“A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died” (Don McLean, American Pie).
The date was February 3, 1959, and no, the music did not die, but thousands of teenagers from half the world felt as if it had. Rock & roll faced its biggest tragedy to date and added to a long list of adversities that threatened to bury it. Its King, Elvis Presley, had been serving in the military since March 24, 1958 and would not return until two years later, its Queen, Little Richard, had abandoned rock & roll for religion, its architect, Chuck Berry, had various problems with the law, and its inheriting prince, Jerry Lee Lewis, had seen his career crash after a scandalous marriage to his 13 year old cousin.
So it is not strange that the plane crash that ended the life of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. McPherson (better known as The Big Bopper) was seen by some as the day that music, specifically rock & roll, died. The charts would be occupied in the following years by teenage idols like Bobby Vee, Fabian and Paul Anka. It would not be until some fans of Holly from Liverpool, England, stormed the charts, both English and American, when rock & roll again felt the effervescence of its early years.
But let's set the scene that led to that fateful day. Buddy Holly had just married, on August 15, 1958, and had broken up with his lifelong producer, Norman Petty. The producer decided to play dirty and convinced the Crickets to stay with him and, what's worse, froze Holly's accounts. The singer lived in an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village with his wife. There, in December '58, he wrote with his Gibson J200 some of the best songs of his career, such as Peggy Sue Got Married, Learning The Game, Crying Waiting Hoping and What to Do. He would never see them released.
Without cash, and with his career far from the successes of 1957, he decided to return to the road, hired Tommy Allsup, a guitarist who had already appeared on one of his recordings, Carl Bunch on drums and a young countryman from Lubbock, Texas, who he had just produced a single, as a bassist. This was Waylon Jennings, the future country star, and he had not played the instrument in his life. To complete the rest of the line up the agency had hired three other big names to accompany him, Dion & The Belmonts, The Big Bopper and the new sensation of the moment, the very young Ritchie Valens of 17 years. The tour would be called The Winter Dance Party.
Valens was a Chicano from Los Angeles who was actually called Ricardo Valenzuela. In the summer of 58 his first song had appeared, Come On Let's Go, which had become a hit and he had just recorded one of the first singles in history with two A-sides, Donna and La Bamba. Ritchie was happy to be able to go on tour with Buddy Holly, one of his idols. His dream was to be able to sell enough records to buy his mother a new house and he had just achieved it. Before leaving for the Winter Dance Party, his family organized a farewell party at the house he had just bought for her mother. Donna Ludwig, his girlfriend, could not attend the party because her father refused. So Valens could not say goodbye to his muse.
On January 23 the tour began at George Devine's Ballroom in Milwaukee. It was a public success but from the first moment it could be seen that the person who had organized the tour had no idea of geography. During the following days, they went tumbling in a zigzag through a completely frozen Midwest in the middle of a cold spell with extreme temperatures. In the school bus that transported them from one place to another there was no heating and to top it all the seats were designed for children, and poor Big Bopper barely fit. On January 31, they traveled 368 miles to reach Duluth, Minnesotta, for their ninth concert in nine days. They were dirty, tired and frozen, yet they gave another great performance. A 17-year-old who was among the audience, called Robert Zimmerman, remembers how Buddy Holly shone on stage. Bob Dylan would never tire of telling how deeply that performance affected him.
In the bus camaraderie reigned but tiredness, and the terrible cold, began to take its toll. When the bus stopped frozen in the middle of nowhere everyone feared the worst; they set fire to newspapers to keep warm and cuddled each other. Holly's drummer screamed in pain, as he could not feel his feet. After a while they were rescued by the police, but Bunch had to be hospitalized and could not continue the tour. The temperature was 35 degrees below zero. All have their minds on the day of rest, on February 2, but the organizers inform them that they have just organized another concert for that day in Clear Lake. Again they climb onto another bus, depressed, and as McPherson has fever, the tour is renamed by its protagonists as the Tour From Hell.
Buddy Holly is crushed when he arrived at Clear Lake because when he asked the owners of the place where they played, the Surf Ballroom, if there is a laundry nearby where they can wash their clothes - as, like the other tour members, they had not been able to do it since the day they left – he is told there is none. Consequently he decides to ask the owner to book him a private plane flight to the next stop; clean clothes and a bed is the closest thing to Paradise that he can think of.
The Surf Ballroom is overflowing with more than 1,300 crazy people before the arrival of their idols, two days before Donna has reached third place in the charts and La Bamba is also in the top forty. The only other artist capable of having two songs in the week’s Top 40 is the absent Elvis Presley; making Ritchie Valens the most important emerging star of the day. The Big Bopper opens the performance with Chantilly Lace, and despite his high fever, completes his performance as always, with fake phone and leopard skin jacket included. Next on is Ritchie Valens, and madness takes over the room when Donna sounds. After some calm the storm is unleashed with La Bamba and Come On Let's Go. Then it's the turn of Dion & The Belmonts, with Buddy on drums. When the concert comes to an end, Dion introduces the band and at the end says "our new drummer, Buddy Holly!". Then Buddy, who had been in gloom, gets up and starts to play Gotta Travel On before the delirium of those who fill the Surf Ballroom. Then he joins the rest of the band and they play all their hits, including the portentous That'll Be The Day. For the end of the gig, Valens and Bopper (sweating with fever) join them on stage to sing together, once more, La Bamba.
The concert is a tremendous success, and at the end the owner tells Holly that the plane is ready, but there are only three seats so Holly offers them to the rest of his band, Allsup and Jennings. But while they wait McPherson approaches Jennings and asks for his seat, and Jennings, seeing the state he is in, gives it to him cavalierly. Ritchie, who is signing autographs to his fans, approaches Allsup and asks for the other seat. The guitarist refuses but Valens begs him, and tired of listening to him, Allsup takes out a coin and asks "heads or tails", Valens chooses heads and ‘luck’ smiles at him. The teenager cannot believe it, "this is the first time I have won something in my life", he says.
Before leaving to the airport, Holly approaches Jennings and says "I heard you are not coming on the plane with us". Waylon confirms it and Buddy with a smile makes a joke "well, I hope your old bus freezes." To which Jennings replies: "and I hope your old plane crashes". That phrase was to torment him for the rest of his life ... we all know how that trip ended.
The news of his death was broadcast on the radio before anyone took the trouble to notify their families. So Niki Sullivan, the Crickets’ guitarist, decided to call Buddy's mother and ask "is it true what they say about Buddy on the radio?" to which his mother quietly replied "I do not know, what do they say on the radio about Buddy?" There was no turning back, Buddy Holly's mother ended up fainting when she received the news. It was not much better in Ritchie's case, his sister was approached by two boys at school who said "your brother is dead", she shouted "you only say that because you are jealous" but when she got home and saw all the people who were there she knew that it was true. Soon Donna appeared and the two cried inconsolably. But the worst was when Maria Elena, Holly's young wife, heard the news on the radio. She was pregnant and the next day she had a miscarriage. She was unable to attend the funeral. Afterwards the authorities took note and the protocol was established by which it was prohibited to give the name of the victims before their relatives were consulted.
On February 5 Eddie Cochran, Holly's great friend, entered the recording studio and recorded Three Stars dedicated to the deceased. When he got to Holly’s part his voice broke at that moment and he said "Well, you're singing for God now, in his choir in the sky, Buddy Holly, I'll always remember you, with tears in my eyes". Still with tears in his eyes he entered the recording booth and told his manager that if he released that song while he was alive he would not record again. Unfortunately, everyone did not have to wait much longer, as a year later Cochran died in a car accident in England.
But the most remembered tribute would not come until over until 10 years later, when the music of Buddy, Ritchie and JP had fallen into oblivion. It was written by a boy who on February 3, 1959, worked as a newspaper deliveryman and could not contain his tears when he saw the news on the front cover. This boy was Don McLean and in 1971 he recorded the song that would name the tragedy, American Pie; the song about the day that music died. But we all know that music did not die that sad day. That day died Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper but their music continued to live on and 60 years later we keep remembering them and thinking - like the plaque that still presides over the Surf Ballroom - "The music lives on, welcome rock and roll fans to the legendary Surf Ballroom."