MIDDLEBURY-For an entire generation that came of age in the mid to late 1950s, the date of Feb. 3, 1959 will be remembered as the day the music died.
The now famous phrase-"the day the music died"-was actually coined 12 years after the fateful day in February by musician-poet Don McLean. McLean's 1971 "American Pie" rock-ballad mega hit told the tragic true tale of three of rock and roll's early heavy hitters. And the aftermath of the sad event forever altered the popular American music scene.
"On a cold winter's night a small private plane took off from Clear Lake, Iowa, bound for Fargo, N.D. It never made its destination," says 1950s enthusiast Candace Rich. Rich created a popular website titled Fiftiesweb.com.
"When that plane crashed, it claimed the lives of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson and the pilot, Roger Peterson. Three of rock and roll's most promising performers were gone. As Don McLean wrote in his classic music parable, "American Pie", it was the day the music died," Rich notes.
Rich also says that the young Buddy Holly hit the road on tour that year because he needed the money live performing offered.
Holly planned to headline the Winter Dance Party Tour which would visit 24 cities on a hectic, three-week schedule starting on Jan. 23, 1959.
The now tragic tour was supposed to wrap up on Feb. 15. Musician Waylon Jennings, Holly's longtime friend from Lubbock, Texas, and Tommy Allsup, were scheduled to be on call as Holly's backup musicians. A twist of fate saved Jennings' and Allsup's lives.
"Ritchie Valens, probably the hottest of the artists at the time, the Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts would round out the list of performers," says Rich.
Rich continues her account of the tragic tale:
"The tour bus developed heating problems. It was so cold on board that reportedly one of the drummers developed frostbite riding in it. When they arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, they were cold, tired and disgusted.
"Buddy Holly had had enough of the unheated bus and decided to charter a plane for himself and his guys. At least he could get some laundry done before the next performance. That night at the Surf Ballroom was magical as the fans went wild over the performers. Jiles P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper to his fans, was a Texas D.J. who found recording success and fame in 1958 with the song Chantilly Lace.
"Richie Valenzuela was only 16 years old when Del-Fi record producer, Bob Keane, discovered the Pacoima, Calif. singer. Valens wrote a song for his girlfriend, Donna, and its flip side, "La Bamba", a rock and roll version of an old Mexican standard. This earned the teenager an appearance on the "American Bandstand" television show and the prospect of continued popularity.
"Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holley (changed to Holly due to a misspelling on a contract) and his band, The Crickets, had a number one hit in 1957 with the tune "That'll be the Day". This success was followed by Peggy Sue and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. By 1959, Holly had decided to move in a new direction. He and the Crickets parted company.
"Dwyer Flying Service got the charter. $36 per person for a single engine Beechcraft Bonanza. Waylon Jennings gave his seat up to Richardson, who was running a fever and had trouble fitting his stocky frame comfortably into the bus seats. When Holly learned that Jennings wasn't going to fly, he said, 'Well, I hope your old bus freezes up.' Jennings responded, 'Well, I hope your plane crashes.' This friendly banter of friends would haunt Jennings for years.
"Allsup told Valens, 'I'll flip you for the remaining seat.' On the toss of a coin, Valens won the seat and Allsup the rest of his life. The plane took off a little after 1 a.m. from Clear Lake and never got far from the airport before it crashed, killing all onboard. A cold wind immediately gave way to a snow which drastically reduced visibility. The ground was already blanketed in white. The pilot may have been inexperienced with the instrumentation. One wing hit the ground and the small plane corkscrewed over and over. The three young stars were thrown clear of the plane, leaving only pilot Roger Peterson inside."
According to Mark Brady, a local rock-and-roll enthusiast and former owner of Addison County radio stations WFAD, WMNM, and WCVM, "Great rock bands that followed these three men, like the Beatles, credit Buddy Holly, in particular, with influencing both their song writing and their style.
""Buddy Holly's style was unique," says Brady. "His voice quality was pure and the way he delivered songs, such as 'Fade Away', 'Rave On', 'Peggy Sue', and 'Raining in My Heart', was really unprecedented."
Brady was reminded of the loss he experienced, especially with news of Holly's passing.
"Virtually every song on 'The Buddy Holly Story' album received radio air play here in Vermont and nationally; nearly all became hits and they're still played today.
"As Don McLean noted so eloquently in his 1971 musical tribute, it really seemed like music died on Feb. 3, 1959."