When Don McLean’s “American Pie” was dominating the airwaves 40 years ago, we youngsters got a kick out of rhyming “Chevy” with “levee” more than trying to decipher deeper meanings.
At the time, I might have heard of Buddy Holly, but my first encounter with the Big Bopper wasn’t until “Chantilly Lace” appeared on the “American Graffiti” soundtrack the following year. And I’m not so sure about Richie Valens.
At any rate, “American Pie” kind of chronicles the state of rock ‘n’ roll from the airplane crash of Feb. 3, 1959, through the end of the ’60s. Despite urban legend, the song title is not the name of the plane.
My main question about the tragedy: Why were they flying around the Midwest in the dead of winter? Aviation wasn’t all that advanced 53 years ago, and when that plane – it was a Beechcraft Bonanza, with no specific appellation – took off from Clear Lake, Iowa, it didn’t travel too far before killing everyone on board.
In remembrance of the three musicians who were among the toll, here are a few nuggets pertaining to their careers and “the day the music died”:
- Waylon Jennings, who was a member of Holly’s backing band the Crickets at the time, gave up his seat on behalf of the Bopper. (Waylon did die in February, but 43 years later.)
- Tommy Allsup, another Cricket, flipped a coin with Valens to determine who would fly. Allsup lost. And won. He still is with us, at age 80.
- Charles Hardin Holley (sic) was only 22 years old at the time but already had established himself as a premiere performer-songwriter in the nascent world of rock ‘n’ roll. His death was part of a series of events – the drafting of Elvis, the “retirement” of Little Richard, the cousin-marrying scandal of Jerry Lee Lewis and the jailing of Chuck Berry – that threatened to derail the new type of music.
- A group of guys from Liverpool, UK, decided it would be cool to name their band after an insect, in the fashion of the Crickets. They didn’t decide on “Beetles,” though.
- Holly’s “Not Fade Away” was the first American hit by a band named after a Muddy Waters song, the Rolling Stones. It later was played more than 550 times by a band that got its name from the dictionary, the Grateful Dead.
- Richie Valens’ last name actually was Valenzuela. No word on whether he was related to baseball pitcher Fernando, but Richard Steven had yet to reach his 18th birthday when he died.
- The Big Bopper’s name was was Jiles Perry Richardson, and he was a ripe old 28 at the time. He wrote the novelty song “Running Bear,” which to the best of my knowledge still is recorded to this day.
- Dion DiMucci, who also was part of the Winter Dance Party package tour with his band the Belmonts, recalled in a 2009 interview: “I remember just sitting there alone on the bus, and Buddy’s guitar was on the back seat, Ritchie’s outfit was hanging from the luggage rack … There was the Big Bopper’s hat, just sitting there.”
- Buddy’s pregnant wife, Maria, miscarried soon after the wreck, ending that part of the Holly family tree.
- Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., attended a Winter Dance Party show on Jan. 31, 1959. Forty years later, as Bob Dylan accepting a Grammy, he recalled about Holly: I was three feet away from him…and he LOOKED at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was — I don’t know how or why — but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”
- Buddy Holly had a single on the charts at the time of his death. It reached No. 13 in the United States and No. 1 in the United Kingdom. Its title: “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”