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Mason City, Iowa; February 3, 1959
"With Elvis, you thought, 'God, he's good looking.' With Buddy, it was like, 'God, he's the boy next door'," -- Paul McCartney
“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,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.”
-- Don McLean, “American Pie”

Early in the morning on February 3rd, 1959 a young boy in New Rochelle New York collected his papers for daily delivery. One headline leaped off the page and caught his breath. The cold of the day seeped into his body as he read the words. The shocking news brought on a mild asthmatic response as he read bits and pieces of the article through the short bursts of clouds in the cold, moist air. Buddy Holly and three others had died.


Rock and roll tours had become a staple part of the music industry in the mid 1950’s. Elvis Presley and the other early rock and rollers that were spawned by Sam Phillips and Sun Records in Memphis built up a strong regional presence by touring and appearing at small clubs and county fairs. The public appearances, coupled with radio air time produced record sales. Disc jockeys like the legendary Alan Freed promoted their shows and the music by producing rock and roll extravaganzas featuring many different artists, each of whom would perform for part of the show. It was obvious that taking such shows on the road was a good way to make money. In the winter of 1959, Buddy Holly had moved to New York, gotten married and was working extensively in the recording studio. Holly had split with his group, The Crickets, who had opted to return to Texas. His first flash of success with records like “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be The Day” was over and his label wanted him to promote his new records. And with a new wife and a baby on the way, Holly wanted the money. So he had signed on for the “Winter Dance Party” -- a bus tour of the northern midwest with 23 one-night-stands in 23 days.

Three other of the top acts of the time joined Holly: The Big Bopper (Jape Richardson), Ritchie Valens, and Dion & the Belmonts. The tour was a success as far as the crowds the show was attracting, but the performers were wearing down as the bus crisscrossed Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa with a less than adequate heating system for the seasonal weather conditions. Feeling tired and facing an 8 hour bus ride following the next performance, when Holly arrived at Clear Lake, Iowa on Monday, February 2nd he put the word out that he wanted to charter a flight to the next night’s show in Moorhead, North Dakota. Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa was contacted and offered to fly Holly and his two back-up musicians, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup to Moorhead for $36 per person.

At 5:30 p.m. that afternoon, Roger Peterson, who was a pilot for Dwyer Flying Service checked the weather conditions for the flight path that would include Minneapolis, Redwood Falls, Alexandria, and Fargo. The report was favorable with a 5,000 feet ceiling and visibility of 10 miles or better. But there was an indication that snow showers would begin in the Fargo area after 4:00 a.m. The pilot was told there would be an update on conditions by 11:30 p.m. Hubert Dwyer (the owner of the Bonanza N3794N plane that was to be used for the flight) again checked on the weather situation at 11:30 p.m. Conditions were about the same, but the snow storm was now scheduled to arrive in Fargo around 2:00 a.m. Peterson was not instrument certified, but it was decided he would be okay as the flight would take less than 2 hours. The 21-year-old Peterson was excited about flying the famous rock and rollers.

The show at the Surf Ballroom had been a late addition to the tour schedule to fill in the date. It was scheduled to run from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. The headliners would each perform a set of from 15 minutes to half an hour. They would sing their latest hit recording, promote their new singles and “cover” some other rock and roll standards. Richardson would wow the crowd with “Chantilly Lace,” eliciting shrieks of excitement as he bellowed “Baby, you know what I like.” Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” would get a raucous response as it was high on the charts at the time. Buddy Holly would have had the most recognizable hits with “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” He would start his set off with “Gotta Travel On” and would always include his latest release, “It Really Doesn’t Matter Any More.” Dion and The Belmonts would perform “I Wonder Why” and then a series of ballads such as their newly released “Don’t Pity Me.” Their 1959 hit, “A Teenager in Love” was yet to be recorded.

Richardson and the other headliners had learned of Holly’s plans. Richardson had a case of the flu and asked to take Waylon Jennings place on the flight. Feeling sorry for the sick Richardson, Jennings agreed. Holly teased Jennings, “I hope your bus freezes up.” Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your plane crashes.” With one of his band members taking the bus, Holly discussed the plane ride with the other headliners. Dion reportedly expressed no interest as he couldn’t afford the $36. Ritchie Valens (there are some indications he was also coming down with a cold) asked if Tommy Allsup would give up his seat. Allsup suggested they let a coin flip determine it and a local disk jockey flipped the coin and Valens called “heads” -- he won the seat on the plane.

Holly, Richardson and Valens arrived at the airport in Mason City around 12:30 and had their baggage stored. Peterson checked the weather again. The conditions along the flight route were reported to be unchanged since he last checked. However, the local weather had changed: “3,000 feet, sky obscured; visibility 6 miles; light snow; wind south 20 knots, gusts to 30 knots.” The plane took off at 12:55 a.m., climbed to 800 feet and headed in a northwesterly direction. As Dwyer and others watched, the tail lights of the plane gradually descended and passed from site. Nothing was thought of it as it was attributed to an optical illusion or the curvature of the horizon.

Peterson was inexperienced at flying by instruments. By the time the plane actually took off, there were gusty winds, low cloud cover, blowing snow and snow cover on the ground. As he checked his instruments, he began an ascent, traveling at 170 miles per hour. Some of the instruments fluctuated greatly as the small plane was buffeted by the wind gusts. Peterson had to rely on his attitude gyro which, given his inexperience, was confusing. He thought he was climbing when in fact, the nose of the aircraft was down and he was heading down. The field was deserted, flat, abandoned. There were no witnesses. The passengers all died on impact; Holly, Richardson, and Valens being thrown from the plane and Peterson trapped inside.

Peterson was supposed to call in and register a flight plan shortly after takeoff. When he failed to communicate, Dwyer had him repeatedly called, but got no response. At 3:30 a.m. when there was no report of their arrival in Fargo, Dwyer reported the aircraft missing. In the morning, Dwyer took up another plane to follow the path of the missing aircraft. He spotted the wreckage in a cornfield.

The shock of the crash careened through the music world. Rock and roll had its first martyrs. J.P. Richardson was 28. Buddy Holly was 22. Ritchie Valens was 17. All three were riding a wave of success in the pop music business at the start of 1959. Each one was a successful song writer as well as a performer. While rock and roll is quite often filled with fleeting success, there is every reason to believe that these three had the potential for contributing much more to the music. But the tragic crash cut their career’s short and left only a small music legacy.


In 1971, Don McLean drew from his experience as a 12-year old delivering papers and his reaction to the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens to write and record “American Pie.” It is a somewhat autobiographical look at the years from 1959 to 1969 (roughly); the music and political events of those years. The lyrics evoke a series of ambiguous images that lead McLean to the conclusion that 1959 was the beginning of the end: “the day the music died.” Although he refuses to give his interpretation of the lyrics, McLean has explained that he did view the decade as a dying of America.

And, indeed, a case can be made that if the music didn’t actually die in 1959, it at least began a descent. The original energy that rock and roll had created in 1956 was dissipating. Many of the vanguard of the music were disappearing from the scene. Elvis was in the army. Jerry Lee Lewis was banished in disgrace. Little Richard had opted out. Chuck Berry was thrown in prison. And then, three young hopefuls that could perhaps regenerate that energy, were gone. There would still be a lot of good music produced in 1959, and in subsequent years. But much of the music would conform more to a formula. The big record companies would reassert their control of the industry and it would be more about making money than making music. The fad of rock and roll would not disappear, but it would be more and more homogenized for mass consumption until 1964 when the beat would come back.

So, perhaps it was in 1959 when “the music died.” But if you just fast forward to 1964, you will miss a lot of good sounds. The torch of rock and roll is kept burning. In the words of Don McLean, “do you believe in rock and roll?” If so, keep listening.

With Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard all leaving the recording studio in 1959, each for very different reasons, the deaths of Holly, Valens, and Richardson give a lot of credence to calling it "the day the music died."
Posters of the Surf Ballroom show are fakes. It was a late addition to the tour and no posters were circulated. This poster promotes the show the week before in Mankato.
Buddy Holly chartered the flight because the bus was so poorly heated.
The Big Bopper got his seat on the plane from Waylon Jennings.
Ritchie Valens got on the plane by winning a coin flip.
Tommy Allsupwas one of Buddy Holly's backup musicians. Holly had Allsup's wallet with him and Allsup was at first mistakenly identified as one of the victims.
Waylon Jennings was another backup musician for Holly -- he would go on to a successful career in country music as one of the Nashville "Outlaws."
Tommy Dee and Carol Kay released a record, "Three Stars" in April of 1959 that comemorates the deaths of Holly, Valens, and Richardson.

"American Pie" was a number one song for Don McLean in 1972.