On this day in 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, together with their pilot Roger Peterson, perish in a violent plane crash, a tragedy that is forever remembered as “The Day the Music Died.” The three performers on the ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour of the icy Midwest joined their pilot for what was intended to be a flight to their next tour stop; they never made it.
The tour itself followed a hectic schedule of 24 concerts, scattered through Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin in a nonsensical sequence; having just performed in Davenport and Fort Dodge, IA, they hauled all the way to Duluth, MN on January 31, across to the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, WI for the next show, and then all the way back to Clear Lake, IA again. By this time, Buddy Holly had enough of the freezing, unreliable tour bus; he decided to hire a plane from a local flying service to take him to the next gig in Moorhead, MN, to avoid another miserable night on the road.
There was room for two more passengers on the flight, and those seats were originally intended for members of Holly’s band, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings. Ritchie Valens won Allsup’s spot in a coin toss, according to several reports. J.P. Richardson was feeling ill and convinced Jennings to let him have his seat on the plane. According to Jennings’ memoir, Waylon: An Autobiography, he and Holly joked about the change in travel arrangements. Buddy told him that “I hope your damned bus freezes up again.” Waylon replied. “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” This casual remark haunted Jennings for years, and may well have killed him, albeit slowly.
That fateful night the show at the Surf Ballroom had been packed, an impressive turnout for a Monday. After the concert, Holly, Richardson and Valens made their way to the Mason City airport for a 12:30 am departure with 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson at the stick. Though he had four years’ flying experience, he was unaware of a weather advisory that had been issued before he took off with his gifted passengers in the 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza, flying headlong into a blizzard.
Airborne only a few minutes, the plane crashed in a cornfield at 220 miles per hour, less than six miles from the takeoff. The three musicians’ bodies were thrown from the plane and lay outside for 10 hours, as snow drifts slowly formed around them.
The tragedy marked an abrupt end to three remarkable lives and their careers. Holly left behind a pregnant wife, a strong catalog of hits, and a boundless future of ever-developing, sophisticated music. Sadly, Holly’s wife Maria miscarried not long after learning about Holly’s death. Richardson’s wife was also pregnant at the time of the crash and later gave birth to their son Jay Perry. Valens was only 17 years old, yet devoted to his girl Donna. Peterson himself had only just gotten married to his high school sweetheart the year before.
Speaking to the deep loss felt from the incident, Iowa-born author Ed Gorman opined “no matter how we try to explain it—through religion or randomness, it doesn’t matter—existence just doesn’t seem to make any sense.”