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"The Day The Music Died" Turns 50
Ffity years ago, Bob Keane was driving alongng Los Angeles’ famed Sunset Boulevard toward the offices of his Del-Fi Records when the devastating news came over his car radio.
“The DJ on my radio said, ‘...and now, the late, great Ritchie Valens,” recalls Keane, whose label had released Valens’ records. “It was like somebody hit me in the stomach with a baseball bat.”
The full news was even worse, rockers Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson had been killed along with Valens in a plane crash in Iowa at about 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1959. It was the first tragedy of the formative rock ‘n’ roll era, robbing pop culture of three of its most promising young talents. Holly was 22, Valens was 17 and Richardson was 28.
It was, as Don McLean coined the phrase in his 1971 hit “American Pie,” the day the music died.
“The impact of the event, of the crash of the plane, hit me because I was in love with Buddy Holly’s music,” says McLean, a 13-year-old paperboy at the time who learned of the accident when he picked up his stack of morning deliveries. “I tucked that memory away, and many years later it returned to me.”
The irony, of course, is that the music didn’t exactly die. Rock ultimately thrived and became a mainstream force in popular culture during the next decade — and beyond.
But rock ‘n’ roll was moribund for a time after the crash. Elvis Presley was in the army. Jerry Lee Lewis had fallen from grace for marrying his underage cousin. Little Richard had entered the ministry, and Chuck Berry was being prosecuted for transporting a minor across state lines. Their places were being taken by bland pop singers and early teen idols such as Pat Boone.
At the time of their deaths, Holly and Valens in particular were rock’s great hopes, although former radio personality Richardson was riding high with his smash “Chantilly Lace.” Valens, meanwhile, had shot to fame with hit singles such as “Donna,” and his adrenalized rendition of the Mexican dance standard “La Bamba” was riding the charts.
But Holly was the most established of the three. Born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas, he emerged with his band, The Crickets, in 1957 and reeled off a string of hits such as “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “Oh Boy!” and “Rave On” that made him arguably the most influential rock musician of his generation.
“His stuff sounds so positive and life-affirming, just shoe-ringing major chords and those happy melodies,” says Berkleyraised Marshall Crenshaw, who portrayed Holly in “La Bamba,” the 1987 film biography of Valens.
“He was really savvy about the recording studio, too, and that really influenced The Beatles. The Beatles were glued to every Buddy Holly record. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say Buddy Holly was the single most important influence on The Beatles. They knew exactly how those records were done and where Buddy Holly was coming from, and they copied his approach.”
Graham Nash, who named his group the Hollies partly in tribute to Holly, confirms that “the
very first time I saw the Beatles in 1959, they were on a talent show ... and they played a Buddy Holly song. There’s no question of his influence on them.”
In fact, former Beatle Paul McCartney was so enamored with Holly that he bought his song catalog during the mid-’70s from Norman Petty, who produced the bulk of Holly’s hits at his studio in Clovis, N.M. And every year, in homage to Holly’s Sept. 7 birthday, McCartney hosts Buddy Holly Week activities in London.
But Nash says that Holly’s impact was more than just musical. “He was one of us,” Nash notes. “He was a rock star with glasses. It wasn’t a sex thing like Elvis was, with his swiveling hips. Buddy Holly just touched people’s hearts with how simple his music was and how attainable he made it seem for everybody else who was making music..”
At the time of the crash, Holly, Valens and Richardson were in the midst of the Winter Dance Party tour through the Northern Plains states, made miserable by an underheated bus, lack of sleep and no time to do laundry. When the troupe hit the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly learned that it might be possible to lease a plane; for $108 he could save himself another long bus ride and instead get some much-needed rest and perhaps some quality telephone time with his wife, Maria Elana, who was five weeks pregnant.
Holly originally intended to take his latest version of the Crickets, with Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, on the plane, but Richardson persuaded Jennings to give him his seat while Valens pestered Allsup until Holly’s sideman agreed to a coin toss — which Valens won.
Valens’ aunt, Ernestine Reyes, recalled that her nephew “used to say, ‘I’ll never ride in planes” after
an collision above his junior high school that killed two students. “I guess he was really miserable on that bus.”
The Beechcraft Bonanza plane was discovered the following day, its debris strewn across a frozen cornfield seven miles northwest of the airport where it took off. An error by pilot Roger Peterson is believed to have caused the crash.
McCartney remembers that hearing the news was “shocking.” Nash, meanwhile, was “on a street corner with my friend (and Hollies member) Allan Clarke, crying our eyes out.” The next show in Moorhead, Minn., went on, as did the tour, with singers such as Bobby Vee and Frankie Avalon filling in. Holly’s wife suffered a miscarriage two days after the crash.
Although the tragedy has become one of rock’s great legends, “American Pie” writer McLean remembers it was viewed differently at the time.
“It’s very difficult now for people to remember just how insignificant rock ‘n’ roll singers were to the public at large” in 1959, McLean explains. “They were important to kids, but they weren’t important to the culture. They were a novelty, pretty much ... especially contrasted to what was ‘normal,’ like Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and orchestral music.”
“American Pie,” an eight-and-a-half minute parable about American sociology and pop culture, helped jump-start the legend of the crash. Author John Goldrosen even credit’s the song’s charttopping success for helping him secure a publishing contract for his highly regarded “Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography.” The crash also was memorialized in 1978’s “The Buddy Holly Story,” starring Gary Busey, as well as in “La Bamba.”
A stage musical, “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story,” opened in 1989 in London’s West End and ran for 225 performances on Broadway. And Holly, who was part of the inaugural class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 1986, got another nod from the modern rock band Weezer in its 1994 hit “Buddy Holly.”
A number of new projects have rolled out to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the crash. A pair of Holly compilations came out last week: “Down The Line: Rarities” features two CDs of unreleased performances, including the final demos he taped at his New York City apartment just weeks before his death; and “Memorial Collection,” a three-CD set mixing hits and obscurities, will be released more widely on Feb. 10 after a two-week exclusive run at Best Buy stores.
Pat DiNizio, of the Smithereens, has released his own tribute album, “Buddy Holly.” And the Surf Ballroom teamed with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to expand its annual concert in memory of Holly, Valens and Richardson into a six-day celebration culminating in a blowout concert on Monday that will feature performances by the surviving Crickets, Nash, DiNizio, Los Lonely Boys, Los Lobos and others.
“I still love Buddy Holly in spite of the fact that he’s become the Franklin Mint version of what it was that I remember, due to the fact he has been deified,” says McLean, who acknkolwdges that, via “American Pie,” “I had a hand in that, and I guess it’s all right in the end.”
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