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How 'The Day the Music Died' turned rock and roll into legend


Rock and roll music was just getting started by 1959. But if you had taken the national pulse on the ground that year, there was a decent argument to be made that rock and roll was actually well past its expiration date. Don’t blame those people: trends of all kinds, whether they were as secretly revolutionary as the conical bra or as gleefully inane as pole-sitting, always flamed out after a short period. And at this point, it wasn’t certain that rock and roll was anything other than a fad.

That’s because the foundational artists of the form were all going through different trials and tribulations by the end of the 1950s. Elvis Presley had joined the army. Little Richard abandoned music to devote his life to God. Chuck Berry had been arrested for transporting an underage girl across state lines and would be sentenced to five years in prison. Jerry Lee Lewis’ career had stalled when it was learned that he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown.

But the biggest blow to rock and roll came early in 1959, a year when a plane carrying three of the genre’s biggest stars crashed in a field near Clear Lake, Iowa. The small aircraft was piloted by Roger Peterson, who had an insufficient amount of knowledge to fly that particular plane but was hired out of the necessity for its three passengers to reach the next destination of their scheduled tour. It was imperative that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson reach their show the following day.

On the ground, before the flight took off, there were some last-minute arrangements being made. Holly, being the headliner and most successful musician of the tour, had arranged for the plane to carry him and his band since the tour buses that the other artists were using were ill-equipped for the harsh winter conditions. But each of his band members gave up their seats: drummer Carl Bunch had contracted frostbite after the original tour bus got caught in a freeze (one of the original reasons Holly opted for a plane); bassist Waylon Jennings gave his seat to The Big Bopper, who was experiencing flu-like symptoms; and guitarist Tommy Allsup lost his seat to Valens in a coin toss. In jest, Jennings joked to Holly that he hoped the plane would crash.

Rock and roll wasn’t really in any danger of going away. Chubby Checkers would bring ‘The Twist’ to America in 1960, setting the stage for the incoming influx of dance craze-focused records. But by and large, rock music was being cleaned up and sold back in less threatening forms. Frankie Avalon’s ‘Venus’ marked the ascendance of harmless pop music that replaced the dangerous rock and roll of the mid-1950s. Doo-wop emerged as a major challenger to rock and roll as well, bringing the high energy drive of rock music to the more polished vocal work of traditional pop.

(Credit: Civil Aeronautics Board)

Rock and roll needed a major milestone, and unfortunately, it got one with a tragic event. Although it was widely lamented as the end of an era, the plane crash almost instantly became a part of pop culture lore. Three artists, cut down in their prime and at incredibly young ages (Richardson was 28, Holly was 22, and Valens was only 17). From this moment on, rock and roll would forever be ensconced in death and destruction, with the tragedy later permanently crystallised as ‘The Day the Music Died’.

Of course, the most important memorial was the song that gave the event its name: Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’. But there were plenty of other tributes as well and, only two months after the crash, a young teenage singer by the name of Tommy Dee first memorialised the tragedy with the song ‘Three Stars’. English singer Mike Berry released ‘Tribute to Buddy Holly’ two years later. Jennings himself wrote two songs in tribute to his former bandleader, ‘The Stage (Stars in Heaven)’ and ‘A Long Time Ago’.

But it was the music of the deceased that carried most of the weight. Buddy Holly’s string of hits, including ‘That’ll Be the Day’, ‘Peggy Sue’, and ‘Not Fade Away’, became emblematic of the final run of rock and roll in its original heyday. Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Donna’ became lasting cultural touchstones, and even The Big Bopper’s ‘Chantilly Lace’ became a fondly remembered classic of the time.

As rock and roll faded in America at the end of the ’50s, British bands were beginning to reinterpret the music that came out of the first wave of rock and roll. All of these acts had heard of the tragic events that befell Holly, Valens, and Richardson, and they began to cover their songs not as tributes, but as continuations of a legacy. As a new generation of musicians began to take up the cause of rock and roll, a wicked cloud hung over the music, retaining its edge and keeping it dangerous. Rock and roll was now for those who wanted to live fast and possibly die young, just like three of the genre’s most important figures.

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