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The Day The Music Died 50 Years Later


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Today is the 50th Anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson). Below is a nice article about the event. If you can find it, VH1 did a fantastic "Behind The Music" about that tragic day (I would have thought they would have re-broadcast it but I don't see it listed.) Quinn and I went to Clear Lake several years ago--Clear Lake, IA is a very cool step back in time, and the Surf Ballroom (where the last concert took place) is a wonderful place. You can get directions to the crash site at http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/351

They had a big party over the past week in Clear Lake to celebrate the event, the preparations for which turned the town on its ear! (http://www.clreporter.com/local-news/one-week-and-counting-surf-ballroom-prepares-historic-week) Would have been a blast! Oh well, I will have to settle for getting in my car, cranking up the tunes, thanking that great trio for what they gave us, and humming a little Neil Young to myself: "hey hey, my my, Rock N' Roll will NEVER DIE! Slan go foill, Kip

The 'Day the Music Died' didn't kill music - it lived and grew bigger




Tuesday, February 3rd 2009, 4:00 AM


Feb. 3, 2009 is the 50th anniversary of the day musicians Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash.


The music didn't really die on Feb. 3, 1959, the day a four-seat airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) crashed into a cornfield eight miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa.

Five years and six days later, the Beatles, who learned their craft from Buddy Holly records and whose name is a shoutout to Holly's Crickets, played the Ed Sullivan show.


No, the music lived. It just got bigger than anyone in 1959 could have imagined.


Still, that plane crash deeply affected a rock 'n' roll world that in 1959 was still in early adolescence.


The term "rock 'n' roll" itself had only come into widespread use about three years earlier, though it had floated around the blues world at least since the 1920s as a thinly camouflaged synonym for fun under the sheets. When you're young, you don't think about death.


Before Feb. 3, 1959, rock 'n' roll's idea of a loss was Elvis Presley going into the Army or Little Richard announcing he was going to sing only for he Lord. John Lennon later would remarks that rock 'n' roll died when Elvis went into the Army.


On this one, John was wrong. There's a widespread popular myth that after Elvis' induction and the Buddy Holly plane crash, the enemies of rock 'n' roll smashed it into harmless little pieces. By this myth, traditionalists in the music, entertainment and radio games got together and conspired to replace the wild, raw power of Elvis, Buddy and Little Richard with the harmless likes of Fabian and Frankie Avalon, pretty boys with minimal talent.


Thus yanking the teeth and the bite out of this dangerous, subversive intruder. Without question there were traditionalists who wanted to see that happen, and even many fans believed rock 'n' roll was another fad, like goldfish swallowing, whose inevitable expiration date was coming up fast.


They too were wrong. The music and the seeds it planted in those 1958-1964 years, between Elvis and the Beatles, will stand with any six years in rock 'n' roll history. Motown started then, with artists like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Temptations.


That was Roy Orbison's peak. You had the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons at their best. Phil Spector was producing, Stax and Muscle Shoals were gearing up. The Shirelles were singing. So were Del Shannon and Arthur Alexander and James Brown and Gene Pitney.


Small companies produced hundreds of great singles, from Maxine Brown's "All In My Mind" to Kathy Young's "A Thousand Stars" to the Capris' classic "There's a Moon Out Tonight" and the Edsels' immortal "Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong."


In the larger picture, the music was only slightly wounded. What the crash did do was take away some of the innocence, the adolescent's blithe confidence that things will not change.


That loss of innocence was the real point of "American Pie," the 1971 Don McLean ballad that locked the "day the music died" phrase into our cultural vocabulary.


McLean's massive hit, with its mildly inside references and quasi-profound imagery, is ultimately most notable for reflecting the fact that a dozen years later, fans still missed and mourned those who were lost.


The crash also triggered a discussion, somewhat muted with the passage of time, over what those men could have given us had they lived. Richardson, the veteran of the group at 28, was a disc jockey and country singer who happened to have a novelty pop hit with "Chantilly Lace." Country was his legitimate talent and he probably would have returned there.


Valens is the wild card. At 17 he had already written the timeless ballad "Donna." Would he have written more? Or was he destined to be a starburst of a teen idol? Either way, he was one of the first Hispanic rock 'n' roll stars.


Hispanic rhythms have never gotten the credit they deserve for their part in shaping rock 'n' roll, and while Valens wasn't singing hard-core Hispanic music, he was a pioneer whose importance could easily have grown. Holly? Again, who knows?


Scott Shannon, WPLJ program director, morning cohost and lifelong Holly fan, says he thinks Holly's future might have been mostly in songwriting and producing. His recording career, Shannon notes, had hit a lull at the time of his death, though "It Doesn't Matter Any More" became an ironic posthumous hit.


While Holly was only 22, he had already begun moving away from the hard rockabilly sound of his earlier days, experimenting with strings in a ballad like "True Love Ways."


But right to the end he was writing great, crisp songs, Shannon notes, and in many ways he was a more complete musician than Elvis. "Besides the singing, he was a great guitar player and wrote great songs," says Shannon.


"He was a producer, too." The 1983 movie "Eddie and the Cruisers" has its shadowy lead character, a rock 'n' roll singer, quietly trying to arrange musical sessions that would bring black and white performers together in new and different ways.


It's been suggested this notion came from some of what Holly was doing.


We'll never find out, of course, because 50 years ago Tuesday, the plane went down. Holly, Valens and Richardson were part of the "Winter Dance Party" tour that was doing a whirlwind run of one-nighters through small Midwestern towns, basically to learn a few quick bucks.


On the afternoon of Feb. 2, while they were all waiting for that night's show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Holly decided he couldn't face one more 300-mile ride on a freezing bus to the next stop, Fargo, N.D.


So he chartered a small plane, figuring that way he'd arrive early enough to get some sleep and do his laundry.


The local charter service assigned the flight to 21-year-old Roger Peterson, a pilot who had little experience flying with instruments in the kind of snowy, overcast skies that descended over Iowa that night. Holly was originally going to take two other members of his band on the plane, guitarist Tommy Allsup and bass player Waylon Jennings.


That way they could split the cost -- $108, or $36 apiece.


But when other performers on the tour heard about the plane, they put in their own bids. Richardson, who was coming down with a cold, asked Jennings if he could take that seat and Jennings, who didn't mind the bus as much as the others, told him sure.


Valens, who thought flying on a small plane sounded cool, had a harder time talking Allsup out of the last seat. Finally Valens proposed flipping a coin and Allsup agreed. Valens pulled out a half dollar.


Allsup flipped it and Valens called heads. Heads it was.


The plane took off about 1 a.m. from the Mason City airport. The best guess about what happened next is that Peterson realized only after they took off that he would have to fly by instruments.


More specifically, he had to fly by a Sperry Attitude Gyroscope, which displays attitude pitch the opposite of the gyroscopes on which he had trained. If he didn't know that, he would have thought the plane was climbing when it was descending. Eight miles from the airport, the plane crashed into a cornfield.


It hit, bounced about 50 feet, then skidded 500 or so feet into a fence, where it broke apart. Richardson, Holly and Valens were thrown out. Peterson's body remained in the wreckage.


It didn't matter. All were almost certainly killed on impact. When there was no word from anyone on the plane by dawn, a search began. Jerry Dwyer, who owned the air service, took off in another plane, retracing Peterson's route. At 9:35 a.m., he saw the wreckage.


A few days later, another brilliant young rock 'n' roll artist, Eddie Cochran, cut a sentimental farewell song called "The Three Stars," which went in part: Look up in the sky, up toward the north.


There are three new stars, brightly shining forth It was the kind of song that once was instantly written for any famous person who died, proving how close popular music still was in 1959 to the old pop era.


Fourteen months later, on April 17, 1960, Eddie Cochran was killed in a car crash. He was 21. The music didn't die then, either. Today, most younger popular music fans have only historical knowledge of Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens.


Maybe they've seen the movies. Maybe they recognize "That'll Be the Day," which Holly wrote from a John Wayne line in "The Searchers," or "La Bamba," which was Valens applying rock 'n' roll to an old sea song.


But the three stars mostly are names, or maybe they're voices.


There's little sense of the visceral impact from hearing they were gone. Still, Feb. 3, 1959, helped carve out the path the music has followed to Feb. 3, 2009.


Without the blue notes, it wouldn't have the richness that's kept it so alive.



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I remember hearing the news on the radio (AM, of course) while riding in the backseat of the family's '54 Dodge. I sort of recognized the name Buddy Holly but I'm not sure I had any idea who Richie Valens was. But the Big Bopper was a different story. "Chantilly Lace" was much more fun for an eleven year old to sing along with than "Donna" or "True Love Ways" (although "Not Fade Away" was pretty catchy:-). I knew who the Big Bopper was, though it would be years before I remembered his real name, and his death really was a sad event for me.


Funny how age warps the memory of time. the crash seems like a lifetime ago; McLean's "American Pie", just twelve years later, seems like yesterday.

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[good story from the AP:


Rock fans head to Iowa to recall day music died

It's been 50 years since a single-engine plane crashed into a snow-covered Iowa field, instantly killing three men whose names would become enshrined in the history of rock 'n' roll.

The passing decades haven't diminished fascination with that night on Feb. 2, 1959, when 22-year-old Buddy Holly, 28-year-old J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and 17-year-old Ritchie Valens performed in Clear Lake and then boarded the plane for a planned 300-mile flight that lasted only minutes.


"It was really like the first rock 'n' roll landmark; the first death," said rock historian Jim Dawson, who has written several books about music of that era. "They say these things come in threes. Well, all three happened at the same time."


Starting Wednesday, thousands of people are expected to gather in the small northern Iowa town where the rock pioneers gave their last performance. They'll come to the Surf Ballroom for symposiums with the three musicians' relatives, sold-out concerts and a ceremony as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designates the building as its ninth national landmark.


And they'll discuss why after so many years, so many people still care about what songwriter Don McLean so famously called "the day the music died."


"It was the locus point for that last performance by these great artists," said Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "It warrants being fixed in time."


Clear Lake is an unlikely spot for a rock 'n' roll pilgrimage - especially in winter. The resort town of about 8,000 borders its namesake lake, and on winter days the cold and wind make the community 100 miles north of Des Moines anything but a tourist destination.


The crash site is on private property, a five-mile drive from Clear Lake and half-mile walk off the road. Corn grows high in adjacent fields during the summer, but in winter the fields are covered with snow and a path to the small memorial is often thick with ice. The memorial features a small cross and thin metal guitar and records, all of which are draped in flowers during the summer.


"It's a much nicer trip in the summer," said Jeff Nicholas, a longtime Clear Lake resident who heads the Surf Ballroom's board of directors. "But in the winter, you get more of a feel of what it was like."


No one tracks the number of visitors, but fans stop by throughout the year and on some summer days visitors to the crash site can create the oddity of a corn field traffic jam.


Stewart said the deaths still resonate because they occurred at a time when rock 'n' roll was going through a transition, of sorts. The sound of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Holly was making way for the British Invasion of the mid-1960s.


"The music was shifting and changing at that point," he said. "The crash put a punctuation point on the change."


All three musicians influenced rock and roll in their own way.


Holly's career was short, but his hiccup-vocal style, guitar play and songwriting talents had tremendous influence on later performers. The Beatles, who formed about the time of the crash, were among his early fans and fashioned their name after Holly's band, The Crickets. Holly's hit songs include "That'll Be The Day," "Peggy Sue" and "Maybe Baby."


Richardson, "The Big Bopper," is often credited with creating the first music video with his recorded performance of "Chantilly Lace" in 1958, decades before MTV.


And Valens was one of the first musicians to apply a Mexican influence to rock 'n' roll. He recorded his huge hit "La Bamba" only months before the accident.


The plane left the airport in nearby Mason City about 1 a.m., headed for Moorhead, Minn., with the musicians looking for a break from a tiring, cold bus trip through the Upper Midwest.


It wasn't until hours later that the demolished plane was found, crumpled against a wire fence. Investigators believe the pilot, who also died, became confused amid the dark, snowy conditions and rammed the plane into the ground.


The crash set off a wave of mourning among their passionate, mostly young fans across the country. Then 12 years later the crash was immortalized as "the day the music died" in McLean's 1971 song, "American Pie."


Vonnie Amosson, who manages the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Clear Lake, said that ever since the plane crash, the community has embraced the tragedy. It's a continues stream of tourism dollars, and the town's chamber of commerce estimates that this year's events, dubbed "50s in February," will generate more than $4 million for Clear Lake's economy.


"It's kind of sad that that is what we are known for," Amosson said. "But on the other part of it, I think the whole '50's in February' weekend is a huge memorial and it's an honor to them."


In part because of its role in rock history, the Surf Ballroom has retained its vintage look, with a 6,000-square-foot dance floor, ceiling painted to resemble a sky, and original cloud machines on either side of the room. Ten Buddy Holly banners line the wall opposite the stage. The 2,100-capacity ballroom still hosts many national and regional performers, most of whom add their names to a backstage wall that is now crowded with drawings and signatures.


"It's quite a special place," said Nicholas, the Surf board member. "This place looks just like it did in 1959."


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  • 2 weeks later...

The news of their deaths had no impact on me. Besides being 9 at the time, I wasn't listening to music.


That changed five years later when the four lads from Liverpool arrived and appeared on Sullivan. We are now looking at the 45th anniversary of those days.


Wednesday night, I played "I Want to Hold You" and "She Loves You" for a group of 6-8th graders and they really liked it.


I do have to wonder what impact Ritchie Valens would have had on the music with his Mexican heritage.

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The rock and roll years from 1954 to the early 60's, which happened to be my teen years, probably would have changed if only a little later had Holly, Valens and Richardson not been killed.


Those first 6 or 7 years were what you would call the formative years. Performers like Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and others in those beginning years, took several different genre's of music - blues, gospel, and other southern music, and hammered it into a powerhouse of pure raw power. It was the small record producers, like Sam Phillips of Sun, who discovered this new form and turned it loose. The small producers couldn't really compete with the big studious like RCA, etc, who, when they finally figured out that something was happening out in the "real" world, jumped in with both feet and started buying out the smaller studios contracts.


There was a ground-swell of opposition to rock and roll in the 50's, much of it church driven and a lot of it Southern Church driven - they forgot that one of the bases of the phenom was gospel. My take is after the bigger studios got into it, in the early 60's, I think it would have started to become tamer, in a word, at that point as the bigger studios overlooked the roots and made it platable to the critics.


In any event it's all a moot point now. The Beatles came along and the old form rock and roll began to loose it's raw power and become refined. It is my personal opinion, having spent my teen years from 54-to-the-British-Invasion, that the music, if it died, it went when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan.


That's not to take anything away from the Beatles or those that followed - each generation has it's music - mine was the 40's and 50's. I just turned the radio off after 1964-1965.


So to Elvis, Roy, Carl, the Big Bopper and the rest - thanks for the ride, guys - it was a time.



Alex Burr

Memphis, TN

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