Flashback: February 3, 1959, The Day the Music Died
February 3, 1959. A single-engine plane was to depart from Clear Lake, Iowa, en route to Fargo, North Dakota on a cold winter's night carrying a handful of the world's best musicians. The plane would never arrive.
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake as part of the Winter Dance Party Tour. Dion and the Belmonts opened the show to a packed house. The tour was to cover 24 cities in a very short period. It was to wrap up on February 15th.
The trio of Holly, Richardson, and Valens was backed by Tommy Allsup on lead guitar and a then-unknown Waylon Jennings. According to Dion DiMucci, whose hits include Runaround Sue and The Wanderer, said, "We used to play in the back of the musicians' bus - Ritchie Valens, myself, and Buddy Holly. The Big Bopper didn't join in, he sat in the front of the bus with this beer. But we would rock the back of that bus."
That bus would be a deciding factor for the pioneers of rock n' roll. The bus was always cold or breaking down - and it was often without heat. When the Winter Tour arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly made plans to fly to the next stop rather than brave the unheated 430 mile trip to Moorhead, Minnesota, by bus. He had hoped to rest and do his laundry.
While the red Beechcraft Bonanza airplane was getting ready for the flight about 10 miles away from the ballroom, visibility was limited and the ground was already covered in snow. Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, and Tommy Allsup were ready to go. But in a last-minute decision, Jennings and Allsup gave up their seats to Richardson and Valens. A decision that would carve fate in the history of music forever.
The reason Dion decided to travel by bus was when he heard his share of the flight would be $36, the exact amount of his parent's monthly mortgage. When Jennings said he'd take the bus too, Holly replied, "Well, I hope your bus freezes up!" Jennings replied in jest, "Yeah, well I hope your plane crashes!" This friendly banter would haunt Jennings until he died on February 13, 2002. Meanwhile, a few feet away, Valens told Allsup, "I'll flip you for the remaining seat." Valens wasn't feeling well and dreaded a cold bus ride that night. And with that coin toss, Allsup lost his seat - but was given a full life which came to an end in 2017.
Shortly after takeoff, something went wrong. The ground was white, the sky was white, and the snow was relentless. At 1:50 A.M. one wing hit the ground and the small aircraft cartwheeled over and over. The three brilliant pioneers of rock died along with the pilot Roger Peterson.
Allsup would later move to Fort Worth, Texas, where he started a club in 1979 called "Tommy's Heads Up Saloon" It was named for the coin toss with Valens 20 years before.
Waylon Jennings would go on to enjoy a full life and become a superstar in country music overcoming a $1,500 a day cocaine addiction.
Ritchie Valens was only 17 years old, the Big Bopper was 28, and Buddy Holly was 22.
The pre-fame spelling of his family name adorns the grave marker in Lubbock, Texas.