It's hard to imagine what it must have felt like to wake up on February 3rd, 1959 to learn 3 of America's most popular musicians were gone.
The Bopper, Holly and Valens.
Overnight, a plane crash had taken the life of singer-songwriter Buddy Holly, up-and-comer Ritchie Valens and singer Jiles "the Big Bopper" Richardson all in one fell swoop, and in the middle of their highly publicized tour.
For decades music fans have been left to wonder what these young musicians would have done if their incredible careers weren't cut short, but most people never learned the details of the shocking plane crash that took their lives.
It turns out their entire accident could have gone very differently, or maybe never would have happened at all, if it wasn't for a few strokes of bad luck.
The strange story of why these three musicians were even in the plane together all starts with their tour, the Winter Dance Party.
Audiences loved seeing Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper perform together, but for the bands the tour was a nightmare that they called "the Tour from Hell."
The Tour From Hell
Holly, his three band-mates, Valens, the Bopper, vocalist Frankie Sardo and another band called the Belmonts were all on the same Winter Dance Party Tour, and shared one bus. Usually, they wound up stuck with the cheapest thing on 4 wheels in each city they visited.
The band had to swap buses 5 times in the first 11 days of the tour, because the machines kept breaking down. They were also left stranded on broken buses in the freezing cold, or forced to ride through the night without any heat.
To make things worse, Holly's record company, General Artists, did an awful job planning the tour, which zigzagged between 24 cities in 24 days. Sometimes, the bands would be forced to ride 400 miles in one night to make their next stop.
Add in the fact that the bands were carrying their own instruments and equipment to each gig, and it's easy to see why everyone was quickly exhausted. To avoid another 350 mile trip, Holly decided to charter a plane to the next show.
Two of the men who would have lost their lives on the doomed flight ended up trading their seats to other musicians. The small plane Holly hired in Clear Lake, Iowa was a 4-seater, so his bass player Waylon Jennings gave up his seat to the Bopper, who had the flu and could use a break from the bus.
Meanwhile, guitarist Tommy Allsup flipped a coin with Valens for the last seat and lost, saving his own life without realizing it. Before the flight took off, Holly jokingly told Jennings "I hope your ol’ bus freezes up," and the guitarist answered "Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
He would regret those words for the rest of his life.
The pilot on that fateful flight, Roger Peterson, had lots of experience, but it was later revealed he wasn't qualified to fly in the snowy conditions that night.
Weather reports clearly showed that a storm along the flight path was awful and getting worse, but Peterson's reports didn't mention it. The deadly flight was so short, the flight company's owner could watch the whole thing from the airport by following the plane's tail light. Shortly after takeoff the weather and visibility became so bad that Peterson simply lost control and crashed.
All 4 of the men on board died instantly, ending 3 bright musical careers in an instant. Despite the urban legend, the plane wasn't named "American Pie," in fact it had no name at all.
A memorial for Holly near the site of the crash, inspired by his signature glasses.
Every year, fans hold a concert in Holly, Valens and the Bopper's memory at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where they all played their final shows.
Most people don't know this, but Holly's death changed the way police treat accident and crime victims forever. Hours after his plane crashed, TV and radio news reports were already announcing his death.
Holly's mother and his widow both learned he had died from the news. Ever since, police departments have made it a policy not to release a victim's name until their family has been notified.
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