The Curse of Buddy Holly
Anyone familiar with the history of Rock knows the story of Buddy Holly: A charismatic and wildly talented songwriter/performer, Holly achieved enormous success while just barely into his 20s. After breaking with his band, The Crickets, Holly sets out on a disastrous national tour (the Winter Dance Party) with other Rock luminaries, in order to support his new wife and unborn child. After a performance at the Surf Ballroom on 3 February 1959, he charters a plane to take him, "The Big Bopper," and Ritchie Valens to the next gig. Tragically, the plane crashes, killing all three. (For a detailed account of that night's events, please visit the Holly-Bopper-Valens Tribute.) There is more to Buddy Holly's story. An ominous undertone supports the events leading up to Holly's death, and continues through to recent times, dispensing tragedy and claiming the lives of many artists associated with the legendary performer. Continue reading for a brief overview of the strange events surrounding Holly's death, followed by a list of musicians who died early and tragically and their connection to the singer-songwriter.
Shortly before embarking on the Winter Dance Party Tour, both Buddy Holly and his new wife, Maria Elena, were simultaneously disturbed by violent and eerily prophetic dreams. Maria Elena had dreamt of a fireball descending to earth in the middle of a field, followed by an explosion that left a great gaping hole in the ground. When she woke up Holly, he related that he had also just had a strange dream. He dreamt that he, his wife, and his brother were in a plane. His brother persuaded Holly to leave Maria Elena on top of a building, with the intention of returning for her. Reportedly, Holly was wracked with guilt for having left her behind in the dream. Maria Elena was supposed to accompany her husband on the Winter Dance Party tour. He had convinced her to stay behind, because of her morning sickness.
While Holly was touring England in 1958, he received an ominous message from Joe Meek, a British recording engineer and producer. On a night in January of that year, Meek had attended a tarot reading. The message delivered that night was "February third, Buddy Holly, dies." Holly thanked Meek for the warning, but did not seem concerned since February the third had already passed. Buddy Holly would die on 3 February 1959.
The crash site.
The Winter Dance Party
The Winter Dance Party was plagued with problems. The tour buses continually broke down, the heaters refused to work, and both The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens had taken ill. Holly's drummer, Carl Bunch, had to leave the tour after he suffered severe frostbite on his feet. Holly's last song, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," was released shortly before his death. After the fatal plane crash, Maria Elena Holly miscarried the only child of Buddy Holly.
- "The Big Bopper"
- Jiles Perry (J.P.) Richardson - a.k.a. "The Big Bopper" - was on the Winter Dance Party tour, enjoying the success of his single, "Chantilly Lace." Richardson, who had the flu, persuaded Waylon Jennings (member of Holly's backing band) to give up his seat on Holly's rented plane. "The Big Bopper" was the oldest person on the plane to perish. He was 28.
- Ritchie Valens
- Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba," "Oh Donna") was also a member of the Winter Dance Party. He convinced Tommy Allsup, another member of Holly's backing band, to flip a coin for the third seat on Holly's chartered plane. Valens, like "The Big Bopper," was also sick. He called "heads" and won, commenting that it was the first time he had ever won anything. Valens was only 17 at the time of the crash. (Years later, Tommy Allsup would open a club named "The Head's Up Saloon" to commemorate this life-saving coin toss.)
- Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent
- Singer Eddie Cochran (above) recorded "Three Stars," in honor of the performers killed in the plane crash. Cochran ("Summertime Blues") was supposed to have been on the Winter Party Dance tour. When he heard of the crash, Cochran felt as though he had cheated death, and was supposedly plagued by guilt and fear that death would soon come him.
- On 17 April 1960, Cochran, his girlfriend, hit songwriter Sharon Sheeley (Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool," Ritchie Valens's "Hurry Up"), and singer Gene Vincent ("Be-Bop-A-Lula") were on their way to London's Heathrow Airport for a return flight to the U.S. On the way, the Ford Consul they were riding in blew a tire. Vincent (above) re-injured the knee that had previously been hurt in a motorcycle accident. He would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. Sheeley suffered a broken neck and back. Cochran was thrown from the vehicle and rushed to St. Martin's Hospital, where he was visited by the original Crickets (Jerry Allison, Sonny Curtis and Joe B. Maudlin) who were touring in England at the time. He died the next day of massive head injuries. He was 22. The last single released by Cochran was "Three Steps to Heaven." The Crickets were the backing band. (Vincent would die in 1971 of internal bleeding from a ruptured stomach ulcer; he was 36. Sadly, his family lacked sufficient funds and the city of Los Angeles had to bury him.)
- Ronnie Smith
- Singer Ronnie Smith was hired to replace Buddy Holly for the remainder of the Winter Dance Party. He joined Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Carl Bunch. The band later recorded as the Jitters. (Jerry Allison, Sonny Curtis and Joe B. Maudlin retained the rights to the name, the Crickets.) Ronnie Smith was committed to a state hospital in Texas for drug abuse. On 25 October 1962, he hanged himself in one of the bathrooms. He was approximately 24.
- Cowboy Copas
- Cowboy Copas (Lloyd Estel Copas) was a chart-topping country singer with hits like "'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered," "Alabam" (number-one for three months), "Flat Top" and "Signed, Sealed and Delivered." In 1956, Cowpas took part in a 14-date country & western tour in Little Rock, Arkansas. Also on the bill were Hank Thompson, George Jones, Wanda Jackson, and Buddy Holly & the Two-Tones (Sonny Curtis and Don Guess).
- On 5 March 1963, Copas was returning from a benefit for the widow of "Cactus" Jack Call, a local disc jockey who died in a car crash. He was riding in a single-propeller Piper Comanche with fellow country musicians Hawkshaw Hawkins and Patsy Cline. Pilot Randy Hughes lost visibility around Camden, Tennessee and he hit some trees. The plane crashed in Fatty Bottom (70 miles west of Nashville). All onboard were killed. (For the complete story, visit the Archive's Patsy Cline Tribute.) Cowpas was 49.
- David Box
- The original Crickets (Allison, Curtis, and Maudlin) also had their share of continuing tragedy. Seventeen-year-old David Box was brought on as their new singer ("Peggy Sue Got Married"). He recorded with the band for a few years before going solo. On 23 October 1964, Box was killed when the Cessna Skyhawk 172 he was riding in crashed. He was 22 - the same age as Holly was when he died.
- Bobby Fuller
- Bobby Fuller admired and emulated Buddy Holly. He had given a demo tape to Holly's parents, who forwarded it to Norman Petty, Holly's former producer. The Bobby Fuller Four had a hit with"I Fought the Law," which was penned by Sonny Curtis (of the original Crickets). The last song Fuller recorded was "Love's Made a Fool of You," which was written by Buddy Holly. On 18 July 1966, Fuller's body was found in his car at his house. He had been severely beaten, one of his right fingers was broken, and he was drenched in gasoline. Friends stated that Fuller had recently been harassed by local mobsters, possibly in connection with a woman. But the police judged his death a suicide. His death certificate states the causes of demise as asphyxia and inhalation of gasoline, ruled as an "accident." Fuller was 23. For more information on the life and death of Bobby Fuller, visit The Archive's Bobby Fuller Tribute.
- Joe Meek
- Joe Meek (Robert George Meek) was a pioneering record producer and songwriter. Meek's works include The Tornados' "Ridin' the Wind" and "Telstar," which was the first song by a British act to reach #1 on the US Hot 100. Meek suffered from bouts of rage, paranoia and depression which were exacerbated by his drug use. He became obsessed with Buddy Holly, whom Meek claimed visited him in dreams. On the eighth anniversary of Holly's death (3 February 1967), Meek shot and killed his landlady before turning the single-barreled shotgun on himself. He was 37.
- Clyde McPhatter
- Clyde McPhatter was the lead singer with The Drifters before going on to a successful solo career. McPhatters's solo hits include "A Lover's Question," "Little Bitty Pretty One," and "Lover Please." In 1958, McPhatter participated in "The Biggest Show of Stars for 1958 — The Autumn Edition," with Bobby Darin, Dion and the Belmonts, The Coasters - and Buddy Holly and the Crickets. In 1972, McPhatter succumbed to liver, kidney, and heart failure. He was just 38.
- Bobby Darin
- In 1958, Buddy Holly recorded Bobby Darin's song, "Early in the Morning." Also that year, Bobby Darin participated in "The Biggest Show of Stars for 1958 — The Autumn Edition," with Clyde McPhatter, Dion and the Belmonts, The Coasters - and Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Darin died in 1973 from complications of heart surgery which was needed to repair a faulty valve. He was 37. Five years earlier, Darin found out that his older sister was actually his mother; the woman he believed to be his mother was actually his grandmother.
- Phil Ochs
- Phil Ochs was an anti-establishment folk singer, who used his songs to protest against the Vietnam War and to campaign for civil, student, and labor rights. The FBI maintained a file on the singer nearly 500 pages long. Ochs sang a tribute to Buddy Holly on his final album, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall (recorded in 1970; released in 1975). In 1973, Ochs was assaulted and almost killed. During the attack he was strangled which permanently damaged his vocal chords. Sunken into depression, he hanged himself in 1976 at the age of 36.
- The Buddy Holly Story
- In 1977, a film was made depicting Buddy Holly's life and career. Gary Busey was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Holly, and the screenplay was written by Robert Gittler. After completing the film, Busey was involved in a nearly fatal motorcycle accident. Gittler committed suicide shortly before the film's release.
- Elvis Presley
- Elvis Presley was The King of Rock & Roll, the most popular secular musician of all time. In October of 1955, Buddy Holly & the Crickets opened for The King in Lubbock, Texas. (Interesting aside: After Holly's fatal plane crash, Presley sent a flower arrangement to be displayed at the wake of "The Big Bopper.") On 16 August 1977, Elvis Presley died as the result of too many drugs being present in his system. Elvis was 42.
- Marc Bolan
- The release of The Buddy Holly Story renewed interest in Holly's life and music. On 16 September 1977, T-Rex ("Bang a Gong (Get It On)," "Hot Love") founder Marc Bolan was killed in a car crash. Reportedly found among the debris was a pin that said "Every day is a Holly day." Bolan was 29.
- Keith Moon
- Another "casualty" of The Buddy Holly Story: On 6 September 1978, Keith Moon, eccentric drummer for The Who, previewed The Buddy Holly Story and dined with his girlfriend, Annette Walter-Lax, and Paul and Linda McCartney. Moon and Walter-Lax returned to a flat owned by Harry Nilsson - the same flat at 12 Curzon Place, London, where "Mama" Cass Elliot had died four years earlier. Moon supposedly woke up at 7:30 on the morning of the seventh, and returned to bed. At 3:40 pm, Walter-Lax tried to wake him, but he was unresponsive. At some point during the previous night or that morning, he had ingested 32 tablets of Clomethiazole (Heminevrin), a sedative prescribed for alcohol withdrawal. Keith Moon was dead of a prescription drug overdose. (The Who's bassist, John Entwistle, would die from a heart attack brought on by cocaine use in 2002. Entwistle was 57.) Read more about Moon's connection to the Curse of Harry Nilsson.
- Johnny O'Keefe
- Johnny O'Keefe was the Australian King of Rock & Roll, and the first Australian to chart, with the hit, "I'm The Wild One." He appeared on the Lee Gordon Tour in 1958 with Buddy Holly. In June 1960, O'Keefe crashed his Plymouth Belvedere, suffering severe head and facial lacerations and a concussion. In 1961 and '62 he was admitted to the hospital for what became a continuing cycle of nervous breakdowns. In 1978, he suffered a fatal heart attack caused by an accidental overdose of prescription medication. He was 43.
- John Lennon
- The Beatles were fans of Buddy Holly's. Their name was a play on the Crickets. It is rumored that Buddy Holly originally wanted to name the Crickets the Beetles. The Fab Four recorded Holly's "Words of Love" and "That'll Be the Day." On 8 Decemeber 1980, John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono were returning home to the Dakota Apartments in New York City when deranged fan, Mark David Chapman, shot the ex-Beatle to death. Lennon was 40. While still with The Beatles, Lennon was asked how he expected to die. He lightly answered: "I'll probably be popped off by some loony."
- Bill Haley
- Haley had two of Rock & Roll's earliest hits, with "Rocket 88" and "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock." In 1955, Buddy Holly (with Bob Montgomery and Larry Welborn) opens for Bill Haley and the Comets in Lubbock. In 1981, Bill Haley suffers a fatal heart attack at the age of 55.
- Bill Pickering
- Pickering not only knew and worked with Holly, but he also sang at his funeral and had contact with Holly's widow 25 years after Holly's death. Pickering was a DJ - the first to play Buddy Holly's solo effort, "Blue Days, Black Nights". Pickering and his group, The Pickering Brothers ("The Picks"), eventually met the musician and were overdubbed on several Holly classics, including "Oh, Boy!" and "Maybe Baby." When Holly died in 1959, Bill Pickering sang at his funeral.
- The Picks disbanded, reuniting in 1969. Unfortunately, the group was sidelined in 1974; Bill Pickering suffered his first stroke, rendering him blind for nearly two years. He recorded once more, ten years later, again overdubbing on Holly tracks. He was motivated by Maria Elena Santiago, Holly's widow, when she related how Holly had wanted to work with The Picks again. The overdubs were Pickering's last foray into music. In January 1985, he sufferd another, this time fatal, aneurysm. He died at the age of 58. In Lubbock, Texas. Hometown of one Charles Hardin ("Buddy") Holley.
- Rick Nelson
- Ricky Nelson ("Hello Mary Lou," "Travelin' Man") had once met Buddy Holly. (Nelson's hit, "Poor Little Fool" was written by Sharon Sheeley, Eddie Cochran's girlfriend who was involved in the car crash that took Cochran's life.) Supposedly Nelson's last recording was Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways." On 30 December 1985, Nelson finished performing in Guntersville, Alabama. He had played Holly's "Rave On" as his encore, and his last words to the audience were, "Rave on for me!" The next morning, he boarded his reconditioned DC-3, which was previously owned by fellow rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, and made an emergency landing after the pilot detected smoke in the cockpit. All survived the landing, but the craft then burst into flames, killing Nelson, his fiancee, and his band (the pilot and co-pilot survived). He was 45. Read the National Transportation Safety Board Report.
- Del Shannon
- On February 3, 1990, the thirty-first anniversary of Buddy Holly's fatal crash, Del Shannon ("Runaway," "Hats Off to Larry") performed at the Surf Ballroom Clear Lake, Iowa (the location of Holly's last performance). The Crickets acted as Shannon's backing band. Five days later, Shannon shot himself with a .22 calibre rifle. He was 55.
- Steve Marriott
- Marriott was the guitarist and singer for The Small Faces ("Itchycoo Park," "Tin Soldier") and later, Humble Pie ("Black Coffee," "Shine On"). The song, "Heartbeat," was originally recorded by Buddy Holly in 1958. Holly's version reached number 30 on the UK Singles Chart twice; in January 1959, and in 1960 as a re-issue. (It also charted, although not significantly, on the Billboard Hot 100.) Marriott was a big Holly fan and cited the artist as a musical influence. In 1969, Humble Pie released their album, Town and Country, which contained a cover of "Heartbeat."
- On 19 April 1991, after a return flight from the United States, Marriott had dinner with his wife at a friend's house, but returned home alone in the early morning. Valium, cocaine and alcohol were in his system. According to investigators, Marriott fell asleep with a lit cigarette. He was found on the floor next to his bed, dead from smoke inhalation. Marriott was 44.
- Kurt Cobain
- Nirvana's break-through album, Nevermind, included the single "In Bloom." The video for the song, shot in black and white, shows the group dressed like early rock heartthrobs performing on a variety show (similar to The Ed Sullivan Show.) The host (Doug Llewelyn) describes the band as "thoroughly all right and decent fellas." Cobain sports thick, black framed glasses, and a sports jacket and slacks, clearly in imitation of Buddy Holly. The chronically depressed Cobain explained that the uncharacteristically light-hearted tone of the video was result of him being "so tired for the last year of people taking us so seriously . . . I wanted to fuck off and show them that we have a humorous side to us." The video won Best Alternative Video at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. The following year, on 8 April 1994, Kurt Cobain's body was found in a room above his garage, a shotgun pointed at his head. He had been missing for several days and it was determined that he had taken his own life three days prior to his body being discovered, by an electrician.
- George Harrison
- As stated in John Lennon's entry, The Beatles were fans of Buddy Holly's. Their name was a play on the Crickets and it is rumored that Buddy Holly originally wanted to name the Crickets the Beetles. The Fab Four recorded Holly's "Words of Love" and "That'll Be the Day." In 1999, an obsessed fan broke into the house of Beatle, George Harrison, stabbing him in the chest. This despite the fact that Harrison's estate boasted a particularly tight security network. Harrison survived, but succumbed to cancer two years later (2001). He was 58.
- Mikey Welsh
- Michael Welsh was the bassist for Weezer from 1998 until 2001. Weezer gained notoriety with their triple-platinum (US) debut album, 1994's Weezer (The Blue Album). Among the hits it produced was the chart-topping, "Buddy Holly." Welsh left the band because of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide that same year. In 2011, he was found dead in a hotel room. He was 40.
One version of T.Rex:
Bill Legend, Mickey Finn (d. 2003), singer Marc Bolan (d. 1977), and Steve Currie (d. 1981).
The Small Faces:
Kenney Jones, Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane (d. 1997) and Steve Marriott (d. 1991).