Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Day the Music Died: 50 Years Ago Today...

On February 3, 1959 a single engine plane crashed into an Iowa field around 1:05 a.m. The plane carried the rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valen, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and the pilot. All 4 died on impact. This tragic plane crash has come to be known simply as "the day the music died", which was coined in the 1971 Don McLean song "American Pie". 50 years later, the tragedy is somehow still fresh in the hearts and minds of music fans from then and now.


Events Leading to the Crash:

"The Winter Dance Party" was a tour that was set to cover 24 Midwestern cities in three weeks. A logistical problem with the tour was the amount of travel, as the distance between venues was not a priority when scheduling each performance. For example, the tour would start at venue A, travel 200 miles to venue B, and travel back 170 miles to venue C, which was only 30 miles from venue A. Adding to the disarray, the tour bus used to carry the musicians was ill-prepared for the weather; its heating system broke shortly after the tour began. Drummer Carl Bunch developed a severe case of frostbitten feet while on the bus and was taken to a local hospital. As he recovered, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens took turns with the drums. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa was never intended to be a stop on the tour, but promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the ballroom at the time and offered him the show. He accepted and the date of the show was set for February 2.

By the time Buddy Holly arrived at the ballroom that evening, he was frustrated with the tour bus and told his bandmates that, once the show was over, they should try to charter a plane to get to the next stop on the tour, Moorhead, Minnesota. According to VH-1's Behind the Music: The Day the Music Died, Holly was also upset that he had run out of clean undershirts, socks, and underwear. He needed to do some laundry before the next performance, and the local laundromat in Clear Lake was closed that day.

Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, 21, a local pilot who worked for Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa. A fee of $36 per person was charged for the single engine Beechcraft Bonanza B35 (V-tail). The Bonanza could seat three passengers in addition to the pilot. Richardson had developed a case of the flu during the tour and asked one of Holly's bandmates, Waylon Jennings, for his seat on the plane; Jennings agreed to give up the seat. When Holly learned that Jennings wasn't going to fly, he said, "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes." This exchange of words, though made in jest at the time, haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.

Ritchie Valens had never flown in a small plane before, and asked Holly's remaining bandmate on the plane, Tommy Allsup, for the seat. Tommy said "I'll flip ya for the remaining seat." Contrary to what is seen in biographical movies, that coin toss did not happen at the airport shortly before takeoff, nor did Buddy Holly toss it. The toss happened at the ballroom shortly before departure to the airport, and the coin was tossed by a DJ who was working the concert that night. Valens won a seat on the plane.

Dion DiMucci of Dion & The Belmonts, who was the fourth headline performer on the tour, was approached to join the flight as well; however, the price of $36 was too much. Dion had heard his parents argue for years over the $36 rent for their apartment and could not bring himself to pay an entire month's rent for a short plane ride.

The Crash:

At approximately 1:00 AM Central Time on February 3, the plane took off from Mason City Municipal Airport. Around 1:05, Jerry Dwyer, the owner of Dwyer Flying Service, could see the lights of the plane start to descend from the sky to the ground. At the time, he thought it was an optical illusion because of the curvature of the Earth and the horizon. The pilot, Roger Peterson, was expected to file his flight plan once the plane was airborne, but Peterson never called the tower. Repeated attempts by Dwyer to contact his pilot failed. By 3:30 AM, when the airport at Fargo had not heard from Peterson, Dwyer contacted authorities and reported the aircraft missing.

Around 9:15 in the morning, Dwyer took off in another small plane to fly Peterson's intended route. A short time later Dwyer spotted the wreckage in a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl, about 5 miles northwest of the airport. The manager of the Surf Ballroom, who drove the performers to the airport and witnessed the plane taking off, made the positive identification of the performers.

The Bonanza was at a slight downward angle and banked to the right when it struck the ground at around 170 miles per hour. The plane tumbled and skidded another 570 feet across the frozen landscape before the crumpled ball of wreckage piled against a wire fence at the edge of the property. The bodies of Holly and Valens lay near the plane, Richardson was thrown into a neighboring cornfield, and Peterson remained trapped inside. All four had died instantly from "gross trauma" to the brain, the county coroner Ralph Smiley declared.

Investigators came to the conclusion that the crash was due to a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error. Peterson had performed poorly on his previous flight instrumentation tests and was not rated for night-time flight, when he would have to rely on his instruments rather than his own vision. They also found that Peterson was not given accurate advice about the weather conditions of his route, which, given his known limitations, might have caused him to postpone the flight.

Don McLean - "American Pie"

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