The Day the Music Died
Monument at the crash site, September 16, 2003
|Date||February 3, 1959|
|Summary||Controlled flight into terrain|
|Site||Near Clear Lake, Iowa, United States
|Aircraft type||Beechcraft Bonanza|
|Operator||Dwyer Flying Service, Mason City, Iowa|
|Flight origin||Mason City Municipal Airport|
The Day the Music Died, so dubbed by a lyric in the Don McLean song "American Pie," is a reference to the deaths of rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3, 1959. Pilot Roger Peterson was also killed.
After terminating his partnership with The Crickets, Buddy Holly assembled a new band consisting of Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Carl Bunch, to play on the '"Winter Dance Party" tour. The tour also featured rising artist Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, who were promoting their own recordings as well. The tour was to cover 24 Midwestern cities in three weeks.
The distance between venues and the conditions prevalent aboard the poorly equipped tour buses adversely affected the performers. Cases of flu spread among the band members, and Holly's drummer was hospitalized due to frostbite. Frustrated by the conditions, Holly decided to charter a plane when they stopped for their performance in the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, to reach their next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota. Carroll Anderson, owner of the Surf Ballroom, chartered the plane from the Dwyer Flying Service. Richardson, who was affected by the flu, swapped places with Waylon Jennings, taking the latter's place on the plane, while Tommy Allsup lost his place to Ritchie Valens on a coin toss. Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts fame) decided not to board the plane for the $36 fee.
The investigation of the incident determined that soon after take off, a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error caused spatial disorientation that made pilot Roger Peterson lose control of the plane. Hubert Dwyer, owner of the flight service company, could not establish radio contact and reported the aircraft missing the next morning. He took off in his own Cessna 180 and spotted the wreckage less than six miles (9.7 km) northwest of the airport in a cornfield. He notified the authorities who dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the wreck site and found the bodies of the passengers and pilot. They were later identified by Carroll Anderson.
Buddy Holly terminated his association with The Crickets and his manager Norman Petty during a reunion in Lubbock, Texas, on November 3, 1958. For the start of the "The Winter Dance Party" tour, he assembled a band consisting of Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar), and Carl Bunch (drums). The tour was set to cover 24 Midwestern cities in as many days. New hit artist Ritchie Valens, J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and Dion DiMucci joined the tour to promote their recordings and make an extra profit.
The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The amount of travel created a logistical problem with the tour. The distance between venues had not been considered when scheduling each performance. Adding to the disarray, the tour bus was not equipped for the weather. Its heating system broke shortly after the tour began, in Appleton, Wisconsin. While flu spread among the rest of the performers, Holly's drummer, Carl Bunch, was hospitalized in Ironwood, Michigan, for severely frostbitten feet. The musicians replaced that bus with a school bus and kept traveling. As Holly's group had been the backing band for all of the acts, Holly, Valens, and DiMucci took turns playing drums for each other at the Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Clear Lake, Iowa, performances.
On February 2, the tour arrived in Clear Lake, where they were to play at the Surf Ballroom. The venue had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called Surf Ballroom manager Carroll Anderson and offered him the show. He accepted and they set the show for that night. By the time Holly arrived at the venue that Monday evening, he was frustrated with the tour bus. Holly decided to charter a plane to take him to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota, to avoid traveling in the bus, and to have enough time to do laundry.
Carroll Anderson called Hubert Dwyer, owner of the Dwyer Flying Service, a company of Mason City, Iowa, to charter the plane to get to Fargo, North Dakota. Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old local pilot. The flying service charged a fee of $36 per passenger for the single-engined, 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza 35 (V-tail), N3794N. The Bonanza sat three passengers and the pilot. Richardson had contracted flu during the tour and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said in jest, "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes," a humorous but ill-fated response that haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.
Ritchie Valens, who had once had a fear of flying, asked Tommy Allsup for his seat on the plane. Allsup and Valens decided to toss a coin to decide. Bob Hale, a DJ with KRIB-AM, was working the concert that night and flipped the coin in the ballroom's sidestage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss for the seat on the flight. Dion had been approached to join the flight, although it is unclear exactly when he was asked. Dion decided that since the $36 fare (equivalent to US$288.30 in 2013) equaled the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he could not justify the indulgence.
When the show ended, Carroll Anderson drove Holly, Valens, and Richardson to the airport. The plane departed from the ramp and taxied to then-Runway 17 at around 12:55 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, February 3. The weather report indicated light snow with a ceiling of 5,000 feet (1,500 m) and winds from 29 to 37 mph (47 to 60 km/h). Though there were indications of deteriorating weather along the route, the weather briefings Peterson received failed to relay the information. The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB)—an agency later replaced by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)—investigated the crash. The results of the CAB investigation suggest that, soon after takeoff, Peterson became disoriented due to the unfamiliar way the attitude indicator in the aircraft functioned, combined with an inability to find a point of visual reference on a starless night with no visible lights on the ground. He lost control of the plane, and the tip of the right wing hit the ground. The aircraft tumbled across a bean field belonging to Albert Juhl. The Bonanza was at a slight downward angle and banked heavily to the right when it struck the ground at around 170 mph (270 km/h). The plane appears to have crumpled and then skidded another 570 feet (170 m) across the frozen landscape before the broken wreckage came to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl's property.
Dwyer, the owner of the plane and the flight service company, who had witnessed the takeoff, decided to establish radio contact, but all attempts were unsuccessful. Later that morning, when Hector Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, had not heard from Peterson, Dwyer contacted authorities and reported the aircraft missing. Dwyer took off in his Cessna 180 and flew Peterson's intended route. Within minutes he spotted the wreckage less than six miles (9.7 km) northwest of the airport. The Sheriff's office dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the wreck site. The bodies of Holly and Valens lay near the plane. Richardson's body was thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl's neighbor Oscar Moffett. Peterson's body was entangled in the plane's wreckage. With the other participants on "The Winter Dance Party" en route to Moorhead, it fell to Surf Ballroom manager Carroll Anderson, who drove the musicians to the airport and witnessed the plane's takeoff, to make positive identifications of the musicians. The county coroner Ralph Smiley declared that all four had died instantly from "gross trauma" to the brain.
Civil Aeronautics Board investigators concluded that the crash was due to a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error, resulting in spatial disorientation. Peterson, working on his instrument rating at the time, was still taking flight instrumentation tests and was not yet certified for flight into weather that required flying solely by instruments rather than by his own vision. The final Civil Aeronautics Board report noted that Peterson had taken his instrument training on airplanes equipped with an artificial horizon attitude indicator and not the far-less-common Sperry Attitude Gyro the Bonanza was equipped with. Peterson had also failed his instrument checkride shortly before the incident. Critically, the two instruments display aircraft pitch attitude but depict such information in a visual manner opposite of one another; therefore, the board considered that this could have caused Peterson to think he was ascending when he was, in fact, descending. They also concluded that Peterson did not receive adequate warnings about weather conditions that, given his known limitations, might have caused him to postpone the flight out of prudence.
In 2007, Richardson's son had his father's body exhumed and an autopsy performed to verify the original finding. This was done, in part, because of the long-known discovery of Holly's .22 caliber pistol by Juhl in the cornfield two months after the wreck. This gave rise to the question of whether an accidental firearm discharge had caused the crash, and whether or not Richardson was not hurt as badly and tried to crawl for help, since his body was found farther from the crash site. William M. Bass undertook the procedure and confirmed Smiley's original report. The well-preserved body of Richardson showed "massive fractures from head to toe" confirming that he also died on impact.
Holly's pregnant wife, María Elena, watched the first reports of his death on television. A widow after six months of marriage, she miscarried the following day, attributed to "psychological trauma". His mother, who heard the news on the radio in Lubbock, Texas, collapsed. Because of María Elena's miscarriage, the authorities, in the months following, implemented a policy against announcing victims' names until after families are informed. María Elena Holly did not attend the funeral, and has never visited the gravesite. She later told the Avalanche-Journal: "In a way, I blame myself. I was not feeling well when he left. I was two weeks pregnant, and I wanted Buddy to stay with me, but he had scheduled that tour. It was the only time I wasn't with him. And I blame myself because I know that, if only I had gone along, Buddy never would have gotten into that airplane."
Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup continued the tour for two more weeks, featuring Jennings as the lead singer. Meanwhile, Holly's funeral was held on February 7, 1959, at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lubbock. The service was officiated by Ben D. Johnson, who had presided at the Hollys' wedding just months earlier. The pallbearers were Jerry Allison, Joe B. Mauldin, Niki Sullivan, Bob Montgomery, Sonny Curtis and Phil Everly. Holly's body was interred in the City of Lubbock Cemetery. His headstone carries the correct spelling of his surname (Holley) and a carving of his Fender Stratocaster guitar.
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The first song to commemorate the musicians was Three Stars by Eddie Cochran. The accident was later the subject of the 1971 Don McLean song American Pie. The song dubbed it in popular culture as "The Day The Music Died," which for McLean, symbolized the "loss of innocence" of the early rock-and-roll generation. The accident was depicted in Buddy Holly's 1978 biographical film The Buddy Holly Story, as well as in Ritchie Valens' 1987 biopic La Bamba.
In 1988, Ken Paquette, a Wisconsin fan of the 1950s era, erected a stainless steel monument that depicts a guitar and a set of three records that bear the names of each of the three performers. The monument is on private farmland, about one-quarter mile (0.40 km) west of the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue, five miles (8.0 km) north of Clear Lake. A large plasma-cut-steel set of Wayfarer-style glasses, similar to those Holly wore, sits at the access point to the crash site. Paquette also created a similar stainless steel monument to the three musicians that is located outside the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Holly, the Big Bopper, and Valens played their second-to-last show on the night of February 1, 1959. This second memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003. In February 2009, a new memorial made by Paquette for pilot Roger Peterson was unveiled at the crash site. A road originating near The Surf Ballroom and extending north past the west of the crash site is now known as Buddy Holly Place.
Fans of Holly, Valens, and Richardson have been gathering for annual memorial concerts at the Surf Ballroom since 1979. The 50th anniversary concert took place on February 2, 2009, with Graham Nash, Peter and Gordon, Tommy Allsup, and J.P. Richardson, Jr., the son of the Big Bopper among the participating artists; Bob Hale was the master of ceremonies for the event as well as the concert in 1959.
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