‘Day the Music Died’ 65 Years Ago When Buddy Holly Was Killed in Tragic Plane Crash

Desperate to escape the frigid cold and get some rest before their next performance, the three musicians boarded a chartered small plane. The rest of their group climbed back on an unheated broken bus for the long wintry ride.

Minutes after takeoff, the 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza single-engine aircraft plummeted into a cornfield near Clear Creek, Iowa. The pilot and all three passengers died on impact.

Dead were 22-year-old Buddy Holly, 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, 28-year-old J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson. The crash was determined to be the result of hazardous weather and pilot error.

Known as “The Day the Music Died, the Feb. 3, 1959, tragedy was immortalized by Don McLean in his 1972 hit “American Pie.”

“But the music didn’t die,” Sebastian Forbush says. “Buddy Holly’s music has lived on. People from around the world come here to Buddy Holly’s hometown and to the Buddy Holly Center to learn more about the man and his music.”

Charles Hardin Holley, known throughout the world as Buddy Holly, was born in Lubbock, Texas, on Sept. 7, 1936. “His mother nicknamed him ‘Buddy.’ His last name was misspelled as ‘Holly’ on a recording contract and Buddy left it that way,” says Sebastian, curator of the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock.

The bronze Buddy Holly statue is located inside Buddy and Maria Elena Holly Plaza on Crickets Avenue.

The youngest of four children – two older brothers and a sister – Buddy was a natural musician from a musical family. “He went from violin to piano to steel guitar before switching to a standard acoustic guitar when he was 11 years old,” Sebastian says.

By high school, Buddy was performing with his friend, Bob Montgomery, as country western duo, Buddy and Bob, at school assemblies and local radio shows. Initially, the pair played a variety of bluegrass music which evolved into rockabilly sounds.

In 1955, the duo was on the concert bill three times along with a then-unknown Elvis Presley at the Fair Park Auditorium in Lubbock. Elvis reportedly loaned Buddy his Martin acoustic guitar to play during the show. Seeing the attention that Elvis was beginning to generate made Buddy even more determined that music was going to be his lifelong passion.

                         Preserving Music-Making House at Buddy Holly Center

Back then, Buddy and his musical pals weren’t relegated to family garages to practice their music. “They played in the bedroom of Buddy’s best friend, drummer Jerry Ivan ‘J.I.’ Allison,” Sebastian says, leading a tour through the Allison home that is now part of the Buddy Holly Center.

Housed in an old railroad depot with a Buddy Holly exhibit room shaped like a guitar, the Buddy Holly Center opened in 1999. The 1950s Allison house was moved to the eastern side of the center in 2012.

The Allison home where Buddy and Jerry Allison wrote songs was moved to the Buddy Holly Center.

“The house is important because it is here that Buddy and Jerry Allison wrote many of their songs, including the hits ‘That’ll be the Day’ and ‘Peggy Sue,’” Sebastian says.

The story goes that in the early summer of 1956, Buddy, Jerry and fellow musician Sonny Curtis went to see “The Searchers” movie starring John Wayne. In the movie, John Wayne utters the familiar tagline, “Well, that’ll be the day” several times.

Jerry Allison’s bedroom where Jerry and Buddy would practice and write songs.

While jamming later at Jerry’s house, Buddy suggested that they write a song of their own. Jerry quipped, “That’ll be the day.” Buddy responded that the phrase would make a good title. And a hit was born.

The 1957 blockbuster song introduced the world to Buddy Holly and The Crickets – Buddy, Jerry on drums, Joe B. Mauldin on bass and Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar. Niki left the group after the band’s first national tour in the fall of 1957. The band continued as a threesome.

Buddy with drummer Jerry Allison (left) and bass player Joe B. Mauldin

As for “Peggy Sue,” also written in the Allison house and a 1957 hit, the song was reportedly in reference to Peggy Sue Gerron, the girlfriend and future wife of Jerry Allison after the two had temporarily broken up.

                                Black Eyeglass Frames Become Buddy’s Rrademark

Buddy signed a recording contact but talent agents and recording contracts didn’t really suit him. “They wanted to change him and Buddy didn’t fit into any little box where they tried to put him,” Sebastian says. “Buddy’s vision was so poor that he always wore glasses. Early on, they wanted him to lose the glasses because they didn’t think a rock and roll star should look that way.”

At first, Buddy tried. For several years, he wore the least conspicuous clear-plastic frames he could find to compensate for his severe nearsightedness. “He even tried performing without glasses but he once dropped his guitar pick and had to crawl around the stage to find it because he couldn’t see,” Sebastian says.

Contact lenses didn’t work either because the thick lenses of the day were too uncomfortable and couldn’t be worn very long. After a couple of hours, the contacts would cloud up and need to be replaced. Buddy’s contact lenses are among the artifacts at the Buddy Holly Center.

“Eventually, he just said, ‘I am going to wear glasses and you guys are just going to have to deal with it,” Sebastian says. “He really embraced who he was and how he looked and he didn’t care what other people thought.”

The Buddy Holly statue in his hometown of Lubbock is 8 feet 6 inches tall.

Before long, Buddy’s black-rimmed eyeglasses became part of his trademark. After the tragic plane crash, Buddy was thrown from the wreckage and his glasses were buried in the snow. They were found several months later, placed in an envelope in police storage and locked in a steel cabinet for 21 years.

When the envelope was discovered, the glasses were given to Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena Holly Diaz. Maria kept them for several years until she sold the glasses for $80,000 to Civic Lubbock, the nonprofit for the city’s Buddy Holly Center.

“The glasses are now on display near the center of the exhibit near Buddy’s Fender Stratocaster guitar,” Sebastian says. “It is so powerful when people stop and see those actual glasses.”

The eyeglass frames Buddy was wearing when his plane crashed. (Courtesy photo / Civic Lubbock, Inc.)

Among the other treasures at the Buddy Holly Center are Buddy’s school report cards, his publishing contract in which his last name is misspelled, school photos, a photo of him and his first girlfriend Echo McGuire, handwritten notes and much more. A documentary film about Buddy also is shown at the center.

In March of 1958, Buddy and The Crickets toured the United Kingdom and left a lasting impression. In the audience were two teenagers named John Lennon and Paul McCartney who later named their band The Beatles in homage to The Crickets. The English rock and pop group, The Hollies, also was named in honor of Buddy Holly.

“Buddy really rewrote what music was,” Sebastian says. “He was a musical pioneer. He was so influential on other groups that came long after he had died.”

                                           Tragic Winter Dance Party Tour

On Aug. 15, 1958, Buddy married receptionist Maria Elena Santiago. “He had proposed to her on their first date and they got married less than two months later,” Sebastian says. “He and Maria moved to Greenwich Village in New York because it was a hub of musical activity and creativity.”

In 1959, Buddy split with The Crickets and separated from his manager, Norman Petty. It was a tumultuous time in Buddy’s career, plus his wife was pregnant. A new Winter Dance Party tour through the Midwest seemed like a way to earn some fast money. But the tour seemed doomed from the start.

The Winter Dance Party tour consisted of 24 dates in 24 days, a grueling schedule with no road crew. Performers had to pack and unpack their own equipment and had to travel for hours on reconditioned school buses that frequently broke down and lost heat.

Some of the performers suffered from colds and flu symptoms while Buddy’s drummer, Carl Bunch, ended up in the hospital with frostbite on his feet. Carl had to stay behind and missed several performances, including the concert in Clear Lake. Buddy and Ritchie Valens took turns trying to keep the drum beat going.

The Winter Dance Party opened in Milwaukee on Jan. 23, 1959, and traveled across the Midwest. At the tour stop in Duluth, Minnesota, one audience member was a young Bobby Zimmerman who would grow up to become the legendary Bob Dylan.

For the grueling road trip, Buddy had assembled a new group that included bass guitarist Waylon Jennings. But after the Feb. 2 performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy had had enough.

He decided to charter a small plane to fly him and two others to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. The small plane carried only three passengers at a fee of $36 per person. Those three would be Buddy, Waylon Jennings and guitarist Tommy Allsup.

However, fellow performer “The Big Bopper” had the flu and asked Waylon for his seat. Singer Richie Valens and Tommy Allsup flipped a coin for a seat. Richie Valens won.

More than a decade later, Don McLean wrote an 8-minute, 42-second song inspired by the plane crash. Only 13 years old and a paperboy when Buddy died, Don McLean read about the death in newspaper headlines and later wrote in his song:

“February made me shiver

With every paper I’d deliver

Bad news on the doorstep

I couldn’t take one more step

I can’t remember if I cried.

When I read about his widowed bride

But something touched me deep inside

the day the music died.”

“Buddy was a star for only 18 months before the plane crash but his legacy has continued to grow with time,” Sebastian says. “Who knows what he might have accomplished if he had lived longer.”

Buddy’s funeral was held at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lubbock. His bride of six months did not attend the funeral because she had suffered a miscarriage learning of her husband’s death. Buddy is buried in Lubbock Cemetery where visitors often leave coins and guitar picks on his grave.

Buddy Holly’s grave stone has the correct spelling of his last name.

Not long before he died, Buddy had bought a plot of land in Lubbock. He talked of building a studio there where he could record the way he believed it should be done under his own record label.

“Buddy was a perfectionist. He was always evolving and looking to perfect what he was doing. He was creating things that no one had ever heard before,” Sebastian says. “He changed music in a way that continues today. Buddy Holly still lives whenever you hear rock and roll.”

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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