The Day the Music Died: Rock’s Great Tragedy

On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and their pilot Roger Peterson died in a plane crash, a tragedy that has been remembered as “The Day the Music Died.”
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On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and their pilot Roger Peterson died in a plane crash, a tragedy that has been remembered as “The Day the Music Died.”
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959. (Buddy Holly Photo: Brunswick Records/Wikimedia Commons; Ritchie Valens Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images; Big Bopper Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959. (Buddy Holly Photo: Brunswick Records/Wikimedia Commons; Ritchie Valens Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images; Big Bopper Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

In the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, three performers—Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson—joined their pilot Roger Peterson for what was supposed to be a flight to their next tour stop. But the passengers and their pilot never made it to their destination. Instead the four were involved in a deadly crash that took the lives of all aboard. This tragedy has been remembered as “The Day the Music Died.”

Buddy Holly had been the biggest star of the bunch, known for such hits as “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” The teenaged Ritchie Valens was an up-and-coming performer having nearly made it to the top of the charts in 1958 with his ode to his high school sweetheart with the song “Donna.” J.P. Richardson, better known as “The Big Bopper,” was a Texas songwriter and radio DJ who caught the nation’s ear with the catchy tune “Chantilly Lace.”

The three singers had each signed on to be part of “The Winter Dance Party” tour, which had a hectic schedule of 24 concerts in the Midwest over a three-week period. Dion and the Belmonts also performed with them on the tour. They had already played several dates before reaching the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2nd. By this time, Buddy Holly had enough of the freezing, unreliable tour bus. Holly decided to hire a plane from a local flying service to take him to the next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota, to avoid another miserable night on the road. The plan was to fly to Fargo, North Dakota, which was close to Moorhead. 

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. “the Big Bopper” 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.

That Fateful Flight

The show at the Surf Ballroom had been packed—an impressive showing for a Monday night. After the concert, Holly, Richardson and Valens made their way to the Mason City airport for a 12:30 am departure. Roger Peterson had volunteered to fly the trio. The 21-year-old pilot may have been young, but he already had four years of flying experience. Unfortunately, he was unaware of a weather advisory that had been issued before he took off with his passengers.

Only a short while after the flight began, however, the plane ran into some trouble and crashed. Jerry Dwyer, the owner of the air service company, went out looking for the plane after it failed to show up in Fargo. He made a gruesome discovery only a few miles away from the airport. The bodies of Holly, Richardson and Valens been thrown from the plane in the crash. Peterson’s remains were trapped inside the cockpit. 

The Day the Music Died Photo

A photo of the plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. (Photo: Civil Aeronautics Board/Wikimedia Commons)

The original investigation blamed the accident on pilot error and the poor weather conditions. Over the years, these findings have been brought into question. An aviation expert named L.J. Coon called for the incident to be re-examined in 2015, according to a report in the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune. He told the newspaper that “Roger would have flown out and about this airport at night, under multiple different conditions.” 

Remembering the Lives Lost

The news of this fatal crash sent shockwaves through the music world. The New York Times, like many other newspapers across the nation, ran headlines reporting “Iowa Air Crash Kills 3 Singers.” The accident marked an abrupt end to three remarkable lives and their careers. Holly left behind a pregnant wife. Sadly, his 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. The news made little mention of Peterson, who had only just gotten married to his high school girlfriend the year before. 

The Day the Music Died Memorial Photo

A memorial to the fallen music stars near the crash site. (Photo: SuperDuty11/Wikimedia Commons)

The first tribute song, “Three Stars,” for the late performers came out shortly after the incident. This ballad remembered Valens as one “just starting to realize your dreams” and how Holly’s music “could make the coldest heart melt.” It also recalled one of the Big Bopper’s most famous catchphrases: “you know what I like.” The most famous ode to the lost stars, however, wasn’t released until much later. Don McLean scored a number-one hit in 1971 with “American Pie,” which remembered the crash as “the day the music died.”

Holly himself had a posthumous hit with “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” about a month after his death. His life has been the subject of numerous books and films, including the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story starring Gary Busey. Valens was also immortalized on the big screen with the 1987 film La Bamba with Lou Diamond Phillips as the teen singer. Richardson has lived on through his music, which has been featured on countless soundtracks. His son also spent years preserving his father’s legacy by performing as the Big Bopper Jr. before his own death in 2013.  

From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on February 3, 2016.