February 3, 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the day a single engine Beechcraft Bonanza B35 airplane plummeted to the earth in a frostbitten cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa. On board were three musicians who, only a few hours earlier, had rocked the stage in Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom: Ritchie Valens, J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Buddy Holly.
I’m nowhere near old enough to do the whole “Where were you on the day the music died?” thing (to put it in equally iconic musical terms, I was born eight years later, the summer Sgt. Pepper came out), but as a biographer – and because it’s just plain fascinating – I’m always interested in seeing how iconic events were reported in their time, before events could be colored or tainted by hindsight, adulation, and wishful thinking.
Years ago, I went to the library and pulled the microfiche of the February 4, 1959 Albuquerque Journal and several other papers to see how the crash was being reported by the media — which at that time had only a yawning interest in what it considered the passing fad of the fledgling rock and roll scene. The crash received quite a bit of coverage, with most newspapers going with the UPI story, which devoted the first third of its coverage to an almost clinical description of the crash and the crash site (the UPI reports, for instance, that the plane “skidded across the snow for 558 feet”).
Given what we now know and accept as their relative places in the rock’n’roll pantheon, what’s really interesting is how little ink Buddy Holly earns in the press coverage. That’s probably because, of the three performers killed, Holly – whose “I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Any More” had made it to number 13 in January – hadn’t had a monster hit since September 1957, when “Everyday” peaked at #3 (incredibly, five months earlier, “It’s So Easy” had stalled out at a rancid #82). Meanwhile, Richardson’s “Chantilly Lace” had hit #6 the previous summer, while Valens’ “Donna” was sitting at number 4 on the charts the week he was killed – Valens, in fact, gets most of the column inches, where his death is grieved as the loss of “the next Elvis Presley”:
Fifty years later, even as all three can be assured of their iconic stature, we’re still fascinated by the poetic tragedy of that winter morning — thanks in no small part to Don McLean, who gave the moment a nearly Biblical heft in “American Pie.” We play the “what if?” game — especially with Holly, who seemed to be bending and breaking the rules of rock and roll almost daily.
And like any good iconic moment in time, there always seems to be a new legend or rumor associated with it. As recently as two years ago, the body of Richardson was exhumed to try to put to rest one of the Great Conspiracies tying together two odd elements of the crash: the discovery in the cornfield several months later of a gun registered to Buddy Holly, and the fact that Richardson’s body was found farther away from the crash site than the others. The rumor was that Holly’s gun had accidentally discharged during takeoff, killing the pilot and causing the crash – a crash Richardson survived, before staggering away from the plane and dying of exposure.
To the dismay of conspiracy theorists everywhere, forensic anthropoligst Bill Bass, who performed the autopsy on Richardson’s remains, concluded that, “He did not crawl from the plane. He died of massive fractures.” Sorry.
Take a moment today to think about Buddy, Ritchie, and J.P. But more than anything, don’t think of the way they died; remember the way they lived, and the music they loved.
A love for real not fade away.
I have a fair knowledge of Buddy Holly’s catalog and I’ve seen La Bamba, but I just realized that I know absolutely nothing about the Big Bopper. Did he have more songs in his playlist, or did he just take the stage long enough to perform “Chantilly Lace” and then head backstage for the couch?
No, I’m sure J.P. also wowed them with his song, “The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor.” And I wish I were kidding.