A long, long time ago
1958 had been a down year for rock n roll: Elvis had joined the Army, Little Richard had joined the seminary, Jerry Lee Lewis had been lambasted for his marriage to a 15 year old, The Drifters had broken up, and the market was being swarmed by smarmy crooners like Pat Boone, Tommy Sands, and Fabian. A low point was reached with the release of "The Purple People Eater." Still, there were some highlights: Ray Charles released his first record, The Monotones released their classic song "Who Wrote The Book Of Love?," and most notably, Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" gave rock n roll a raw power it had not seen in several years. Still, hopefully 1959 would prove to be a better year for the music business.
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile.
Buddy Holly was the Next Big Thing. His hit song "That'll Be The Day" had topped the charts, and he and his band The Crickets were flying high. Two more successful singles, "Rave On" and another #1, "Peggy Sue," helped propel him to superstardom. Still, he and the other members of the Crickets were not getting along well; the usual business of one member stealing the spotlight was coming true before their very eyes, and none of them saw eye to eye on the future of the band. By early 1959, the band had dissolved: Buddy was on his own.
And I knew if I had my chance,
That I could make those people dance
While Buddy had his problems, Ricardo Valenzuela was on top of the world. He had his own #1 single, a love song to his estranged girlfriend ("Donna" was her name), and his new hit "La Bamba" was rising up the charts, and causing a dance sensation. At only seventeen, Ritchie's easygoing manner had won over many people in the music industry who had not wanted to give him a chance - they thought a Latino simply could not sell to an American public. Eventually Ritchie had agreed to a name change (to Ritchie Valens), and very few people knew of his heritage. His new hit had blown that out of the water; some were calling him the "Mexican Elvis." With that, his success was assured.
And maybe they'd be happy for a while
J.P. Richardson was also at the top of his game. A full-time radio personality with an appropriate DJ name The Big Bopper, Richardson had only ventured into songwriting to kill some time: he may be noted as the first DJ to ever issue a parody of a hit song at the time - and he topped that, by parodying two songs, with his wacky release "The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor" (sped up in true Alvin and the Chipmunks form). However, the B-side, a shuffling doo-wop inferno called "Chantilly Lace", had rocked the charts. His big burly piano-playing image made him a wild sensation at his live shows: he was infamous for playing the 88s with his rear and breaking his pieces down to two-finger compositions (one on each hand) in the middle of performing.
And the three men I admired most
It was to be the concert of the decade. "The Winter Dance Party Tour", they called it. 24 Northern cities in 21 days. A whirlwind. Buddy needed the money; Richie, the exposure; The Big Bopper, invited as a favor by Waylon Jennings, who played bass in Buddy's new backing band. Also playing were Dion and the Belmonts, fresh off of their hit "Teenager In Love." The tour was quickly thrown together, with predictable results.
Only 7 days into the tour, the tour bus's heating system went out. The bitter Northern cold quickly got out of hand; Dion's drummer had to be treated for frostbite on his toes after one particularly hellish night. By the 9th day, Buddy had had enough. He chartered a plane in Clear Lake, Iowa, at a cost of $36 a person. There was a problem, though: there were only three seats on the plane. Buddy had already claimed his, and Jennings graciously gave Richardson his spot (The Big Bopper was, in fact, too big - the bus seats were too small for him and gave him cramps). Buddy's drummer Tommy Allsup and Valens decided to flip for the last seat.
Heads. Valens won.
Back in Buddy's new home in New York City, far away from his childhood house in Lubbock, Texas, his wife Elena had learned she was pregnant in January. She hadn't told Buddy yet, fearing he might cancel the tour: they needed the money. They had planned to name the child Charles (Buddy's real name) if it was a boy, and Elizabeth (with the apt nickname "Peggy") if it was a girl. She called Buddy on January 30, and had gotten an earful about the bus's conditions. Afraid of heights her whole life, she warned Buddy not to look out the plane windows.
Just south of San Diego, Ritchie's mother was listening to the radio when on came her son's new single. She called for her three other sons to come listen; even though they had heard the song 50 times before, it never grew old on them. They were proud of their boy, although they hoped one day he would go back to using Valenzuela for his last name. Was he ashamed of them?
and the Holy Ghost
The plane flew in a slight circle for almost 5 minutes, attempting to get above the falling snow for better visibility. It took off for its destination, but only went approximately one quarter of a mile. Perhaps the visibility really was none. Perhaps the pilot, unused to the new controls, had sent the plane into a swirling descent instead of rising. Some speculate a fight broke out over a dice game, and a shot may have been fired, though there is little evidence to suggest this. The plane smashed into the ground just northwest of Clear Lake around 1 in the morning, and rolled nearly 600 feet. All 3 singers were thrown from the plane. Killed on impact. The pilot, Roger Peterson, was trapped in the wreckage. Killed on impact.
In a strange and tragic coincidence, American Airlines Flight 320, headed from Chicago to New York City, crashed on descent into the East River that same day. 65 people onboard died, and most of the major newspapers made that crash the top headline. Some Americans didn't know about the deaths of the singers for 2 weeks.
It seems that none of them have forgot.
Well they took the last train for the coast
Certainly the world of music had suffered its most tremendous loss. Over the years, more tragedies would take place: Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Metallica, The Sex Pistols .. and yet this one in particular had much meaning. Buddy Holly was one of the most inventive studio minds of his time; it took nearly 10 years before the production work of Brian Wilson, The Beatles, and Phil Spector began to again bring about progress in music. After Ritchie Valens died, it would be nearly 20 years before another Latin artist had as much sway over the American music scene, and 20 more before the music achieved mainstream status. And The Big Bopper, caught in the sands of time and fate, a sad footnote in rock history - the only man to release only one record and have it reach #1.
The day the music died
The rest of 1959 paled in comparison: The Drifters reformed (with Ben E. King as lead vocalist), Elvis stayed in the army, Jerry Lee stayed out of sight, Little Richard kept preaching, and smarmy crooners Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin, and Bobby Vee emerged even more forcefully. It marked the end of the of an era, where roots music, country, blues, and folk had worked there way into the predominant culture; they were soon replaced by pop sensations who didn't write their own music, industry executives out for the quick fix, and cheap imitations of the better original sound. February 3, 1959, documented so beautifully in the first and last verses of Don McLean's classic song.