Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Remembering Holly, Vallens, and The Big Bopper

It was 50 years ago today (February 3rd, 1959) that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash after a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa. The three had been performing along with Dion & The Belmonts as part of the Winter Dance Party Tour, which would cover 24 cities in a short three-week period from January 23rd to February 15th. Holly, who had parted ways with longtime backing group the Crickets the previous year, was backed up by a then-unknown Waylon Jennings on bass and Tommy Allsup on lead guitar.

Dion DiMucci says that although the shows were always hot, his favorite moments from the tour were jamming on the near freezing bus on the way to the next town: "Well, we used to play in the back of the bus -- Ritchie Valens, myself and Buddy Holly. The Big Bopper didn't join in, he sat in the front with his beer. But we would rock in the back of the bus. You talk about tapes -- I wish there was a tape going on."

Throughout the tour, the musicians' bus was either breaking down or often without heat. At one point, it was so cold that the tour's drummer developed frostbite, resulting in the Belmonts' Angelo D'Aleo -- as well as Valens -- serving double-duty by filling in on drums. When the tour finally arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2nd, 1959, Holly had made plans to fly out to the next city directly after the show, rather than brave the unheated 430-mile bus trip to Moorhead, Minnesota. He had hoped to get to their next stop with time to rest and do his laundry.

Dion says that the time he spent with Holly has left a deep and lasting impression on him, and he remembers him as a man wise beyond his years: "I spent two weeks with him. And he was very mature for his age. I mean, I was 19 -- he was 22. He was a very decisive guy. I don't know if it was his upbringing, but I couldn't make decisions that fast. I mean... Well, he rented a plane! At 22 years old, 'O.K. listen' -- you know, he was recruiting people -- 'Let's fly out and we'll just split it.' But you think of a 22-year-old chartering a plane, that was his kind of personality."

Holly chartered a plane to fly him and his band to Fargo, North Dakota, near Moorhead. Jennings and Allsup gave up their seats to Richardson and Valens. Dion was supposed to be on the plane rather than Valens, but balked when he heard that his share would be a whopping $36 -- the exact amount of his parents' monthly rent back home in the Bronx. When Holly learned that Jennings wasn't going to fly, he said, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up!" Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your plane crashes!" This friendly banter would haunt Jennings for years. Valens, who was sick, told Allsup, "I'll flip you for the remaining seat." On the toss of a coin, Allsup lost the seat -- but won the rest of his life.

The red Beechcraft Bonanza took off from Mason City, Iowa, ten miles east of Clear Lake, at around 1:50 a.m. on February 3rd, 1959. A cold wind immediately gave way to a snow which drastically reduced visibility. The ground was already blanketed in white. The pilot may have been inexperienced with the instrumentation.

The plane never made it to Minnesota.

Minutes after takeoff, one wing hit the ground and the small plane corkscrewed over and over. The three young stars and pilot Roger Peterson died immediately on impact. Over the years there has been speculation as to whether a gun was accidentally fired inside the plane, disabling or killing the pilot. The most logical explanation suggests that encased in a sea of white snow, with only white below, Peterson simply flew the plane into the ground.

At the time of the crash, Buddy Holly was 22 years old. Ritchie Valens was 17, and the Big Bopper was 28.

Check out photos from the legendary 1959 Winter Dance Party tour here

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