On this day in 1959, rising American rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson are killed when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashes in Iowa a few minutes after takeoff from Mason City on a flight headed for Moorehead, Minnesota. Investigators blamed the crash on bad weather and pilot error. Holly and his band, the Crickets, had just scored a No. 1 hit with “That’ll Be the Day.”
After mechanical difficulties with the tour bus, Holly had chartered a plane for his band to fly between stops on the Winter Dance Party Tour. However, Richardson, who had the flu, convinced Holly’s band member Waylon Jennings to give up his seat, and Ritchie Valens won a coin toss for another seat on the plane.
Holly, born Charles Holley in Lubbock, Texas, and just 22 when he died, began singing country music with high school friends before switching to rock and roll after opening for various performers, including Elvis Presley. By the mid-1950s, Holly and his band had a regular radio show and toured internationally, playing hits like “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!,” “Maybe Baby” and “Early in the Morning.” Holly wrote all his own songs, many of which were released after his death and influenced such artists as Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.
Another crash victim, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, started out as a disk jockey in Texas and later began writing songs. Richardson’s most famous recording was the rockabilly “Chantilly Lace,” which made the Top 10. He developed a stage show based on his radio persona, “The Big Bopper.”
The third crash victim was Ritchie Valens, born Richard Valenzuela in a suburb of Los Angeles, who was only 17 when the plane went down but had already scored hits with “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna” and “La Bamba,” an upbeat number based on a traditional Mexican wedding song (though Valens barely spoke Spanish). In 1987, Valens’ life was portrayed in the movie La Bamba, and the title song, performed by Los Lobos, became a No. 1 hit. Valens was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
Singer Don McLean memorialized Holly, Valens and Richardson in the 1972 No. 1 hit “American Pie,” which refers to February 3, 1959 as “the day the music died.”