The Death of Three Music Legends: What Really Happened on the Day the Music Died?

The Death of Three Music Legends: What Really Happened on the Day the Music Died?

Patrick Lynch - January 16, 2018

On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson), and Ritchie Valens, all perished when their plane crashed near Clear Lake in the state of Iowa. The pilot, Roger Peterson, also died. The event shattered the Rock n’ Roll community as three of its brightest stars were extinguished in a single moment. Buddy Holly, in particular, was considered one of the most talented singer/songwriters of his generation. The tragedy became known as ‘The Day the Music Died’ after Don McLean mentioned it in his hit song American Pie in 1971.

It was very much an avoidable tragedy as Holly decided to charter a plane which subsequently took off in poor, wintry conditions. It is also a tale of near misses with several musicians either opting to give up their seat or, in the case of Ritchie Valens, ‘winning’ it in a coin toss. While it appeared to be a simple tragedy at the time, a range of theories have arisen, and while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) received a request to reopen the case in March 2015, it rejected it seven months later.

The Death of Three Music Legends: What Really Happened on the Day the Music Died?
Buddy Holly – Rolling Stone

Countdown to Tragedy

By 1958, Buddy Holly was one of the biggest stars in America as he had several hit singles with The Crickets. However, he broke up the band in November of that year and assembled a new group which contained Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings, Frankie Sardo, and Carl Bunch. The new band embarked on a 24-date tour known as the Winter Dance Party. J. P. Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and Dion DiMucci and The Belmonts joined them.

The tour began in Wisconsin on January 23, 1959, but soon ran into logistical problems due to the enormous amount of travel. It was appallingly planned from the outset as the musicians were forced to zigzag around the Mid-Western region instead of a smoother and shorter set of journeys. In some cases, the groups had to travel 400 miles from one city to the next, a major issue in 1959 when commercial air travel was still in its relative infancy.

The Death of Three Music Legends: What Really Happened on the Day the Music Died?
Ritchie Valens – LA Weekly

To make matters worse, the musicians were given poor quality buses to travel in which frequently broke down. In the first 11 days of the tour, the bands went through five buses, and they had no road crew, so they were forced to load and unload all their equipment. Add in the exceedingly low temperatures (as low as -36 Fahrenheit), and it was a recipe for disaster. Several musicians, including Valens and Richardson, started experiencing flu-like symptoms.

By February 2, when the tour arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly decided he had enough. The venue was not originally part of the tour but its promoter offered the show to Carroll Anderson, manager of the Surf Ballroom and he accepted. The tour was set to drive 365 miles to Moorhead, Minnesota the following day and 325 miles to Sioux City, Iowa the day after that. Holly realized that the only way to bypass these ridiculous journeys was to charter a plane to Fargo in North Dakota. It was a decision that cost him, and three other men, their lives.

The Death of Three Music Legends: What Really Happened on the Day the Music Died?
J. P. Richardson aka The Big Bopper –

Narrow Escapes

Although Holly was guaranteed a seat on the plane, there were two further seats which were essentially up for grabs. Richardson felt too ill to embark on yet another hellacious bus journey and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat. Jennings agreed, and when Holly discovered his new band mate wasn’t flying with him, he quipped: “Well, I hope your ‘ol bus freezes up.” Jennings played along with the joke with a response that haunted him until the end of his days. He replied: “Well, I hope your ‘ol plane crashes.”

Tommy Allsup and Ritchie Valens tossed a coin to decide who would get the last seat. Valens won and said it was the first time he had ever won anything in his life. However, Dion DiMucci claimed that Holly offered him the seat. He said that Valens had fallen ill and DiMucci flipped a coin for the seat. DiMucci even said that he had ‘won’ the toss only to pull out of the flight because he couldn’t justify paying $36, the equivalent of the monthly rent his parents paid on their apartment when he was growing up, on an indulgence.

The Death of Three Music Legends: What Really Happened on the Day the Music Died?
The Day the Music Died – WNC Music Academy

The Crash That Shocked America

Anderson contacted the owner of Dwyer Flying Service, Hubert Jerry Dwyer, and asked for a plane to fly to Hector Airport in Fargo. 21-year old Roger Peterson was chosen as the pilot, and he flew a 1947 single-engine V-tailed Beechcraft Bonanza which allowed for three passengers and the pilot. Once the groups had finished playing their Clear Lake show, Anderson drove Holly, Valens, and Richardson to Mason City Municipal Airport.

The plane took off at 12:55 am in difficult and snowy conditions, and the event was witnessed by Dwyer. However, he was alarmed when Peterson did not make the expected radio contact five minutes later. The worried Dwyer asked the radio operator to try to communicate with the plane, but he was unsuccessful. In the morning, Dwyer decided to take off in another airplane to try and find out what had happened.

Within minutes, he saw the wreckage which was less than 10 kilometers from the airport. He alerted the local sheriff’s office who sent Deputy Bill McGill to the scene. He encountered a grisly sight as the bodies of Valens and Holly were found near the wreckage; they had been thrown from the torn fuselage. Richardson’s body had been tossed from the plane and was found in a nearby cornfield while Peterson was found within the wreckage.

Investigators of the crash believe the plane hit terrain at around 270 kilometers and its right wing tip was the first thing to hit the ground. The impact caused the plane to cartwheel some 160 meters across the field before it ended up at a wire fence on the edge of the property of Albert Juhl. Anderson had to identify the four bodies and Ralph Smiley, the County Coroner, said that all four men died immediately. While Peterson died from brain damage, the three passengers suffered gross trauma to the brain. Although it seemed as if the crash was simply down to pilot error, one aviation expert stepped forward and claimed there is more to the crash than meets the eye.

The Death of Three Music Legends: What Really Happened on the Day the Music Died?
The scene at the crash – Historic Wings

The Official Verdict

The tragedy ultimately claimed one more victim. Holly’s pregnant widow, Maria Elena, only found out about her husband’s death after watching the news. The level of psychological trauma she suffered resulted in a miscarriage. She did not attend the funeral nor has she ever visited his graveside. The musician’s mother screamed and collapsed when she heard the news. Despite the crash, the Winter Dance Party continued for another two weeks.

The Civil Aeronautics Division (CAD) conducted the official investigation and discovered that Peterson had four years of experience as a pilot. While he had logged over 700 hours of flight experience, he was not qualified to fly in the kind of weather where he was forced to rely on instruments alone as he only had 52 hours of instrument flying training. Both Dwyer Flying Service and Peterson were only qualified to fly under visual flight rules which state the pilot must be able to see where he is flying. The CAD concluded that the crash occurred due to Peterson’s “unwise decision to embark on a flight.” However, a fellow pilot believed Peterson got a raw deal and demanded that the case was reopened.

The Death of Three Music Legends: What Really Happened on the Day the Music Died?
Memorial Near the Crash Site – Wikipedia

Other Theories

One of the wildest theories was that the pilot’s seat had a bullet hole in it and a gun was recovered with two empty chambers. In 2007, The Big Bopper’s body was exhumed ahead of reburial at Forest Lawn cemetery. The gun rumor suggests that Holly brought his pistol on board and caused an accidental firearm discharge a couple of minutes after the plane took off. Two months after the accident, a farmer claimed to have found Holly’s pistol on his farm near the scene of the crash. However, the exhumation of Richardson found no traces of lead from a bullet.

In March 2015, retired pilot L. J. Coon asked the NTSB to reopen the case because he believed the original investigation was flawed. According to Coon, the crash was possibly caused by a problem with the fuel system or failure of the right rudder. After all, no fuel was found at the scene, and the crash happened just four minutes into the flight. The ex-pilot also suggested that Peterson had attempted to land the plane once he realized there was a problem and that he deserved praise rather than criticism.

Another possible issue, according to Coon, was improper weight distribution on the small craft. Peterson and Holly were seated up front while the heavier Richardson and Valens sat at the back. In November 2015, despite Coon’s protestations, the NTSB announced that it would not re-investigate the case. While the NTSB’s decision means there will be no further investigation, it won’t stop the general public from speculating on the reasons for the crash on the Day the Music Died.