Rock stars were a rare breed in 1959. Not like today when music genius is a dime a dozen and record deals are tossed around like salad. I’m talking about a time in the music world where you actually had to have talent. These days you can’t throw a nickle in L.A. without hitting a record producer.
Buddy Holly was one of those bona fide rock stars of the generation. Along with Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Bill Haley and his Comets, they made the music that defined the generation. If the 50s was an incubator for the rock and roll genre Buddy Holly was the chief scientist. Holly was a true pioneer of rock and roll. His works and innovations inspired and influenced contemporary and later musicians, notably The Beatles, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton, and exerted a profound influence on popular music. Buddy Holly is generally credited with the lineup consisting of two guitars, a bass and a drummer for a rock band.
Out of Lubbock, Texas, Holly and his Crickets, music-making friends from school, traveled to Nashville to record under contract for Decca Records. The year was 1956 – Holly was 19 years old. The Nashville recording studio was a stifling environment for the young musician. He had little creative control and floundered in those early Decca Sessions.
Among the tracks he recorded was an early version of “That’ll Be The Day“, which took its title from a line that John Wayne‘s character says repeatedly in the 1956 film The Searchers. This initial version of the song played more slowly and about half an octave higher than the later hit version. Decca released two singles from the session, neither of which gained any traction on the radio. Less than a year after signing the Crickets, Decca released them from their contract.
Holly and his band traveled to Clovis N.M., where they recorded the version of That’ll Be the Day that released a few months later to climb quickly up the music charts. The Crickets performed “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” on The Ed Sullivan Show on December 1, 1957.
Holly was offered a spot in the Winter Dance Party, a three-week tour across the Midwest opening on January 23, 1959, by the GAC agency, with other notable performers such as Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. He assembled a backing band consisting of Tommy Allsup (guitar), Waylon Jennings (bass) and Carl Bunch (drums), and billed the band as The Crickets.
From day one it was a miserable experience for the entertainers. The harsh Minnesota winters were hard on the bus with temperatures around −25 °F. The heater on the bus coulen’t keep up not to mention the continuous breakdowns.
On the evening February 2, 1959 the tour stopped at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly chartered a small airplane to take him to the next stop on the tour. He, Valens, Richardson and the pilot were killed en route to Moorhead, Minnesota, when their plane crashed soon after taking off from nearby Mason City in the early morning hours of February 3. Bandmate Waylon Jennings had given up his seat on the plane, causing Holly to jokingly tell Jennings, “I hope your ol’ bus freezes up!” Jennings shot back facetiously, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes!” It was a statement that would haunt Jennings for decades.
Everyone on the plane perished in the crash – Ritchie Valenz, Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and the pilot, Roger Peterson. Investigators concluded that the crash was due to a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error, resulting in spatial disorientation.
Years later singer Don McLean released a musical homage to the Buddy Holly and the crash. American Pie was a hit and took the listener back to a much simpler time in America, and to The Day the Music Died.