February 3, 1959: The Day the Music Died

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A Brief History

On February 3, 1959, a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane crashed in Clear Lake, Iowa, a crash that would become one of the most famous plane crashes in aviation and music history.  When the light plane hit the ground in wintry weather, the lives of 3 early Rock and Roll stars were lost, an incident often referred to as “The Day the Music Died.”  On that fateful day, music fans lost Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper (aka J.P. Richardson), and the young Ritchie Valens.

Digging Deeper

The airplane involved in the tragedy was a 1947 model of the Beechcraft Bonanza, a single engine light plane that had been chartered for the flight.  Tickets were $36 apiece.  The plane carried only the pilot and the 3 musicians, all of whom were killed in the crash.  The Bonanza has been a distinctive and common civil aircraft, with its iconic “V” shaped tail surfaces instead of the usual vertical stabilizer and horizontal stabilizer arrangement.  Introduced in 1947, Beechcraft has produced over 17,000 of these propeller driven airplanes, a number that continues to grow even today.

A V-tailed Bonanza similar to N3794N, the accident aircraft.  Photograph by Bill Larkins.

Buddy Holly had been one of the first superstars of Rock and Roll, along with his band, The Crickets, although he had left the band in 1958.  His new band included Waylon Jennings, a future Country Music mega-star.  Jennings was supposed to be on the doomed flight but had given his seat to Richardson who was ailing with the flu.  Another member of Holly’s new band, Tommy Allsup, was also originally supposed to be on the same flight but gave up his seat to Ritchie Valens.

Holly was famous for hits such as “That’ll be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” while The Big Bopper had clobbered the charts with “Chantilly Lace.”  Valens, only 17 when he died, had a bright career ahead of him, having already scored with the hits “La Bamba,” “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna.”

Non-free image of deceased Mexican American recording artist and musician Ritchie Valens.

The Dwyer Flying Service flight out of Mason City Municipal Airport (Mason City, Iowa) left the airport at 12:55 AM, with light snow.  A weather report warning of more severe weather along the route was not given to the pilot.  Take off seemed to go normally, but the plane crashed only 6 miles from the airport.  All 3 singers were ejected from the plane and suffered severe head injuries, as did the pilot who was found in the wreckage.  Investigation later found the crash had been caused by the pilot not being certified to fly on instruments, but only qualified to fly using Visual Flight Rules (VFR).  The instruments in the wrecked plane were of a type unfamiliar to the pilot, probably causing him to become disoriented.

Some of the folklore about the deadly flight included the myth that the name of the plane was “American Pie,” probably because of the song by that name by Don McClean (1971).  Other trivia that probably is true is that Valens and one of Holly’s band members (Allsup) actually flipped a coin to see which one would get to take the plane ride and the loser of the coin toss would take the bus.  Another singer that could have been on board the fateful flight was Dion DiMucci, of Dion and the Belmonts, an act on tour with the other acts.  The exact accounts of why the 3 singers were the ones aboard the plane and why the other singers was not is not completely clear, as survivors accounts vary.  One thing that is true, is that the widow of Buddy Holly refused to attend his funeral and has never visited his gravesite.  She reportedly blamed herself for letting him go on tour.  Apparently, the tour arrangements were not well planned, as the route to the various cities across the Midwest created an awkward travel pattern instead of following a straight line from venue to venue.

Winter Dance Party Tour schedule, 1959.  Map by Claire Mogren.

The tragic ending of 3 bright rock and roll careers is not forgotten by fans of rock music, and the day, February 3, 1959, will forever be known as “The Day the Music Died.”  Proponents of theories about the cause of the crash such as an accidental firing of a pistol inside the plane or a mechanical failure have failed to find any physical evidence to support those theories.  Buddy Holly is remembered in the major motion picture The Buddy Holly Story (1978) and Ritchie Valens is similarly remembered in another major motion picture, La Bamba (1987).  We are unaware of any movies made about J.P. Richardson.

Questions for Students (and others):  Did you believe the plane involved in the deadly crash was named “American Pie?”  Are you a fan of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens or The Big Bopper:?  Did you know the song “American Pie” was referring to this particular airplane crash?  Have you ever seen or flown in a Beechcraft Bonanza?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Lehmer, Larry. The Day The Music Died: The Last Tour Of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, And Richie Valens. Schirmer Trade Books, 2003.

The Day The Music Died: The Last Tour Of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, And Richie Valens (Paperback)

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MacDonald, Les. The Day the Music Died: Updated. Les MacDonald, 2013.

The Day the Music Died: Updated (Kindle Edition)

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The featured image in this article, a photograph of the aviation accident known as “The Day the Music Died” that occurred on February 3, 1959, near Clear Lake, Iowa, where rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, as well as the pilot, Roger Peterson perished, was taken by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in the course of their investigation of the crash.  This image is a work of a United States Department of Transportation employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.  The photographs were originally attached with the Aircraft Accident Report – File No. 2-0001 by the Civil Aeronautics Board (September 15, 1959).  The CAB is the precursor to today’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and was a part of the Department of Transportation.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.