4 Weird Facts About The Day The Music Died
Not to alarm any olds in the audience, but there's a good chance you aren't capable of remembering February 3, 1959, when a plane crash killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, A.K.A. the Day the Music Died. You might not even know who any of those guys are. (If so, we will wait while you head over to your preferred music streaming service and "Not Fade Away" melts your socks off.) But even if you can't muster a single hoot to give about the early days of rock and roll, the circumstances surrounding the tragedy make it one of the eeriest days in music history and possibly any history.
Holly Chartered The Plane Because He Was Sick Of Stinking
The tour the musicians were playing together, the deceptively carefree-sounding Winter Dance Party Tour, was seemingly cursed before it even started. Buddy Holly, fresh off a string of hits, shouldn't have needed to be on tour at all. He had a brand-new pregnant wife, so he would have presumably rather been at home, but the breakup of his band left him drowning in legal bills and their manager made off with a bunch of the money that he needed to pay them. Basically, he was broke, and he was determined to set up his growing family in New York City. Have you ever tried moving a pregnant woman? Even UPS won't ship them.
Touring was the only way to raise the cash, so Holly signed up for what proved to be a more-literal-than-usual shitshow. The schedule was relentless, with a performance every day somewhere along the bonkers path someone had drunkenly scrawled across the Midwest and no cushion for mishaps, which was desperately needed because their janky bus kept breaking down. There was barely time to sleep, let alone any of the other activities necessary to feeling human, and the last straw for Holly was the laundry situation.
He hadn't worn clean clothes for days, so on February 2 (just a few days after a teenage Bob Dylan watched him play), he decided no amount of money was worth putting up with dirty panties and hired a private plane to fly him and a few others early to their next gig to get some laundry done and hopefully some goddamn sleep. The whole tour's dirty clothes were stuffed into the plane's back seat.
Everyone Onboard Was There By Chance
The plane Holly chartered only had two extra seats, and not being clairvoyant, everyone on tour was vying to get one. He first offered a seat to Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts, but at $36 in 1959 money, DiMucci decided he couldn't justify spending as much as his parents' entire rent on a plane ticket. (To be clear, that's still only about $350 today, so we're still getting stiffed here in the future.)
He then offered the seats to his backing musicians, Tommy Allsup and a then-unknown Waylon Jennings, probably best known to you for appearing briefly in Walk the Line. Both enthusiastically accepted, but Jennings changed his mind at the last minute and offered his seat to J.P. Richardson, A.K.A. the Big Bopper, who happened to have come down with the flu and might not have survived another day on the frigid tour bus anyway, '50s medicine being what it was. Holly was apparently put out by the gesture, pouting at Jennings, "I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings hit back, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes," and felt suuuuuuper shitty about it for the rest of his life.
Allsup, on the other hand, wasn't giving up so easily, despite 17-year-old Ritchie Valens's pleas. The "La Bamba" singer had been hounding Allsup all night to give him his seat until Allsup finally relented to a coin toss, which Valens won. It was pretty surprising that Valens wanted the seat at all, having been plagued by nightmares ever since two planes collided over his schoolyard two years earlier, but he'd hoped to use the opportunity to get over his fear of flying. In a way, it worked. He's definitely not afraid anymore.
It Changed The Way Families Are Notified About Deaths
It's not totally clear why the plane went down, but probably what happened was the young pilot, who was only certified to fly in conditions where he could see where he was going, lost his bearings in a blizzard he wasn't warned about and unwittingly flew into the ground. Everyone onboard died instantly, though there was some conjecture that Richardson had survived the initial crash and succumbed to his injuries while he tried to crawl to safety and even that he had a gun on him that caused the crash when it accidentally fired. His son actually had his body reexamined in 2007, but the official story held up.
These days, we would have woken up to thousands of "RIP to some real ones #thatllbethedaythattheydied" tweets, but things moved slower in 1959. No one could even reach the crash site for hours because of the snow. Once people did reach the site, the other musicians on tour were called in to identify the victims. At that point, authorities apparently took a Paul Revere approach to the juicy goss because Holly's family had no idea anything was wrong until his death was announced on the news.
His mother fainted, and his wife miscarried soon after, which was blamed on the "psychological trauma" of finding out about her husband's death while idly watching TV and playing IRL solitaire or whatever people did in the '50s. The incident was actually responsible for authorities adopting specific protocols for notifying family members of their loved ones' deaths before the media. To be fair, long distance phone calls cost as much as rent back then.
Holly's Glasses Went Missing For Decades
Buddy Holly's thick black-framed glasses were his signature style, prompting countless Weezer listeners to sing about looking just like him. As such, it was thought to be pretty weird that they weren't found on the crash site. It turned out they were flung far from the plane and promptly buried by the blizzard, to be found months later after the snow melted and turned in to the authorities, who turned them over to the coroner, who placed them in an envelope marked "Charles Hardin Holley, rec'd April 7, 1959" and promptly forgot about them. This was presumably the same coroner who took their $11.65 fee out of the cash Holly had on him when he died, so they were kind of a dick.
Holly's family assumed his glasses were gone for good until 1980, when they were found during a routine cleanout of the storage vault in a courthouse basement, alongside some dice, a lighter, and two watches, one of which was engraved with Richardson's name. The only problem at that point was which family to return them to. Holly's widow and parents both wanted them, and it took a whole year of legal battles for a judge to rule in the former Mrs. Holly's favor. They can now be seen at the Buddy Holly Center in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, but arguably more impressive is the giant replica sitting on pillars that marks the access point to the crash site.
Top image: GravityIsForSuckers, Bill Larkins/Wiki Commons