking off on a chartered flight from Mason City, Iowa on the way to their next show in Moorhead, Minnesota, rising American rock and roll artists Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, along with the pilot Roger Peterson, were killed when their plane crashed in Iowa.

The Winter Dance Party Tour

Kicking off on Jan. 23, 1959, buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Carl Bunch, started a 24-day tour across the Midwest. The tour was expected to conclude in Springfield, Illinois on February 15, 1959. On Feb. 3, Bobby Vee & The Shadows performed, and Fabian & Frankie Avalon and Jimmy Clanton were added as the headliners for the tour. Dion and The Belmonts, Sardo, and The Crickets also continued through the end of the tour, which concluded on Feb. 15 as planned.

Bus to Plane

Already plagued by torrential weather throughout the Midwest, and crammed into buses jumping from city to city—Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch even suffered frostbite on his feet—after playing a show on the 11th date of the tour at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly chartered a Beech-Craft Bonanza airplane No. N3794N from Dwyer’s Flying Service, after their bus was having mechanical issues, for him and several of the other artists to make their way to the next show. By this point everyone’s health was waning from the traveling schedule and drafty buses. With the toss of a coin, Tommy Allsup lost his seat to Valens and at the very last minute, Waylon Jennings gave his seat to The Big Bopper, who was suffering from the flu at the time and tired of squeezing into drafty buses.

The plane was to land in Fargo, North Dakota, just minutes away from Moorhead, Minnesota where they were scheduled to play at The Armory on Feb. 3. A few minutes after taking off from Mason City Municipal Airport, the plane crashed into nearby farmland as a result of bad weather and the pilot’s inexperience.

“For years, I thought I caused [the crash],” said Jennings. “Somebody had taken my place on that airplane. And then I had told Buddy, ‘I hope your plane crashes.’ We cut up like that all the time.”

“The Big Bopper”

Born Jiles Perry Richardson Jr. on Oct. 24, 1930 in Sabine Pass, Texas, “The Big Bopper,” started out as a disc jockey in his home state of Texas. Offered a full-time gig by KTRM (now KZZB) in Beaumont in 1949, Richardson quit college and after a brief stint in the military, returned to the radio station and became its program director. Richardson soon created his own on-air persona “The Big Bopper” after seeing some kids dancing The Bop. At one point, Richardson broke the record for continuous on-air broadcasting after playing 1,821 records over the course of five days, two hours and eight minutes—taking quick showers in between news broadcasts.

Richardson, who started as a songwriter, began performing his own music, and at the time of his death at 28, was already well-known for his hits “Chantilly Lace,” which reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “White Lightning,” the latter song becoming a No. 1 hit for George Jones in 1959.

Ritchie Valens

Born Richard Valenzuela on May 13, 1941, in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacoima, California, Valens was only 17 when he died but already had three hits under his belt: “Donna,” “Come On, Let’s Go,” and “La Bamba.” Though Valens barely spoke Spanish, he became a pioneer of Chicano and Latin rock. In 1987, Valens’ life was portrayed in the movie La Bamba, starring Lou Diamond Phillips. “La Bamba” also became a No. 1 hit for Los Lobos, who recorded the song for the film soundtrack. In 2019, Valens’ version of “La Bamba” was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry, and in 2001, Valens, who influenced everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Buddy Holly and “That’ll Be the Day”

Born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas, on Sept. 7, 1936, Holly was just 22 when he died. He started out singing country music with friends in high school before switching to rock and roll. Holly formed the group, Buddy and Bob, with his friend Bob Montgomery and decided to pursue music after opening for Elvis Presley in 1955. After opening for Bill Haley & His Comets, Holly and his band, were signed to Decca and released their debut album, and the only album released in Holly’s lifetime, The “Chirping” Crickets in 1957. By the mid-1950s, Holly and the band were touring internationally and had a regular radio show. Influencing everyone from Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan, Holly wrote all his own songs—many released after his death—including 1957 No. 1 “That’ll Be the Day,” co-written with Crickets drummer Jerry Allison, who also co-wrote their hit “Peggy Sue,” and other Top 40 hits like “Maybe Baby,” co-written with producer Norman Petty. Holly, who was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Dame in 1986.

“American Pie”

The day Holly, Valens, and Richardson died was immortalized by Don McLean in his 1972 anthem “American Pie” as “The Day The Music Died.”

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

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