Thursday, February 05, 2009

February 3, 1959

I should have written this up a couple of days ago, but the plane crash that took the lives of 50's rock icons Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper never has held that much significance to me. However, it was one of rock's first great tragedies, and a day of infamy for first-generation rockers, so I feel the need to write a little something on it as its 50th anniversary passes.

Buddy Holly was indeed one of the first generation's most creative figures, in addition to being one of its biggest-selling artists. Hits like "That'll Be The Day", "Peggy Sue", "Oh Boy" and others explored the common themes of teen love, yet many featured a musical and lyrical complexity unusual for the time. He was an accomplished lead and rhythm guitarist, yet he also displayed a lighter touch that suggested alternatives to the all-out Sun Records rockabilly approach. He was a major inspiration to the British Invasion artists; The Beatles chose their name partly as tribute to Holly's Crickets.

Ritchie Valens was a case of what might have been. A charismatic Californian of Mexican descent, the 17-year-old Valens had recently broken through with his first major hit, the double-sided "Donna"/"La Bamba". "Donna" was a traditional teen ballad, but the flip side, "La Bamba", was a fiery rocker years ahead of its time. Fiercely proud of his heritage, Valens was initially reluctant to record his souped-up version of the Mexican folk song. J. P. Richardson, known as The Big Bopper, was a one-trick pony and he knew it. The Texas disc jockey was milking his novelty hit "Chantilly Lace" for all it was worth, living life to the fullest while it lasted.

The details of that fateful night are an inescapable part of rock lore. The three artists, along with Dion And The Belmonts, were touring as the "Winter Dance Party", making their way through the Midwest, and on February 2, made a stop at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. They were traveling on a tour bus with a malfunctioning heater. Holly, tired of freezing and needing some extra time to do laundry, chartered a four-seater Beechcraft Bonanza to take him to the tour's next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. J. P. Richardson had come down with the flu; Waylon Jennings, one of Holly's band members, let The Big Bopper have his seat. Ritchie Valens was eager for a ride on the plane; Holly's other band member Tommy Allsup agreed to a coin flip for the last seat. Valens won. When Holly learned Jennings wasn't going to make the flight, he cracked to Waylon, "I hope your ol' bus freezes up!" Jennings shot back, "And I hope your ol' plane crashes!", words that would haunt him for the rest of his life. The plane took off from nearby Mason City Municipal Airport, but crashed into a snowy cornfield five miles away, killing all three passengers plus pilot Roger Peterson. Investigators found that the 21-year-old Peterson was not rated for nighttime flight, and probably lost his sense of direction due to the darkness and his inexperience at reading the plane's instruments. The Des Moines Register published an excellent article with further details and reminiscence of that fateful day.

In his 1971 hit "American Pie", Don McLean called it "the day the music died", but that's going way too far, as artists like The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Del Shannon and Gene Pitney would soon break through to usher in a period of music better than many give it credit for, and Bob Dylan and the British Invasion were just around the corner. "American Pie", though deceptively catchy, is actually an eight-minute long rant against the 60's, singling out Dylan, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger for special vitriol. Then, just as you've heard way too much hyperbole, the song winds down by drawing a parallel between Holly, Valens, Richardson, and the Holy Trinity. I liked the song when I was a kid, but today I'd easily put "American Pie" on a list of the worst songs of all time.

(H/T to Brian Holland for the Register article.)