Hello readers, I’m Retro Dee and Welcome to a very special edition of “Today We Remember”.
It’s been 60 long years since we tragically lost three of the most important people in Music History: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.
In a previous TWR post, Today We Remember: February 3, 1959 – “The Day The Music Died” I retold the story of the ill-fated Winter Dance Party ’59 tour. It was on the eleventh day of the tour in Clear Lake, IA that Buddy Holly chartered a private plane to take him and his tour mates to their next tour date in Moorhead, MN. They never made it. The plane ended up crashing shortly after take-off, killing all four people on board:
Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly, singer, song-writer, musician and pioneer of Rock n Roll, aged 22, of Lubbock, Texas, newly-wed husband of Maria Eléna Holly (née Santiago) who was at the time expecting a child.
Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr. “J.P.”, known professionally as “The Big Bopper”, aged 28, of Beaumont, Texas, former radio D.J., military veteran (ranked Corporal), and singer of the hit song “Chantilly Lace”. He left behind his wife of 7 years, Adrianne Joy Richardson (née Fryou), their 5-year-old daughter Debra Joy, and son-to-be, Jay Richardson (born that April.)
Richard Steven Valenzuela, known professionally as Ritchie Valens, aged 17, singer, song-writer and guitarist born in Pacoima, California to Joseph and Concepcion Valenzuela (née Reyes) who left behind family, friends and fans including “Donna”, his girlfriend for whom he wrote the famous song.
Roger Peterson, aged 21, the young pilot who was licensed to fly via Visual Flight Rules, but did not have the skills to fly using only instruments. He was a family man working for Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, IA.
As we reach this 60th Anniversary of this tragic event, we realize now more than ever, how much of an impact these entertainers and this tragedy has had on America and the whole World over. In this edition of “Today We Remember”, we’ll have a look at the tributes, trials and tribulations that came after the saddest day in music history, 60 years ago today: February 3, 1959.
“The names of those killed will not be released until the victims’ families are notified.”
You might have heard this or a similar statement on the news after a tragedy. It’s the standard protocol to not publicly release the names of the deceased until their families are notified by the authorities. This was not always the case.
On February 3, 1959, Mrs. Ella Pauline Holley, the 56-year-old mother of Buddy Holly was spending a normal day in Lubbock, listening to the afternoon news. Imagine her shock and terror when a bulletin suddenly came on TV telling her that her youngest son had been killed in a plane crash in Clear Lake, IA. According to sources, Mrs. Holley screamed and collapsed, in unspeakable grief.
Similarly, back in Greenwich Village, Buddy Holly’s wife, 26-year-old Maria Eléna Holly also received the tragic news on TV, with no warning. According to interviews given by Mrs. Holly, the shock is what she believes caused her to lose her baby.
It was because of these events that a new law was put in place: “the deceased will not be publicly identified until the next of kin is notified”.
The Show Must Go On
Moorhead, MN was the location of the next show for Winter Dance Party ’59. It’s hard to believe that the tour mates of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson had to carry on and perform on the evening of February 3rd, just hours after losing their close friends. Although devastated, the performers took the stage and did the show for the hundreds of teens who attended The Armory that night. Bobby Vee and Frankie Avalon were two of the singers hired as replacements.
Posthumous Song Releases
Like many great artists, Buddy Holly left unreleased work behind when he died. Some of the songs released after his death were: “Peggy Sue Got Married”, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (written by Paul Anka), “Raining in My Heart” (written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant) and, most touchingly, “True Love Ways”, the song Buddy wrote and recorded for his wife, which hit the charts in 1960.
In August of 1959, the hit song “Running Bear” written by J.P. Richardson, was released. The song was performed by Richardson’s friend, singer Johnny Preston, and reached Number One on the charts by early 1960.
The Mysterious Disappearance (and reappearance) of Buddy Holly’s Glasses
Among the scattered belongings of the three fallen musicians on the frozen ground that day were: a pair of dice, broken bits of an expensive watch and a .22 Colt pistol registered to Buddy Holly. But authorities were unable to locate Buddy’s iconic glasses, no matter how hard they searched.
When the snow melted that Spring, the glasses frames were found in the cornfield, but irresponsibly shoved in a drawer at the Cerro Gordo County Police Department. They remained there for some 21 years, until they turned up in 1980 when the county Police Department switched buildings. A court dispute arose between Buddy’s widow Maria Eléna Holly and Buddy’s elderly parents, Ella Pauline and Lawrence Odell Holley. The Holleys requested possession of the glasses as a loving memento of their son and youngest child. But in the end, the judge ruled in favor of Buddy’s widow, who later finally sent the glasses to Lubbock for public viewing.
The most famous song written about the tragedy, was the 1971 chart topper “American Pie” by Don McLean. This is the song that forever more dubbed the tragedy in Clear Lake “The Day The Music Died”. At the time, McLean was just 13 years old. As a paperboy, he found the news of the plane crash plastered across the front page of every paper he delivered, thus inspiring him to write this famous American anthem.
Fellow tour mate Eddie Cochran also recorded a song in 1959 called “Three Stars” (written by a D.J. by the name of Tommy Dee). Cochran is heard choking up on the recording when he addresses his fallen friends. As a cruel and ironic twist of fate, Eddie Cochran himself died on April 17, 1960 at the age of just 21 after suffering injuries in a car crash in Bath, England.
Country Superstar (and close friend of Buddy Holly) Waylon Jennings also alludes to the tragedy in song. In his lyrics, Jennings alludes to how he gave his seat on the plane up to The Big Bopper.
Posthumous Accolades and Honors
Buddy Holly received his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his phenomenal contribution to Radio years after his death. He was also one of the first artists inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986.
Ritchie Valens also received a Star on the Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
In 1993, the USPS issued a stamp series called: “Legends of American Music Series”. It featured 29 cent stamps (the price to mail a letter at the time) of portraits of deceased musicians including Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.
Historical Sites and Memorials
Surf Ballroom and Museum in Clear Lake, IA. where the three fallen stars played their last show, was named a Historical Site. The museum features photos and mementos of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. The rotary pay phone which the victims called their families shortly before their deaths also remains on the wall.
In his hometown of Lubbock, TX, a statue of Buddy Holly was placed in his honor in 1979. Additionally, “The Buddy Holly Walk of Fame” was built around the statue honoring other musicians from Texas who greatly contributed to the Rock n Roll industry. Such artists include singer Roy Orbison of Vernon, TX. and song writer Joe “Sonny” West of Lubbock. “The Buddy Holly Walk of Fame” was later changed to “The West Texas Walk of Fame” when the city was unable to afford to pay Holly’s widow the price she demanded for use of her late husband’s name. “The Buddy Holly Music Festival” was changed to “The Lubbock Music Festival” for the same reason.
At the site of the crash in Clear Lake, IA a memorial stands to honor the victims. Visitors have left guitar picks, pennies, flowers, toy cars, Mardi-gras style beads and girls’ hair clips. Nearby to the crash site is also a large pair of “Buddy Holly Glasses” which tourists visit in his honor.
In the past 60 years, there were two major motion picture biopics: The Buddy Holly Story (1978) starring Gary Busey, and La Bamba (1987) starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens. While Gary Busey received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Buddy Holly, the film was panned by some of Buddy’s close friends and associates who deemed parts of it inaccurate.
Although La Bamba did not receive any Oscars, it has become a classic film and a valuable source of information. In my opinion, La Bamba is the best biopic ever made, giving viewers a tender and honest insight to the Valenzuela family, the rise and fall of Ritchie Valens himself, and a strong sense of what the music industry was actually like back in the 1950’s.
Many television documentaries were made, featuring intimate interviews with family and friends. This is by no means a full list. Some popular documentaries include:
“The Real Buddy Holly Story” (1985) hosted by Sir Paul McCartney.
“Buddy Holly: Rave On” featuring Mrs. Maria Eléna Holly (Buddy’s lovely widow), Larry Holley Jr. (Buddy’s oldest brother), Dion DiMucci (legendary solo artist and former member of Dion and The Belmonts) and Don McLean (singer-songwriter of “American Pie”)
“The Music of Buddy Holly and The Crickets: The Definitive Story” featuring Jerry I. Allison (drummer of The Crickets) brought to DVD in 2009.
The TNN documentary “Not Fade Away: Remembering Buddy Holly” was originally aired in two parts and featured Buddy’s close friend and colleague Waylon Jennings.
In addition to the documentaries, other TV shows have also included subject matter associated with this iconic tragedy. Two good examples are:
Mysteries at the Museum: S2 E15 “Boston Molasses Disaster/ D.B. Cooper/ Buddy Holly Curse” Original air date: June 19, 2012: Don Wildman narrates the accounts of the ill-fated Winter Dance Party ’59 tour with an actor-portrayal of the musicians. This episode insinuates the possibility that the tragedy (and other tragedies that followed) were caused by some kind of a curse. The museum item showcased was a pair of Buddy Holly’s wayfarer sunglasses.
Pawn Stars: S10 E16 “Pinball Punch” Original air date: September 18, 2014: In this episode, a man named Nick Barrett from Wisconsin Rapids brings in what he believes to be an original poster advertising Winter Dance Party 1959 at Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA on February 2, 1959 — the last show for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Rick Harrison briefly recaps the tragedy to us on camera and then has the poster appraised for authenticity. Barrett hoped to get $30,000 for the poster, but the expert determined it was likely inauthentic– a copy of the real thing. After the extensive research he has done, Barrett still believes the poster is real. Rick still expresses an interest in the item and tells Barrett to come back and see him when he gets better documentation to prove its authenticity.
In 1990, “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” originally opened on Broadway starring Paul Hipp, a talented musician-actor from Philadelphia as Buddy Holly and Jill Hennessy as Maria Eléna. The show was a huge success. Buddy’s widow, Mrs. Maria Eléna Holly herself thanked Paul Hipp for his fine portrayal of her late husband. “You brought him back for me,” she said.
In addition to movies, and TV specials, a very many books in the form of biographies and memoirs have been written regarding the life accounts of the artists and their entourage. The books written are too numerous to mention, and in all honesty, I don’t read biographies. I am neither condemning nor condoning them, however, and if you are interested, by all means have a look.
Tribute Concerts & Shows
Tribute concerts are held annually since the tragedy as a decades-long tradition. The most notable being at Surf Ballroom itself. Huge names have performed there over the years and continue to do so today. The current cost of a Winter Dance Party ticket is approximately $110, a huge increase from the mere $1.25 it cost in 1959 to see that last fateful show. The Winter Dance Party Celebration typically takes place on the night of February 2 and is always sold out.
Sadly, shortly after the 31st Anniversary Tribute Show, singer Del Shannon famously committed suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 8, 1990.
In February 2016, members of The Crickets (including drummer Jerry I. Allison) performed as a group for the very last time. They chose Surf Ballroom for their last gig as in tribute of their original lead singer, Buddy Holly.
In addition to the tribute concerts held in Clear Lake, IA. and all over the world, many radio stations also pay homage to Buddy, Ritchie and J.P. each year during the first week in February by playing their hits.
KDAV, a Christian station in Lubbock changes its normal programming on Feb. 3, to play Buddy Holly’s music. In the 1950’s KDAV was known as “The Buddy Holly Station” where Buddy got his beginnings in the industry by performing live on the air.
KRIB in Mason City, IA. also plays an annual tribute every February 3rd to the 3 stars who took off on that ill-fated flight from the Mason City Airport.
In 2009, family members of the victims met for the very first time in Clear Lake, IA for the 50th Anniversary tribute.
Although tribute concerts are scheduled every year, larger celebrations occur on milestone years, such as this year’s 60th Anniversary.
Today and Beyond: What Matters Most (a commentary by Retro Dee)
First, thank you for reading. Writing this entry was the least fun I ever had in my life… I don’t exactly enjoy rehashing all the excruciating minutiae surrounding the death of my favorite person (Buddy Holly) and his almost-as-popular tour mates. But in the end, what matters most to me, is showing sufficient gratitude for the gift that these three young men gave to their country, the music industry and the entire world. They shared with us their incredible talents and ended up giving their lives doing their jobs as entertainers. They helped inspire and pave the way for countless musicians that came after them. Yes, their lives were cut tragically short on “The Day The Music Died”, but when you think about it, the music never really died, and neither did their legacies.
It’s been 60 years since that miserable, freezing day in February. But not a day has gone by that folks everywhere haven’t been filled with joy by the work left behind by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Their legacies will continue, and in another 60 years from now, folks the world over will still be enjoying their music and telling their amazing life stories all over again.
Disclaimer: I have no affiliation what-so-ever with any of the aforementioned individuals, places, companies, venues, or other such mentioned items. I do not claim to have any inside information or facts that have not already been stated publicly on the subject. (In other words, I’m just a fan.) Information in this entry comes from various biographies, documentaries and similar sources on the topic. This entry has been written in my own words, and has not been copied verbatim from any sources.
Public images, photos and media on this site are used in the fair use context. I do not claim ownership of any such material. The original owners retain all copyrights.
I do not get paid or compensated in any way to endorse anything.