The Day The Music Died
It’s a date which will live in infamy: February 3, 1959. ‘The Day The Music Died’…according to some.
That’s because it was the day a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield took the lives of three rising stars in rock -n- roll: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson….along with the life of the young pilot, Roger Peterson.
On February 3, 2019, the 60th Anniversary of that fateful day was marked. The tragic story behind that date has become laced with urban legends, overwhelming fandom, and side helpings of rock -n- roll mythology.
“As a producer for the ‘E! True Hollywood Story,’ I’ve uncovered my share of scandals and dark secrets involving celebrities. But this powerful story is unlike any other…..”
For my part, about five years ago I did a deep dive into the events surrounding that tragic day and documented them in this special Emmy-nominated presentation featuring some of Houston’s heavy hitters in the music biz today: Country star Clay Walker, SugarHill Studios President and hit producer Dan Workman, and hit songwriter and Hollywood music supervisor Barry Coffing. Most important of all, I located the surviving members of the Big Bopper’s family and interviewed his grandchildren at their home in Katy, TX. They also came on the live show as guests for this special occasion– and we arranged to have the mayor of Katy surprise them with an official proclamation of ‘Big Bopper Day.’
As a producer for the ‘E! True Hollywood Story,’ I’ve uncovered my share of scandals and dark secrets involving celebrities. But this powerful story is unlike any other…..neither cut-and-dry nor sealed by destiny. It’s a journey full of choices, yet the tale transcends all other rock -n- roll tragedies and the six decades separating it from today’s celebrity headlines. And there are plenty of injustices along the way, especially for J.P. Richardson and perhaps for the 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson, who was largely blamed for the deadly crash due to “pilot error.”
While the story has been told and retold for the past 60 years, the often overlooked life of “The Big Bopper” and his musical contributions are a focal point here. This two-part video report really captures so much raw emotion from that tragic day– it’s hard to believe it happened so long ago. Nevertheless, this project instantly became one of my all-time favorites.
The story has haunted me long before my telling of it here. Over 30 years ago, I spent nearly eight months in Mason City, IA, living in the heart of town next door to an original Frank Lloyd Wright….just a couple of blocks from the famous ‘Music Man’ footbridge. While in ‘River City,’ I heard the plane crash story over and over again from locals….and even the after-story when a sheriff discovered Buddy Holly’s famous glasses tucked away in an envelope decades later in 1980…sitting in a file cabinet inside a Mason City courthouse. (The Big Bopper’s wristwatch and those horn-rimmed eyeglasses were reportedly found in the cornfield crash site months after the crash….once the snow had finally melted for good. So, the items later ended up in a plain, manila envelope handed over to the coroner’s office.) Of course, those priceless, signature glasses were later returned to Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena Holly.
After the summer of ’87 when the movie ‘La Bamba’ hit the big screen, I spent the winter in Mason City experiencing snow storms and sub-zero windchills….easily the coldest temperatures Ever in my life! Those temps were even harsher than the icy chill I encountered on my trek across the Arctic Circle years later. It was so frigid that just trying to breathe was extremely painful. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Buddy Holly and company on that tour bus with a broken heater. No wonder Buddy couldn’t bear the thought of spending one more night on that bus. He just had to charter a plane to get out of there!
During my stay, I also met with some eyewitnesses who told their own tales of following the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s vehicles to the plane crash site the next morning after the concert. They remarked about spotting all kinds of items in the debris field….including several bottles of Jack Daniels Whiskey. Granted, the folks recalling the event were remembering something that had happened nearly 30 years earlier….at the time they retold their stories to me. One witness recounted the authorities ordered everyone away before newspaper photographers could snap pictures of the alcohol, in order to protect the image of the young rock -n- roll stars. Perhaps those rumors account for the allusion in Don McLean’s iconic tune– ‘American Pie’–with the line: “…Them good ‘ole boys drinking whiskey and rye.” So, if true…..could alcohol have been a factor in the cause of the crash? No one ever ordered a blood alcohol test…as far as the coroner’s report details. Only the pilot’s body received an autopsy, but again there was no mention of a blood test. And what about the dark tales of Buddy Holly’s gun being fired on board the tiny plane? We’re not likely to ever really know about that, either.
And then there’s the problem with identifying who was really there and what they actually saw. There have been so many who’ve claimed to have been at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA the night of that final concert that you’d think the place must have held thousands! There’s a real bandwagon effect, for sure. But the Surf is actually a rather intimate venue. I got to walk where the stars themselves walked…at the historic Surf Ballroom on the banks of Clear Lake. The site is practically its own perfectly-preserved time capsule. Entering that place is like walking into the Shrine of Rock -n- Roll. You can feel a special spirit still lingering there to this day. Yet, determining truth over tall tales has always been difficult….especially when dealing with larger-than-life musical legends.
Rock -n- roll singer and living legend Dion- who was actually there for the Winter Dance Party Tour and one of the top acts in the billing- has widely disputed much of the folklore about the Ritchie Valens-Tommy Allsup coin flip and other details from that snowy night which have been passed down. But some say Dion, author of The Wanderer Talks Truth, had an ax to grind and just wanted to sell books with his countering claims. And since dead men tell no tales….and can’t refute anything, the real truth has remained somewhat elusive.
Consequently, I had personally reached out online to J.P. Richardson, Jr. a few years before his passing. I also got to see him perform with his Winter Dance Party tribute act one rainy night at the Miller Outdoor Theater in Houston. That event was especially satisfying for the Big Bopper, Jr. since he finally got to perform that special tribute show for his local fans and friends for the first time! On LinkedIn, he and I had just a brief exchange, but I knew immediately his passion for telling his father’s story would translate into a great TV interview. We talked about doing just that, but alas….that day never came. That made finding his kids and getting to interview them all the more rewarding and heartfelt for me personally.
Yet, my off-camera interviews and fact-gathering for this story were actually far more important than anything else. I was able to personally speak with the Big Bopper’s best friend from all those years ago, Jerry Boynton, who also had worked at KTRM radio station in Beaumont, TX with J.P. He told me all about the real J.P. and the antics of the Big Bopper. Sadly, Jerry was there when the tragic news came in about the plane crash. He was at the funeral home when the Bopper’s body was flown in….and Jerry said he was given a prized possession: a package of Chesterfield cigarettes found in J.P.’s pocket. The cigarettes were still on him when the Big Bopper’s frozen body was pulled from the snow-covered cornfield where his life suddenly ended in that crushing plane crash.
“He always smoked Chesterfields. They were his favorites,” Jerry told me in a broken voice.
What follows is truly a labor of love– not just for the music but also for the artists who lost their lives in sharing their art…and for their family members left behind.
Is it any wonder this story is jam-packed with the stuff legends are made of?
We will never truly know for sure what happened that terrible night, but maybe just retelling what we do know can somehow bring a bit of closure to those treasured spirits and allow them to finally rest in peace.
Sharing this story meant everything to the family. It meant the world to me to be able to tell it.
THEN AND NOW…
And on the evening of the 60th Anniversary of the Surf Ballroom’s Winter Dance Party, emcee Bob Hale, at 84, watched my video story of that event. His one critique was that I didn’t include him in my report. As I told Bob (who now lives in Illinois), I wish we had been able to include him here….since he had a front row seat to history. Some 60 years earlier on that night, a 24-year-old Bob Hale was on stage at the Surf announcing The Big Bopper, Frankie Sardo, Dion & the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly to an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,200 teenagers.
That sad date may have been the day the music died–but now that day echoes……forever.
Producer / Writer / Editor
Jay and Ashlyn Richardson