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Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Day The Music Died, February 3, 1959

Today in 1959, a Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft crashed in a field five miles from the Mason City, Iowa airport. All three passengers and the pilot died instantly. In that moment, on a cold February morning, early rock and roll lost three shining stars; the genre would never be the same.

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were all part of "The Winter Dance Party", an early rock and roll tour that planned stops in 24 cities in three weeks. All the cities were in the Midwestern part of the United States, an area known for bitterly cold winters. The organizers of the tour were evidently ignorant of this as well as the geography of the region. As a result, the bus used to carry the musicians was drafty and had a faulty heater. Instead of traveling to the cities based on their distance from one another, the tour zigzagged back and forth across the countryside, often backtracking down highways that had been traveled just days earlier.

By February, everyone was tired of life on the bus and the demanding pace of performances. Carl Bunch, who was a drummer for Buddy Holly's band The Crickets, suffered frostbite and had to leave the tour on the last day of January. Since The Crickets served as the band for all the performers on the tour, someone had to pull double-duty, playing the drums while the other performers were on stage. Normally, this was done by Holly or Valens. The mood of the musicians was later described as rebellious.

The Clear Lake, Iowa performance was not originally part of the tour, but an open date meant less money, so the tour's promoters offered a show to the owner of The Surf Ballroom; he accepted the offer and a performance was scheduled for February 2.

Before the show that night, Buddy Holly told his bandmates that he was tired of the bus. He said that he was going to charter a plane from a local company and fly to Fargo, North Dakota, which was a short distance from Moorhead, Minnesota, the site of the next performance. He contacted Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa and bought the services of a pilot and a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. The Bonanza could carry four people: the pilot and three passengers. Holly would be one of the passengers; the other two would be Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. They would arrive in Minnesota hours before the tour bus, meaning that they could sleep in a real bed in a heated room.

After the show, J.P. Richardson approached Waylon Jennings and asked for Jennings' seat on the plane. Richardson was a big man and the bus seats were uncomfortable for him. In addition, he had developed a case of the flu during the tour; he was hoping that a good night's rest would help him feel better. Jennings agreed to the swap.

Ritchie Valens asked Tommy Allsup to give up his seat as well. Valens had never flown before. Later stories mention that Valens also had a cold, but this is unconfirmed. Allsup was less than eager to give up his seat, but he offered to let a coin toss decide who would stay on the bus and who would go on the plane. Valens won the toss.

There was a fourth performer who had been offered in on the plane deal earlier in the evening---Dion of Dion and the Belmonts fame. The price for the plane rental was $36 per person, which had been the exact amount Dion's parents had paid monthly for their apartment when he was a child. He had heard them argue about the rent many times; to him, therefore, $36 was too much to pay for a frivolous plane ride.

In his 1996 autobiography, Waylon Jennings told of an exchange between him and Buddy Holly as they went their separate ways that fateful evening. Holly said to Jennings, "I hope your ole bus freezes up!" to which Jennings replied, "I hope your damn plane crashes!" Jennings would feel guilt for the rest of his life over the remark.

The pilot of the Bonanza was Roger Peterson, an employee of Dwyer Flying Service. Peterson was not an experienced pilot. He was not instrument rated, meaning that he should not have been flying at night in potentially severe weather. However, no one else was available. The foursome took off at 1AM local time. Eyewitnesses later said that they saw the plane's lights dip to the horizon soon after takeoff, but they assumed it either an optical illusion or the curvature of the Earth.

When the plane did not arrive at Fargo by 3:30AM, the authorities were contacted a search was begun. Jerry Dwyer, who owned the plane, flew Peterson's known flight path and at 9:15AM found the plane in a cornfield barely five miles from the airport. Subsequent investigation showed that the plane had hit the ground at 170 miles an hour, throwing the passengers from the plane and pinning the pilot inside. All were killed instantly.

Jiles Perry Richardson, The Big Bopper, was 28. Buddy Holly was 22. Roger Peterson, the pilot, was 21. Ritchie Valens was 17.

Crash investigators concluded that a combination of weather and pilot error caused the accident. Coincidentally, February 3, 1959 saw another plane crash, this one American Airlines Flight 320. This flight crashed into the East River while on approach to LaGuardia Airport in New York. 65 of the 73 people on board were killed. The American Airlines crash was front page news in most big city newspapers, relegating the death of the three rock and rollers to a smaller space.

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