The Tragedy and Triumph of Buddy Holly and The Day the Music Died

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The Tragedy and Triumph of Buddy Holly and The Day the Music Died

For a Hip Grandma, I sure didn’t know much about Buddy Holly before my trip to Clear Lake, Iowa.  Now that I know a few things, I am not sure I even deserved the“Hi” title before my trip.  But, hey, we all must learn, and this was my time!  So now I will share with you all my new knowledge surrounding Buddy Holly’s life and tragic death on the day the music died.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard his songs over the years and have maybe even sung along.  Who hasn’t heard “Peggy Sue” or “That’ll Be the Day?”  I just never really knew much about these tunes or their singer until I had an opportunity to learn on my recent trip to Clear Lake, Iowa, and the Surf Ballroom.  I did a little research before my trip and learned a lot more when there.  Here is a bit of my new knowledge.

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A Star is Born

Buddy Holly was born Charles Hardin Holley on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas.  His mother gave him the nickname “Buddy” as a small child, which stuck into his adulthood.  The spelling of his last name was incorrect on his first record contract with Decca Records, and that, too, stuck.  So little Charles Holley became our beloved Buddy Holly.

Buddy had a normal childhood in a musical family and always showed an interest in music.  He played fiddle and piano young.  Eventually, Buddy picked up the guitar, and with help from his brothers, he learned to play that, too!  After graduating high school, he formed a band and found local fame by playing his country tunes on a local radio program.

Songwriter Bob Montgomery helped co-write some of those early tunes.  You may remember “Down the Line?”  But once Buddy was introduced to the music of Elvis, his short life took a turn for the famous!

In 1955, he opened for his idol, Elvis Presley, and quickly switched gears from Country music to Rock-n-Roll.  His first mainstream hit was “That’ll Be the Day,” released in 1956 and recorded with his band, the Crickets, including Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin.  Buddy Holly and the Crickets made their way to the top of the charts with seven top 40 singles.  They even played more than once on the top TV show of its day, The Ed Sullivan Show!

A display in the Surf Ballroom showing Buddy Holly's photo and a letter from Buddy home to family

Explore Music History at the Surf Ballroom and Museum in Clear Lake IA

A New Tour

In 1958, Buddy Holly and the Crickets parted ways over differences in musical vision and different levels of ambition.  Buddy met and married Maria Elena Santiago after proposing on their first date.  Talk about moving fast!

After his split with the Crickets, Buddy found himself a little less than financially secure.  He decided to take the opportunity to tour with a couple of other up-and-comers in the music scene.  One of these rising stars was Ritchie Valens, known for his rock-n-roll hit LaBamba, adapted from a traditional Mexican folk song.  The other tour member would be J.P. Richardson, also known as “The Big Bopper,” and was already known as a talented DJ but was finding his way to becoming a recording star after his first big hit, “Chantilly Lace.”

Frostbite and a Chartered Plane

In the winter of 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and all of their collective bandmates set out on the Winter Dance Party tour and began making their way around the upper Midwest in freezing winter temps.

The mode of transportation was anything but glorious.  The guys traveled in a refurbished school bus; to say the least, conditions were rough.  The bus had broken down two times by the time they arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa, and things got even worse when the onboard heater broke down.  Holly’s drummer, Tommy Allsup, had been hospitalized with frostbitten toes, and Buddy had had enough.  He chartered a plane to take him and his remaining two bandmates to their next stop. 

After the add-on performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2, 1959, Headliner Buddy Holly chose to use some of his meager earnings to charter a plane to the next tour stop in Moorhead, Minnesota.  The price of the charter was a whopping $108 and would fit three passengers along with the pilot.

Memorabilia and tributes to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper along the wall of the Surf Ballroom

Tragedy at the Surf Ballroom

After discussing who would take seats on the flight and a fateful coin flip between band member Tommy Allsup and Ritchie Valens, the group settled on Buddy, Ritchie, and JP to take the flight.  Each coughed up $36 for the privilege, which was a pretty hefty sum in those days.  The final exchange between bass guitarist Waylon Jennings and Valens would live to haunt Jennings in the years to come.  Valens said goodbye with, “I hope your ass freezes on the bus!” to which Jennings replied, “Yeah, well, I hope your old plane crashes.”

His words were prophetic as the plane did precisely that.  The 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza departed the Mason City Municipal Airport later that night.  Just minutes later, the plane crashed into a cornfield a short 6 miles northwest of the airport.  The plane is said to have been traveling at 170 miles per hour at the time of the crash.  All three musicians and pilot Roger Peterson died instantly in the crash.  The cause of the plane crash was attributed to pilot inexperience and poor weather. 

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America Mourns

By morning, the news of the plane crash and the men’s deaths shook the country.  Images of the horrific scene were scattered across newspapers everywhere while America came to terms with this terrible loss.  Buddy Holly was 22, Ritchie Valens was 17, The Big Bopper was 28, and pilot Roger Peterson was 21.  What a tragedy for all these young men and America, who will never forget these four men.

Their music significantly impacted the popular music we listen to today.  Not only because of the hits these young men had in life but also in songs and remembrances from those who loved them while they were with us.

Arguably, the most famous tribute is the song American Pie, written and performed by Don McLean in 1971, who sings of “the day the music died.”  On the Green Room wall at the Surf Ballroom, Mr. McLean has hand-written his lyrics in memory of Buddy Holly.  If you have an opportunity to check out the Surf Ballroom, take it!  The visit will be worth your time, I promise! 

A closeup shot of the words of American Pie written on the wall in the Green Room at Surf Ballroom by Don McLean

The Music of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper

Find these songs on your favorite streaming service:

Buddy Holly’s Hits:

  • That’ll Be the Day
  • Peggy Sue
  • hat’ll Be the Day
  • Peggy Sue
  • Maybe Baby
  • Words of Love
  • True Love Ways
  • It’s So Easy
  • Oh boy!

Ritchie Valens Hits:

  • LaBamba
  • Come on, Let’s Go

The Big Bopper Hits:

  • Chantilly Lace
  • Running Bear

Tribute Songs

  • American Pie by Don McLean
  • Old Friend by Waylon Jennings

A Look at the Crash Site

I was glad I did my homework before visiting Clear Lake because the memory of Buddy Holly is very much alive in the Surf Ballroom and all over town.  The most poignant remembrance of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, and Roger Peterson is the well-maintained crash site just 7 miles away from their last performance.

The trailhead is marked by a giant pair of Buddy Holly’s iconic, black-rimmed glasses, while the site lies about ½ mile hike through an open cornfield.  When you arrive at the site, you’ll find a small shrinelike area with three stainless steel records, a guitar, and a pair of flight wings with the names of all four victims.

pull back image of the giant Buddy Holly glasses at the trailhead

A local gentleman owns the property on which the trailhead, path to the crash site, and the shrine are located.  He maintains them and generously allows visitors on his property for viewing and remembrance.  He is a member of the Board of Governors for the Surf Ballroom and holds the Buddy Holly story close to his heart.  One can feel his attention and care for this piece of history in the freshly mowed path from the road to the site and the tidiness of the site itself.

Once you make the trek to the actual crash site, you are at the perfect place to stop and have a moment of remembrance for these young men.  As a mom of four boys in these age ranges, I cannot help but imagine how their parents must have taken this news.  Famous or not, your child is still your child, and this is a loss that no parent should have to endure.

Shrines at the Buddy Holly crash site with steel guitar and 3 records with victims names
A tall pole in the middle of a cornfield with graffiti writing on it - at the Buddy Holly Crash Site

The Three Stars Plaza

Clear Lake has recently created another area to honor the musical legacy of the three men killed on that fateful winter night.  Just a half-block from the Surf Ballroom, cornering 7th and North Shore, sits the Three Stars Plaza.  This original artwork is in the form of a giant stack of 3 records, set on an oversized record player spindle.

Street signs showing Corner of 7th and N Shore Dr

At night you’ll find this 15-foot work of art lit in neon blue.  I was told by a local that it’s not uncommon to see people dancing in the small courtyard surrounding the giant statue.  What a perfect way to remember the influence of these men on early rock and roll music.

VIDEO HERE

Clear Lake has made it easy with an impressive sound system that allows visitors to push a button and hear a snippet of each musician’s story, along with a cut of one of his famous musical tracks.  This beautiful area sits on a lot that used to house a gas station.  What a lovely improvement to the neighborhood

The 3 star plaza showing the patio beneath

The Inspiration Lives On

In the year since Buddy Holly’s death, many musical artists we know and love today have carried on in the musical inspiration that began with Holly in those early years.  Consider Bob Dylan, who attributed his success to the inspiration of Buddy Holly.  He says, “[Buddy Holly] was the archetype.  Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be.  I saw him only once, and that was a few days before he was gone.  I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.”

It seems even the Beatles were inspired.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon have spoken of Buddy’s influence on their music.  McCarney once said, “I still like Buddy’s vocal style.  And his writing.  One of the main things about The Beatles is that we started out writing our own material.  People these days take it for granted that you do, but nobody used to then.  John and I started to write because of Buddy Holly.  It was like, ‘Wow!  He writes and is a musician’.”

This one might surprise you.  Elton John was a big fan of Buddy Holly and attributed HIS iconic glasses to Buddy Holly.  In the 1979 book The Buddy Holly Story written by John Goldrosen, Elton says, “I began wearing glasses when I was 13 to copy Buddy Holly.  After 18 months, I found I couldn’t see without them.  If any young fans are thinking of copying me, I’d advise them to forget it!”

Even the Rolling Stones got a piece of the inspiration when they recorded their third single, a cover of “Not Fade Away,” written by the one and only Buddy Holly.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, recognized The Surf Ballroom as a Historic Landmark in 2021 for its role in our musical history as the last concert venue for Holly, Valens, and Richardson.

The Buddy Holly Legacy, Courtesy of Maria Elena Santiago-Holly

One last sad detail of the Buddy Holly tragedy is that when his young wife Maria, who was expecting their first child together, heard about the crash on the news the following morning rather than in person, she miscarried.  Because of this tragedy, authorities across the country have since adopted a new policy.  They will not disclose victims’ names publicly until they have notified the family.

Also, in 1987, Maria Elena Holly was instrumental in enacting the Buddy Holly Bill, which helps protect the families of celebrities who have died from being exploited.  This bill protects against unauthorized use of a person’s name or likeness for commercial purposes.

Finally, in 2010, Ms. Holly co-founded the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation, which provides musical education to today’s kids with no regard to race, income, or educational limitations.  This foundation’s mission is to keep Buddy Holly’s name alive through these services.

Wrapping It All Up

From the Surf Ballroom to the crash site, the Buddy Holly Story (the film starring Gary Busey), to his influence on today’s music, Buddy Holly’s legacy is genuine and very important.  I’m sure glad I got the opportunity to learn about this inspirational young man.

And for those who would question their importance, consider that Buddy Holly was only 22, Ritchie Valens only 17, and The Big Bopper only 28 when they all died.  But can you imagine where the music business would be today without them?  Never question the importance of your impact on those around you.  And when you do, think of our young friends.

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PIN image for Buddy Holly post showing the shrine at the crash site

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