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Timeline: tracking the perilous steps that led to 'The Day the Music Died'

Rock music has witnessed a number of seismic moments. Readers my age will recall the horror we felt when we heard that Michael Jackson died in the midst of preparing himself for a live comeback. Older readers will remember where they were when John Lennon was murdered by a fan carrying a copy of Double Fantasy. And then there was the case of Elvis, hidden away in his house, growing fatter and fatter until his heart finally stopped. 

Every death is tragic, and no rock star should be remembered for their demise, but the incredible body of work that they left behind them. The deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and ‘The Big Bopper’ J. P. Richardson is particularly tragic, largely because they had only just started putting out a body of work. Heartbreakingly, Valens was only 17 when he died in a plane crash, while passengers Holly and Richardson were only in their 20s. 

These men (or boys, in Valens case) were the bastions of a movement based on youth and counterculture, embodying a new cheerfulness after a post-war malaise had drowned their parent’s chances of enjoying their youth. But almost as soon as they had begun to champion the movement, their lives were taken from them, seemingly robbing America of an era based on frolics, fun and entertainment. 

They didn’t have to wait too long for a British band to come a knocking on their doorsteps, and The Beatles had furnished their sound to the chirpy beats of Valens and Holly. But the plane crash left an impression on Don McLean, who eulogised the three songwriters on the shimmering ‘American Pie’, cautioning his generation to the fickleness of life. 

The music didn’t die on February 3rd, 1959, but it did grow more wistful, shadowing itself from the frothier elements of the industry. By the end of the 1960s, audiences demanded a more sophisticated outlet from their songwriters, which led rock into one of it’s more interesting decades, albeit one that was decidedly more forlorn than the one the children of the 1950s fought for. 

A timeline of ‘The Day the Music Died’:

February 25th, 1957

The beginning of a movement

Buddy Holly and The Crickets record ‘That’ll Be The Day’, a tune that unwittingly changes the course of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly in England.

A precocious young band called The Quarrymen record their cover of it in 1958, backed by a charming composition written by their fledgling guitar player, Paul McCartney.

A frisky little ditty

Jiles Perry ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson issues ‘Chantilly Lace’, which makes an impressive dent on the charts, landing in the Billboard top five.

It’s a more suggestive number to the pop tunes nominally heard on the radio, which is fitting for the changing America.

August 4th, 1958
November 15th, 1958

The kids are alright!

Ritchie Valens releases ‘La Bamba’, a punchy pop tune that holds a memorable chorus line.

The song proves to be a smash in both the UK and US, leading George Harrison to model his cover of ‘Got my Mind Set on You’ on the jaunty Valens single.

Onto the stage!

Short on cash, and with a baby on the way, Holly decides he wants to go on tour. Although he has disassociated himself from The Crickets, he has a new band, one that is set to perform 24 dates across the Midwestern. Ritchie Valens, ‘The Big Bopper’ J.P Richardson, and Dion DiMucci join the tour, hoping to pocket some of the profits.

November 1958
January 23rd, 1959

The Tour from Hell

The tour begins, although geography has not been added to the equation. As no holidays have been pencilled, Holly and friends have to endure a gruelling 400 miles between venues. It doesn’t help that everyone is forced to travel on the same bus.

Twisting the night away!

Fans gather at the Fiesta Ballroom in Montevideo in western Minnesota, partially to escape the miserable cold. Holly and friends do not have an entourage with them, so they all have to pack up their things and return to a bus that will probably break down on the road. Before leaving Minnesota, Holly is warned that it can get colder.

January 27th, 1959
January 31st, 1959

Winter is coming

The tour makes its second-longest haul, from Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Duluth. “We had started up this incline,” guitarist Tommy Allsup remembered. “It was snowing real bad, and the bus just started going slower and slower, and the lights got dimmer and dimmer, and all of a sudden the bus stopped.”

Drummer Carl Bunch ends up in hospital due to injuries. Carlo Mastrangelo takes over drums, with help from Valens and Holly.

Up to the skies, boys!

Frustrated by road travel, Holly arranges for a plane to bring him to Fargo, North Dakota. Valens gets on because he wins a coin-flip against Allsup. Richardson has contracted flu, so he’s granted a seat on the plane.

In a moment of unfortunate mockery, Holly bandmate Waylon Jennings says he hopes the plane comes crashing down.

February 2nd, 1959
February 3rd, 1959

The death of rock and roll

American musicians and heartthrobs Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and ‘The Big Bopper’ J.P Richardson perish in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

American musicians and heartthrobs Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and ‘The Big Bopper’ J.P Richardson perish in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

La tristessa durera

Holly’s funeral is held at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lubbock. Worn down by grief, and soon to endure a miscarriage, widow Maria Santiago Holly blames herself for her husband’s death.

“In a way, I blame myself. I was not feeling well when he left. I was two weeks pregnant, and I wanted Buddy to stay with me, but he had scheduled that tour. It was the only time I wasn’t with him. And I blame myself because I know that, if only I had gone along, Buddy never would have gotten into that aeroplane.”

February 7th, 1959

Could it have been avoided?

Holly’s brother Larry gets a report from the Civil Aeronautics and ultimately decides that Roger Peterson, the pilot in question, was unsuitable for the operation in question. Peterson perished along with the singers.

“He could have been reading this backwards,” Larry surmised. “They were going down, they thought they were still climbing.”

Lest we forget them

American songwriter Don McLean puts his feelings to tape with ‘American Pie’, a shimmering look at the changing landscape the three deceased rockers were an integral part of. He pegs February 3rd, 1959 as ‘The Day the Music Died.”

It features on American Pie, an album that is now considered a watershed of 1970s culture. 

May 26th, 1971

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