Feb 032009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009, marks the 50th Anniversary of The Day the Music Died, that is, for those of you…

  • Too young to have grown up with Don McLean’s “American Pie”
  • Too sober and reasonable to have ever been at a “normal person” bar with patrons drunkenly singing along to said song as an acoustic cover duo signals Last Call
  • Blessed enough to have missed Madonna‘s atrocious cover of said song from its brief appearance on the charts a few years ago

…the day an airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper went down near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing the three early rockers and the plane’s pilot.

(Holly’s the guy who looks kind of like Gary Busey.)

If the sentiments of McLean’s song and rock criticism are to be believed, this momentous event – together with Elvis Presley‘s induction in the U.S. Army, Jerry Lee Lewis‘ marriage to his 14-year-old cousin, and Little Richard‘s swearing off of rock ‘n roll in favor of The Lord – would set the stage for a few years of mostly wimpy rock ‘n roll and indirectly lead to John F. Kennedy’s assassination and England’s Profumo Affair, the latter a sexual scandal involving a politician that would provide a slap to the butt of the newborn Beatles, reawaken The Power and Glory of Rock, and many years after the fact introduce me to the cute-as-a-button screen presence of Bridget Fonda.

The small plane was supposed to have carried only Buddy Holly and two bandmates, including future country music icon Waylon Jennings, but Valens and JP Richardson (ie, Bopper) subtly pulled rank and took the Crickets’ seats. Bad move for the opening acts, but a boon of varying degrees for Gailard Sartain, Gilbert Melgar, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Stephen Lee, among other actors who’ve had the honor of portraying these artists in films, telemovies, and stage plays.

Dion would live to jam with Lou Reed

Dion DiMucci, of Dion and the Belmonts fame, was also approached to purchase a seat at $36, but thankfully the stress he’d absorbed growing up with hothead, skinflint Italian parents bickering over their family apartment’s $36 rent scarred him, and he happily hopped on the free bus with the common backing musicians.

Rock ‘n roll revived for at least 20 years following the arrival of The Beatles, but on this mournful anniversary we’ll be reviewing – and celebrating – what may have been lost forever, what may have been gained, and where rock ‘n roll may yet be headed in the post-Holly/Valens/Bopper landscape.


  18 Responses to “Rock Town Hall Celebrates The Day the Music Died”

  1. BigSteve

    Whatever’s going on with the jacket the Big Bopper is wearing — is it some kind of leopard skin print/gold lame’? — I dig that Look.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    Here’s a great piece on Holly that appeared in today’s Independent:


    This line is pretty apt to today’s rememberance:

    Don McLean may have called Holly’s death “the day the music died”, but in effect his death ensured it was the day the music lived.

  3. BigSteve

    I’m wondering how big a deal this plane crash was at the time. The headlines we always see are from local papers.

    Holly had three top ten singles in 57 (That’ll Be the Day, Peggy, Sue, and Oh Boy), but his singles in 58 charted much lower. Donna by Valens was a #2 in 1958, so at the time of the crash was he a bigger star than Holly?

    I think this is one of those times when an artist acquires legendary status long after his death that he may not have had at the time. The story about the Beatles naming themselves after the Crickets and the movies made about Holly and Valens really made a big difference in their legends.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve, your timing in raising this question could not have been better. I’ve spent a lot of time in between tasks today trying to find front page accounts of the crash, but like you, all I’m finding are stories in the likes of Lubbock’s newspaper. Was this even reported in the New York Times? You are getting at one of the roots of today’s celebration.

    So often in the telling of “history lite,” such as “rock history” as opposed to US or World History, which our parents told us involves “real-world” concerns, I’m skeptical of the actual impact that an event had. I’ve been hearing about The Day the Music Died since that song appeared and I first started reading “rock history” books and watching rock docs. I was a young boy through the ’60s, and I grew up in the ’70s, so it’s long been clear to me that life wasn’t as “’60s” as the media would like us to believe until long after the ’60s. My uncle, the one who turned me onto music, was as “hippie” as I could recall because his yellow Skylark always smelled of “cheesesteaks,” as he explained it the day I asked him what that odor was I always smelled in his car – and because he went to tons of cool concerts; had a kick-ass mustache, and wore textured, purple and maroon velour shirts with massive collars. But he didn’t have hair down to his ass (OK, he was prematurely bald) and he wasn’t out protesting the Vietnam war like every cliched 20-year-old in movies and tv shows set in the ’60s since the late ’70s. He was just a dude who was slowly letting his hair down, as it seemed most less-than-square folks were doing in those days. All you have to do is look at movies from 1968 to see that the actors in Easy Rider were the exception to the rule.

    Likewise, my boys are growing up with a media that tells them the ’70s were one big disco party. I have trouble explaining to them that the disco age was only at the tail end of the decade for most Americans, that people were still catching up with what has been codified as “’60s culture” through most of the ’70s.

    So yeah, I have to wonder if the death of Buddy Holly meant a whole hell of a lot to anyone but the ’50s equivalent of our crew.

  5. Maybe it didn’t mean much to the people who were in charge of writing the newspaper articles but this all took place before the huge cultural sea change that was the 60s.

    At the time, wasn’t rock still considered a teeny bopper fad, and wasn’t the media significantly less pop culture obsessed at that time than it would be even just a few years later?

    Maybe this historical significance only revealed itself over time, as opposed to being created with each retelling of the story.

  6. diskojoe

    Mr. Mod, according to this, it does look like the NY Times reported the crash:


  7. diskojoe

    Also, here’s an article from the Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association on the plane crash itself:


  8. Mr. Moderator

    Nice find, Diskojoe! I was looking all over for such a clip. How’d you find that so fast?

    So the story was reported on page 66. As reflected in what BigSteve mentioned, based on recent chart success, Valens’ career success is treated about the same as that of Holly’s. I love how it’s mentioned that teenagers attended the night’s concert with their parents. How ’50s that reads to me!

    Do I overlook Valens’ music? I have to admit that the song “La Bamba” has always been a bit of a turnoff for me despite its many fine, 3-chord garage rock elements. I groaned throughout viewing the biopic. Should I actually value Valens’ music more than I do The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” a song I’ve loved since I was a kid wearing out my copy of the American Graffiti soundtrack?

  9. mockcarr

    I dig Buddy Holly a lot although he might have been the best rock Charlie had his mother not given him that nickname.

    How bad could the show get if yer flippin parents were there to waggle a finger at the goings on?

  10. BigSteve

    The online NYTimes archive was not cooperating when I tried earlier, but yes I just found it — 2/4/59 page 66. Doesn’t a plane crash that kills three non-famous people get a mention in the Times on page 66 too?

    I agree with cdm’s point that in 1959 no one thought the music these three people played was of great significance. I think even Holly would have been astonished to know that people were still buying and listening to his music 50 years later.

    Calling it ‘the day the music died’ is a bit much. Elvis was in the army, and the music was already dead, or at least comatose.

  11. dbuskirk

    Wow, page 66. I remember when D. Boon died, it was probably at least a week before I saw the rumor verified anywhere.

    Richie Valens Greatest Hits is a pretty good listen, the guitar playing and the production makes it all pretty entertaining and I’ve loved “C’Mon Let’s Go” since Los Lobos covered it.

  12. Mr. Moderator

    Thanks for reminding me about “C’mon Let’s Go.” That’s a good one. I was thinking about it this morning, “La Bamba” might have been the first otherwise catchy song that I turned my nose up to as a boy and thought, “That’s too dumb for me to like.” This, friends, is my burden.

  13. Don’t forget “Oh, My Head”, a song later covered by Led Zeppelin on Physical Graffiti but they changed the name to “Boogie With Stew” and took 2/3s of the songwriting credit. Mrs. Valens gets the other 1/3.

  14. Of course hindsight is always 20/20 and we can always debate the influence of the big three. No doubt, Buddy’s influence is far more reaching and enduring than his rock compatriates that perished that morning. I contend that Buddy would have likely gone into more production and writing as his career moved forward. I withink that he may have even gone on to do what The Beatles and Brian Wilson did in 60s: used the studio as an additional instrument. That’s just my wishful thinking and one never really knows.

    I also think that Valens would have prusued his path and bridged the gap between Mexican and American musics. He was a real groundbreaker in breaking down those barriers. so, Los Lobos and Santana and others owe a bit of gratitude to Valens.

    I don’t know about the Bopper. I think he would have just been another one of the oldies guys and likely had a second career in country music a la Jerry Lee perhaps?

    Again, it’s all speculation and know one will ever really know, but I think it would have been really cool to see these guys live long lives.


  15. plasticsun

    The Big Bopper (I feel kind of stupid just typing the name) actually wrote George Jones’ big hit “White Lightning” so you may not be far off in your prediction.

  16. 2000 Man

    TB, I’m with you on Buddy. One of my conversations with my old music teacher was one of thise “What If’s” and he was saying he felt that if the plane hadn’t crashed and Elvis hadn’t gone into the army, the age of the Girl Group, which may have given us some fine songs, but was far from being what rock n roll was all about, might never have happened.

    His next thoughts were that had that not happened, and Buddy reinvented the use of a studio and Elvis maybe toured a little more and rocked a little more, he felt that by 1964 there very possibly wouldn’t have been a door for The Beatles to get a foot in in the US. It’s a What If, so it’s pretty inconsequential, but I think he had a pretty good point.

    No way would the big papers carry anything about the plane crash. They really hated rock n roll and thought it was horrible, and all the people in it were subhuman. Plus, one of them looked like a Mexican. No way that was newsworthy to the NYT back in 59.

  17. plasticsun

    oh – guess I should have kept reading – now I really feel stupid.

  18. Mr. Moderator

    Who’s not felt really stupid around here now and then, plasticsun? I remember that song being mentioned elsewhere, but I’m so stupid about country music that I didn’t put the song title and George Jones together. I had no idea The Big Bopper left us with anything but “Chantilly Lace.”

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