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The Day the Music Died: Buddy Holly, "The Big Bopper" and Ritchie Valens

The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly

"The Big Bopper," Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly.

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Following are a detailed history and numerous images chronicling the early hours of 3 February 1959. This page is dedicated to the royal trinity of Rock & Roll: Charles Hardin Holley (Buddy Holly), Richard Steven Valenzuela (Ritchie Valens), and Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr. ("The Big Bopper"). These three performers perished on that date ("The Day the Music Died") in a plane crash in a snow-covered Iowa field. They continue to command our appreciation and our respect.

Some of the following information tends to lean on the morbid side; it is provided for the sake of a complete record of events. Anything deemed especially macabre has a link to it - not an initially displayed image or description - for people who do not appreciate those kind of surprises.

For additional information, read about the Curse of Buddy Holly.

The Story

Buddy Holly needed money. He was recently married with a child on the way, had broken up with his group, the Crickets, and had left his record company. Holly decided to participate in a tour deemed, "The Winter Dance Party," with a revised version of the Crickets: Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch, and Waylon Jennings. The other headliners were Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper"), and Dion and the Belmonts. The group traveled by bus in temperatures that were frequently below-freezing. The bus often broke down and had no heat. Ritchie Valens and "The Big Bopper" had caught colds. One member of the group, drummer Carl Bunch, suffered frostbite and had to be hospitalized. (Frostbite might have saved his life - he missed the fatal plane crash, rejoining the tour on 5 February 1959. He passed away of complications from diabetes in 2011; he was 71.)

Interesting aside - Due to Carl Bunch's hospitalization for frostbite, it is said that Ritchie Valens sat in on drums for Buddy Holly, and Holly played for Valens, as a means of temporarily replacing the ailing drummer.

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Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly on a tour bus with two unidentified people, circa 1958.

Photographer: Lewis Allen, Rolling Stone Images of Rock.

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2 Feruary 1959, was supposed to be a day off for the performers, but a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa was added at the last minute. Following the show, Holly chartered a plane for his band to take to Fargo, North Dakota. However, Waylon Jennings exchanged his seat with The Big Bopper because Richardson was sick. Tommy Allsup flipped a coin with Ritchie Valens for the coveted third seat. The local host of the "Winter Dance Party," Bob Hale, flipped the coin. Ritchie called "heads" and won; he commented that it was the first time he had ever won anything. (Years later, Tommy Allsup would open a club named "The Head's Up Saloon" to commemorate this life-saving coin toss.) Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts was offered a chance at a seat, but replied that the thirty-six dollar fee was too high a price to pay for a short plane ride. (The Belmonts' songs include "Teen Angel," "I Wonder Why," and "A Teenager in Love"; Dion would later have a successful solo career with hits like "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer.")

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The Surf Ballroom

The Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa.

(From findadeath.com.)

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The Surf Ballroom stage

The interior of the Surf Ballroom, facing the stage, from the Surf's official web site.

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The airplane was a small four-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza, serial number N3794N, piloted by 21-year-old Roger Peterson. It was painted red, with white and black trim. The National Weather Service had issued a storm warning, but it had not been received by the pilot or by Jerry Dwyer, owner of the Dwyer Flying Service.

Before departure, Holly teased Jennings, because he wasn't joining him on the plane. Buddy said, "So you're not going with us tonight on the plane, huh? Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings retorted, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes." Jennings would later comment that it took him years to get over making that comment. (Jennings died in 2002 from diabetic complications at the age of 64. He was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.)

At about 1:00 am on 3 February 1959, the plane carrying rock's royal trinity took off into a blinding snow storm and crashed into Albert Juhl's corn field in Cerro Gordo County, Iowa. There were no survivors.

At the time of their deaths, Buddy Holly was 22, Ritchie Valens was 17, and J. P. Richardson was 28.

This is the detailed Civil Aeronautics Board Aircraft Accident Report.

When Jerry Dwyer did not receive news of the safe landing of the plane in Fargo, he decided to mount a search. The next morning was foggy, delaying his flight until about 9:00 am. He took off along the same flight path as Peterson and found the wreckage. It had gone unnoticed for eight hours along a fence in that snow-covered field, about a quarter mile from the nearest country road. Holly and Valens were each found approximately 17 feet away from the wreckage. The pilot, Roger Peterson, was still trapped inside. Richardson's body was found 40 feet from the plane wreckage.

By 11:15, Dr. Ralph E. Smiley, coroner, had arrived. For the coroner's report, access this link. Be advised, the document is graphic.

Peterson was taken to the Wilcox Funeral Home, and Richardson and Valens were taken to the Ward Funeral Home. It is unclear if Holly accompanied them.

On Friday, 6 February 1959, Roger Peterson was buried in the Buena Vista Memorial Cemetery, in his hometown of Alta. J. P. Richardson's wake was held in the Broussard's Funeral Home, in Beaumont, Texas, where he was buried. Private soldier Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker sent yellow roses to his funeral. (This is a photo of J.P. Richardson's casket at his wake, with flowers from Elvis.)

On Saturday the 7th, Ritchie Valens' body was taken from the Noble Chapel Funeral Home in the San Fernando Valley, to San Fernando Mission Cemetery (California). His body was driven in a copper colored hearse.

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Buddy Holly

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Buddy Holly was also buried on the 7th. The funeral was held in Lubbock, Texas, at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. The service was performed by Ben D. Johnson, who had also officiated at Holly's wedding just six months earlier. Pallbearers were the original Crickets: Jerry Allison, Joe B. Mauldin and Niki Sullivan; music producer Bob Montgomery, and musicians Sonny Curtis and Phil Everly (of the Everley Brothers). Over a thousand mourners attended the service, but his widow did not. Maria Elena Holly has never visited the grave of her husband. She told the Avalanche-Journal, "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 airplane."

The "Winter Dance Party" tour continued. An unknown-at-the-time singer named Bobby Vee was asked to open the concert in Moorhead, Minnesota. Two other new rock singers, Fabian and Paul Anka, were brought in to replace the recently deceased singers.

Thirteen years later, Don McLean wrote a song dedicated to the crash victims that reached #1 in 1972: "American Pie."

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The phone at the Surf Ballroom

The telephone at the Surf Ballroom where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made their last calls.

(Holly called his wife, Maria Elena, and Valens spoke to his brother, Robert Morales.)

(From findadeath.com.)

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On the fiftieth anniverasry of "The Day the Music Died" (3 February 2009), the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame designated the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, as a "Rock & Roll Landmark." The following photo is from the Surf's official web site.

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The Surf Ballroom

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The Crash Site

For numerous black and white photos of very good quality, visit The Day the Music Died: Crash Site Photo Archive.

Be warned! Some of the pictures are quite graphic and may be disturbing to some individuals.

The following photos are some of the only to exist of the crash site in color. They are from Kevin Terry's collection from the former Buddy Holly Online web site.

The crash site in color

The crash site in color

The crash site in color

Buddy Holly

Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Also a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Holly had an incredible talent for combining memorable melodies with creative rhymes. His entire body of work was created in just two years. He helped lay the foundation of Rock & Roll. "Peggy Sue," "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," "Oh Boy!" "That'll Be the Day," "True Love Ways," "Rave On," "Not Fade Away," "It's So Easy," "Crying, Waiting, Hoping"

Buddy Holly in color

Buddy Holly,

taken by Timothy Kehr at the 28 January 1959 Winter Dance Party show

St. Paul's Prom Ballroom, MN.

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For those interested in the macabre, here are excerpts and the statement from Buddy Holly's death certificate. Be advised: this document is graphic. To view the original, click here.

Holly's grave

Buddy Holly's grave, City of Lubbock Cemetery, Lubbock, Texas.

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Buddy Holly Center

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Holly statue

The Buddy Holly Center in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas.

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For additional information, read about the Curse of Buddy Holly.

Ritchie Valens

Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Also a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Valens passionately crafted songs of energy and emotion, drawing on his Mexican heritage and his love of Rock & Roll. He was just 17 at the time of the crash. "La Bamba," "Oh, Donna," "We Belong Together," "Ooh, My Head," "Dooby Dooby Wah," "Come On, Let's Go"

Ritchie Valens in color

Ritchie Valens,

taken by Timothy Kehr at the 28 January 1959 Winter Dance Party show

St. Paul's Prom Ballroom, MN.

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You may view Valens's death certificate; please give the image a moment to download.) Be advised: the description of the accident's effects is graphic. Trouble reading the statement? Click here.

Valens's grave

Ritchie Valens's grave in San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Mission Hills, California.

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Valens's original grave

Ritchie Valens's grave prior to being interred next to his mother.

"The Big Bopper"

Member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Has yet to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

An innovative performer and disc jockey, "The Big Bopper" embodied everything Rock & Roll was in the 1950s: care-free and fun-loving. Tragically overlooked by modern critics (and the R&R Hall of Fame), "The Big Bopper" was larger than life and twice as much fun. He was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004 and he was also inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. "Chantilly Lace," "Little Red Riding Hood," "That's What I'm Talking About," "White Lightnin'," "Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor," and he wrote and sang back-up on Johnny Preston's "Running Bear"

The Big Bopper in color

J. P. Richardson,

taken by Timothy Kehr at the 28 January 1959 Winter Dance Party show

St. Paul's Prom Ballroom, MN.

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Big Bopper's wake

Somewhere along the way, someone obtained a photo of Richardson's coffin (closed) as it was displayed at his wake. The guitar flower arrangement was sent by Elvis.

8 March 2007 - "Big Bopper" exhumed.

Almost 50 years after the legendary plane crash, "The Big Bopper" once again made headlines. J.P. Richardson's body was disinterred and examined in order to disprove rumors that he survived the fatal plane crash and actually died while trying to get help. Dr. Bill Bass, forensic anthropologist at the University of Tennessee, performed the exam at the request of Richardson's son, whose mother was pregnant with him at the time of his father's death. "There was no indication of foul play," Bass stated, referring to speculation that a gun was fired on the plane, causing the crash. (A firearm that belonged to Buddy Holly was found at the crash site.) "There are fractures from head to toe. Massive fractures. . . died immediately. He didn't crawl away. He didn't walk away from the plane." Speculation existed that The Bopper might have survived the initial impact because his body was found 40 feet from the plane wreckage. (Holly and Valens were each approximately 17 feet away and the pilot was trapped inside.)

This is a great article from the Beaumont Enterprise online, detailing Richardson's exhumation. There is also an excellent slideshow detailing the exhumation, with photos of the Bopper's descendents, x-ray results and a look at The Bopper's new coffin. The slideshow is accompanied by a radio eulogy which aired within days of Richardson's death.

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Big Bopper exhumed

"The Big Bopper" is exhumed. His son, Jay Perry Richardson (left), looks on.

Interested in owning the casket that previously held the earthly remains of "The Big Bopper"? Read this article from CNN.com about the sale of The Bopper's coffin.

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Richardson's grave

J.P. Richardson's original grave, Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Funeral Home, Beaumont, Texas.

After Richardson's exhumation in March 2007 (see above),

his body was interred in a different plot (next to his widow), with room for a future graveside statue.

(No photos yet available.)

Newspaper announcing the crash

Boston Daily Record from 4 February 1959 announcing the crash.

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Surf Ballroom memorial

Monumuent erected outside the Surf Ballroom.

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Crash site memorial

Memorial created by Ken Paquette, placed at the crash site.

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Wisconsin memorial

Two-dimensional, life-size stainless steel memorial at the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The "Winter Dance Party" performed at the Riverside on 1 February 1959, before heading on to the Surf Ballroom.