The Day The Music Died

Elks Building

The news went all over E.O. Muncie Junior High that day 50 years ago when I was in the eighth grade. Yes, Muncie had a junior high in those days.

Two of the entertainers killed in the tragic plane crash in an Iowa cornfield were very familiar to me: a big, brash singer-songwriter whose hit record “Chantilly Lace” we considered the coolest thing going; and a Mexican-American teenager not yet 18 years old whose lovely ballad “Oh, Donna” would later have a special meaning to me.

The Big Bopper, real name J.P. Richardson; and Ritchie Valens, who was actually Richard Steven Valenzuela, were both killed instantly along with the young pilot of the plane, Roger Peterson; and another singer whose name I had never heard before: Buddy Holly.

I had to be one of the most ignorant teenagers in the country.

Holly left a footprint on rock ‘n’ roll — later to be called simply “rock music” — that few have matched. Here are a few of the hit records that he wrote and that he and his back-up group, The Crickets, recorded in his tragically short career: “Peggy Sue;” “Not Fade Away;” “Peggy Sue Got Married;” “That’ll Be The Day;” “Rave On;” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” That gives you an idea. He also did a cover version of a song written by Bobby Darin and Woody Harris and recorded by Darin, called “Early in the Morning.” I’ve listened to both versions back to back, and I think Holly’s wins hands down.

The small private plane the singers were riding in had crashed into a farmer’s field near Clear Lake, Iowa, in bad weather, in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1959. The three were part of “The Winter Dance Party,” a rock ‘n’ roll tour that was traveling by bus through the upper Midwest in horrible winter weather. The plane had been chartered so some of the musicians could get to Moorhead, MN, more quickly and rest before their next show.

The drummer for Holly’s back-up group, no longer the Crickets since he had broken up with them, was Tommy Alsup. After pleas from Valens to trade Valens his seat on the plane for Valens’ on the bus, Alsup agreed to a coin toss. Valens “won.”

A young bass player with the group also finally agreed to give up his seat so Richardson could get to Moorhead and rest; the Bopper was suffering from the flu. The bass player’s name was Waylon Jennings. As the plane passengers were leaving to get aboard, Holly yelled jokingly to him, “Hope your old bus breaks down again!” Nettled, Jennings hollered back, “Hope your old plane crashes!”

The remark would haunt Jennings for many years, through his own distinguished career as an “outlaw” country music star.

The Big Bopper had only one hit in his career that was ended suddenly at age 28. “Chantilly Lace” by its title sounds like it might be a sweet ballad. But listen to the first verse: “Hello, BAAby! This is the Big Bopper talking! Do I what?! Will I WHAT?! Oh, baby, you KNOW what I like!”

The Bopper appeared on “American Bandstand” after his off-beat song had become a big rock ‘n’ roll hit, flashing his lascivious grin and popping his eyes as if any kind of lace was the last thing on his mind. We boys freaked. He was the ultimate in big-guy, stud muffin cool.

Ritchie Valens, 11 years younger, was lean and lithe, all energy on stage, and his career was streaking upward with his first two hits, back to back on the same single, “La Bamba” and “Oh, Donna.”

That year, 1959, Madison held its 150th anniversary celebration. In the Valley City Saga, the pageant put on each night for a week, under the Madison-Milton bridge, to celebrate the event, there were a number of kids from late grade school on up who had bit parts. One of them was me; another was a beautiful, dark-haired little 12-year-old girl named Donna — just like the song. We palled around innocently during the pageant; I gave her my first boy-girl kiss on the last night.

And later, I sent her the sheet music for that song, “Oh, Donna,” to show her that I was still thinking of her.

But it was Buddy Holly whose legacy lived on and on, long after that Feb. 3 night that he died. Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello have cited him as inspiring their careers. Two teenagers in Liverpool, England, when they formed their own rock group, named it The Beatles. It was a form of homage to the Crickets from John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Listen to many of the early Beatles songs, and you’ll hear echoes of Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

Paul McCartney now owns the catalogue of Buddy Holly songs. And he has been active in sponsoring and encouraging annual Buddy Holly festivals in Britain for years.

In 1972, a young singer-songwriter named Don McLean wrote and recorded a tune that speaks of bad news on the doorstep in February, and the three men he admired most taking the last train for the coast, among many other landmarks in rock ‘n’ roll history.

The song was “American Pie.” It’s as close as we have to a rock anthem. It was a big hit; won many awards. And in the year 2000, a survey of several thousand music critics to establish The Top 100 Songs of the 20th Century, placed “American Pie” at No. 5.

Don McLean called Feb. 3, 1959, “The Day the Music Died.” He added a new saying to our language. And in a way, it did die. But in another way, it didn’t. The singers were killed; their corporeal existence ended in that field in Clear Lake, Iowa. But their music hasn’t died. You can hear it yet. Just listen to rock stations on Tuesday, and I bet you’ll hear a lot of it — a Buddy-Bopper-Ritchie tribute, all day long.

Baby, you KNOW what I like!

Old Corporal <corporalko@yahoo.com>

“The Day the Music Died”, – Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 16:03:29 (EST

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