Holly, Valens, Bopper

It Was 50 Years Ago Today

The children probably remember neither the originals nor the overplayed version told in Don McClean’s American Pie, but this is still known as the day the music died.

MASON CITY, Iowa – Jim Collison thinks the call came in at about 9:30 a.m.

But it could have been 10 o’clock, he said.

After 50 years, the hands on the clock of memory get a little fuzzy.

The late Thor Jensen, the crusty, no-nonsense city editor of the Globe Gazette, got the call.

“There had been a plane crash,” he said. “With fatalities.”

Jensen dispatched Collison, the county reporter, and photographer Elwin Musser to the crash scene in Clear Lake.

It was Feb. 3, 1959, a date to be remembered in folklore as “the day the music died.”

Singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, better known as “The Big Bopper,” had performed at the Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom the night before.

After the concert, they boarded a private plane at Mason City Municipal Airport to take them to their next gig in Fargo, N.D.

The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone aboard, including the pilot, Roger Peterson.

What I find remarkable is that Buddy Holly’s music still sounds energetic and innovative (think Peggy Sue and Words of Love).

WHAT HOLLY MEANT “Holly is truly one of the icons of rock and roll music,” said Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which named Holly to its first class of inductees in 1986. “In his tragically brief career, Holly created a body of work that is still reverberating through the rock world today.” ( The Beatles fashioned their name after Holly’s band, the Crickets.)

Richie Valens (La Bamba), who was remarkably young (age 17 when he died) enjoyed a remarkably short career and also had remarkable musical influence.

His career spanned just eight months, but in that short time Valens, a Mexican-American kid who would sometimes do migrant work to support his family, was able to blend the music of his ancestors with the rock ‘n’ roll he taught himself to play on a second-hand guitar.

“Ritchie Valens really was the first Mexican-American rock star. No one had reached the popularity that he did,” says New York-based filmmaker John J. Valadez, whose documentary “La Onda Chicana” will screen at next month’s 31st Annual CineFestival de San Antonio.

The documentary traces the evolution of Mexican-Americans in music, and it begins with the story of Valens, whose accomplishments in such a brief career, Valadez says, have “never been equaled in American music.”

Both “Sam the Sham (& the Pharaohs)” and Carlos Santana followed in is wake.

J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson is routinely overshadowed by the others, but seldom forgotten.  His big hit (heard to this day) is Chantilly Lace, but he was a song writer and singer before then, as well as a D.J. of some renown.

Trivia: Country star Waylon Jennings did not die in that plane crash. He easily could have.

With the success of “Chantilly Lace“, Richardson took time off from KTRM radio and joined Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Ritchie Valens and Dion & the Belmonts for a “Winter Dance Party” tour. On February 2, 1959, Buddy Holly chartered a Beechcraft Bonanza to take him, Tommy Allsup, and Waylon Jennings to Fargo, North Dakota. Richardson was suffering from the flu and didn’t feel comfortable on the group’s bus. Jennings agreed to give up his plane seat to Richardson. Valens had never flown in a small plane and requested Allsup’s seat. They flipped a coin, and Valens won the toss.

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One Comment on “Holly, Valens, Bopper”

  1. Vicki Boston Says:

    In 1978, a novelization of GREASE came out-at the same time the movie did.
    In the book, an untold chapter-which wasn’t in the movie OR Broadway stage version.
    Vince Fontaine-the T-Birds’ favorite D.J. -he’d be hosting the School Dance contest
    in the movie/stage production-announced the death of these three singers.
    What does Danny Zuko say? He says that their favorite idols of their youth will either die on them OR disappear from view ” It’s lousy-and I DON’T like it”.


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