A flip of a coin, the flu, bad weather and an inexperienced pilot changed the face of music at 1:00 AM, fifty years ago today.
America woke up on February 3, 1959 to find that Charles Hardin Holley, Richard Steven Valenzuela and Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr. were killed in an early morning airplane accident. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) had played at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, the night before. Holly had rented a charter airplane to fly himself and his backup band to the next leg of their tour in Moorhead, MN. J.P. Richardson, suffering from the flu, took Waylon Jennings’ seat. A toss of a 50-cent piece gave Richie Valens the seat that Tommy Allsup was to have taken on the flight. This story was immortalized in Don McLean’s “American Pie” as “…the day the music died.”
The importance of Buddy Holly to the Texas music scene wouldn’t be realized for a number of years after his death. Even those musicians who grew up with and around Buddy Holly didn’t grasp his significance at the time. Lloyd Maines, the prominent Lubbock-born producer and musician, illustrated how Holly’s passing was understated.
“I didn’t really get a grasp on how much Buddy Holly, for instance, had influenced music worldwide until I started playing with Joe Ely; This was like 1973…But until I heard Joe doin’ his versions of Buddy Holly music, to tell you the truth, I had never even paid that much attention to Holly’s music. I always knew it was there but I never paid that much attention to it.” Interview of Lloyd Maines by Chris Oglesby at Cedar Creek Studios, November 21, 2000 http://www.virtualubbock.com/intLloydMaines.html (Accessed February 1, 2009).
Sam Moore of the Texas Music Journal visited Lubbock two years ago and found that the phenomenon that was Buddy Holly is still underwhelming.
I have always been fascinated in Buddy Holly. I was born in 1957, so his music has been around my entire life. I always thought he looked a little funny, with those black glasses. But I LOVED his music.
My appreciation for Buddy grew even more during a visit to Lubbock on business a couple of years ago. I took some time out from my day to look around town and see what I could find out about the music legend. I knew his songs, and I had seen The Buddy Holly Story. But I wanted to see if this could all come alive for me. Trust me, it did.
I was amazed how understated Buddy Holly is in Lubbock. And I think that’s a good thing, really. I picked up a map of sites to see that were important marks in his early career. I saw the house where he grew up. I saw the skating rink where he performed – if you saw the movie, you know how important that is. I saw the radio station that gave him his break to be broadcast during his live performances. But none of this is glitzy or flashy. Each location is, well, just there. And most of these sites project the image that make you feel like Buddy could walk around the corner any minute. It all feels very “real.”
I then went to the Buddy Holly museum. It is small, much smaller than I anticipated. But it was filled with information, memorabilia, and films about his life and times. Even though it has been two years since my visit, I still remember being impressed that everything he did musically – the impact he made on the music world, not only in his time, but for generations to come – was done in less than a two-year period. I couldn’t believe it.
Then finally, I decided to go find his grave site. It’s not easy to find. After visiting the cemetery office, I finally got some guidance and found it. The only thing that helps you realize who he really was is the guitar on the tombstone. Standing there in the quiet, looking at the grave, I found a new appreciation for “the day the music died.
In the music industry, the impact of Buddy Holly is not questioned. Though his recording and touring career lasted less than three years, his approach to rock and roll influenced a number of musicians, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Janis Joplin. The fiftieth anniversary of Holly’s passing may be as understated as the celebration of his life. There are some well written newspaper and magazine articles that mark the anniversary (see the Texas Music and Performing Songwriter articles in particular). There may even be some mention in television shows. But, the real tribute to Holly will be in the music that he inspired in countless famous and not so famous musicians.
When Don McLean penned “…the day the music died” he may have had Buddy Holly in mind, but we have to remember that two other forces in the music industry also passed away in that accident, Richie Valens (“La Bamba”, “Donna”) and J.P. Richardson (“Chantilly Lace”). One can only wonder where Texas music would be today if the three had not taken that flight. With the loss of all three artists, February 3, 1959 was truly the day the music died. But, we also have to take pause and think about how music in Texas would have changed if Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings had not given up their seats on that flight.
One door closes, another opens.