by Jessica Pahutski – Staff Editor
February 3rd, 1959 is a date that lives in rock and roll history for the worst possible reasons. Just before 1 AM CST that day, a small plane took off from an airfield in northern Iowa with four people on board: musicians Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and pilot Roger Peterson. It was bound for the next stop on their tour, but never reached its destination. Nine hours later, another plane found the wreckage in a cornfield and police arrived at the scene. All passengers died on impact with three thrown from the fuselage. Peterson’s remains were found inside the twisted body of the aircraft.
The crash was the latest in a chain of miserable events that took place during the “Winter Dance Party” tour. Concert venues on the schedule were dozens or hundreds of miles apart across the Midwest and travel was a complete mess for all involved. Holly’s drummer had to be hospitalized with frostbite and replaced with one from another group (The Belmonts, led by Dion DiMucci). It was so cold outside that their bus’ heating system broke partway through the trip. Nobody was happy offstage and things were only going to get worse within days.
Holly and his band composed of bassist Waylon Jennings and guitarist Tommy Allsup were to board before Allsup did a coin toss with Valens over a spot on the plane and lost. Shortly before takeoff, Richardson, sick with the flu and of being on the freezing bus, asked Jennings for his seat. Jennings accepted, joking to Holly about the experience so far with “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Little did anyone know how haunting those words would be soon after.
News spread like wildfire as soon as the bodies were identified. In a rather unorthodox move, the fate of the plane was announced on TV and radio before family members of the victims were informed. The entire music industry was in shock over the loss of three of its greatest minds. In the ensuing panic, a venue in Minnesota intended to be part of the tour quickly had to find a group to fill in for those killed. 15-year-old Robert Velline of Fargo, North Dakota, along with some classmates and his brother, were that group.
Where three careers ended in tragedy, one would begin. Velline’s improvised band, the Shadows, were a success at the venue alongside the more experienced Belmonts. Within a few years, he would go on to have several solo hits including “Devil or Angel” in 1960 and “Rubber Ball” in 1961 and released an album in honor of Holly in 1963 under the stage name Bobby Vee. Performing right up until his retirement in 2011, Velline passed away in October 2016 from complications of Alzheimer’s. As for DiMucci, his just-blossoming musical prowess survived for several more years, with a solo album released in 2016.
Eddie Cochran, a close friend of Holly and Valens, recorded a tribute song just days later, “Three Stars”. Cochran would die in a car accident just a year later while on tour in the UK. In 1971, folk rock singer Don McLean wrote “American Pie” about the events of that day as he experienced them. It would go on to reach number one on the charts and become a standard of Americana.
One by one, every person directly involved with the crash left this world. Jennings passed in 2002, followed by the manager of the last concert’s venue in 2006 and the owner of the plane in 2016. After almost 58 years apart, Allsup finally joined his friends and bandmates on January 11, 2017, having kept the coin that saved his life to the end.
No one knows what music would be like if those three performers never boarded a flight into history, but just listening to a song by any of them is enough to get an idea of what could have been.