The 65th anniversary of “The Day the Music Died” and the climate performed a serious position…February third, 1959 – Watts Up With That?

Paul Dorian

A large steel structure of Wayfarer-style glasses similar to those worn by Buddy Holly can be seen at the access point to the crash site in Iowa.  The original Mexican-made heavy plastic Faiosa-framed glasses were thrown yards away from the crash site and buried in the snow only to re-appear in the spring when the snow melted along with a watch of “The Big Bopper”.   Though the glasses were handed in immediately to the Cerro Gordo County Sherriff’s office, they sat filed away for the next 21 years in a sealed manila envelope marked “rec’d April 7, 1959”. The glasses were eventually returned to Holly’s widow and can now be seen in the exhibit at the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas. Photo courtesy Roadside America.

Overview

It was a little past 1 AM on February 3rd, 1959 when American musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa along with pilot Roger Peterson.  Weather conditions were certainly contributing factors in the plane crash as there was poor visibility on that cold night with snow blowing across the runway. Hours before, Holly and his tour mates were on the eleventh night of their “Winter Dance Party” tour through the snow-covered Midwest.  It was a Monday and a school night, but 1,100 teenagers crammed into the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa for two sold out shows with the second one ending around midnight.  The event later became known as “The Day the Music Died” after singer-songwriter Don McLean referred to it as such in his 1971 song “American Pie”. 

An ambitious tour referred to as the “Winter Dance Party” included 24 stops in 24 days across the Upper Midwest during January and February of 1959.

Background/”Winter Dance Party” Tour

Buddy Holly terminated his association with his band the Crickets in November 1958 and started a tour called the “Winter Dance Party” in January of 1959 with his new band consisting of Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch.  In addition to Buddy Holly and his new band, rising stars Richie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion and the Belmonts had joined the tour as well.  The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was scheduled to hit 24 Midwestern towns in twenty-four days. The performance at Clear Lake, Iowa on Monday, February 2nd was the 11th of the 24 scheduled locations.  Travel between destinations was an issue as the venues were randomly separated in a “zig-zag” fashion and the winter weather was more or less just an after-thought in the original planning of the tour. The long journeys between venues on board the cold, uncomfortable tour buses adversely affected the performers, with cases of flu and even frostbite.

For the first part of the tour the musicians traveled together in one bus, but the buses began to break down and had to be replaced frequently.  One estimate had five separate buses required for the first eleven days of the tour and the musicians had no road crew to assist them in the loading and unloading of equipment at each stop. The weather was often a major factor in the travel problems as temperatures varied from 20 degrees (F) to as low as 36 degrees (F) below zero and there was waist-deep snow in several areas.  

By the time the Buddy Holly band arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa they were very frustrated with the ongoing bus problems and did not want to take another chance for the next tour destination in Moorhead, Minnesota – some 365 miles away.  As a result, Holly decided to charter a plane for himself and his band to fly to Fargo, North Dakota which is adjacent to Moorhead, Minnesota.  The plane was a red and white single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza and only able to carry three passengers plus the pilot, Roger Peterson who was a local boy and just 21-one years old. Peterson had agreed to the flight despite being fatigued from a 17-hour workday because he would be flying Buddy Holly.  The rest of the musicians on the tour were expected to take the bus to the next venue.

There are some disputes as to how the final arrangements were made for the flight from Clear Lake to Fargo. The most widely accepted version of events was that J.P. Richardson had contracted the flu during the tour and asked band member Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said in jest: “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded: “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes”, a humorous but ill-fated response that haunted him for the rest of his life (Source: Jennings, Waylon; Kaye, Lenny (1996). Waylon: An Autobiography. Warner Books. ISBN 978-0-446-51865-9). Valens, who once had a fear of flying, asked band member Tommy Allsup for his seat on the plane. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide (source: Everitt, Rich (2004). Falling Stars: Air Crashes That Filled Rock and Roll Heaven. Harbor House. ISBN 978-1-891799-04-4). Bob Hale, a disc jockey with Mason City’s KRIB-AM, was working the concert that night and flipped the coin in the ballroom’s side-stage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss for the seat on the flight.

Low-level relative humidity climbed noticeably across Iowa between February 2nd (left) and the 3rd (right) as southerly winds ahead of an advancing cold front intensified and pumped moisture northward from the southern US into the Upper Midwest. Map courtesy NOAA/NCAR reanalysis

Weather conditions

A cold front was moving quickly from the Rockies into the Plains on Monday, February 2nd and an area of high pressure that had been over the Plains for several days prior left plenty of cold air over the region.  On the back side of the departing high pressure and ahead of the advancing cold front, southerly winds were on the increase across Iowa and Minnesota and these winds were pumping more humid air into the region.  In addition, the bitter cold was beginning to ease in the region; however, it was still plenty cold enough for snow to form in the increasingly humid air.  Temperatures on the evening of the 2nd were in the teens and 20s as far south as Texas and numerous bands of heavy snow formed late in the evening from southern Minnesota to northern Texas.

Temperatures climbed across Iowa between February 2nd (left) and the 3rd (right) as southerly winds ahead of an advancing cold front pumped in milder air; however, it was still well below freezing and plenty cold enough for snow to form in the increasingly humid air mass; Map courtesy NOAA/NCAR reanalysis

Although deteriorating weather was reported along the planned route, the weather briefings that pilot Roger Peterson received failed to relay the information. Specifically, he was never told of two weather advisories that warned of an incoming snowstorm.  One flash report that failed to reach the pilot came from Minneapolis, Minnesota and warned of areas of snow with visibilities less than 2 miles, which would be marginal Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions. A second report came from Kansas City, Missouri and warned of freezing drizzle and icing over much of Iowa. Peterson had over four years of flying experience; however, he was not qualified to operate in weather that required flying solely by reference to instruments. He and the Dwyer Flying Service that was used for the plane that night were certified to operate only under visual flight rules, which required the pilot to be able to see where he is going. However, on the night of the accident, visibility was very poor with low clouds, light snow falling and blowing snow on the runway, and there were no ground lights. 

The plane took off around 1AM on Tuesday, February 3rd from the Mason City Municipal Airport in northern Iowa with a planned destination of Fargo, North Dakota. Map courtesy Google

The take-off and crash

The weather conditions at the time of departure from the Mason City Municipal Airport in Iowa were reported as poor visibility due to light snow/blowing snow and winds from 20 to 30 mph. The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today’s runway 18) at 12:55 AM (CT) on Tuesday, February 3rd. The owner of the flying service, Hubert Dwyer, witnessed the take-off from a platform outside the control tower. He was able to see clearly the aircraft’s tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 feet. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view. Around 1:00 AM, when Peterson failed to make the expected radio contact, repeated attempts to establish communication were made, at Dwyer’s request, by the radio operator, but they were all unsuccessful (source Wikipedia).

Low-level winds intensified across Iowa between February 2nd (left) and the 3rd (right) as high pressure departed to the east and a cold front approached from the west. Map courtesy NOAA/NCAR reanalysis

Later that morning, Dwyer, having heard no word from pilot Peterson since his departure, took off in another airplane to retrace his planned route. Within minutes, at around 9:35 AM, he spotted the wreckage less than 8 miles northwest of the airport (Source: Durfee, James R.; Gurney, Chan; Denny, Harmar D.; Minetti, G. Joseph; Hector, Louis J. (September 23, 1959). Aircraft Accident Report (PDF) (Report). Civil Aeronautics Board. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 26, 2009. Retrieved February 4, 2009.). The sheriff’s office, alerted by Dwyer, dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl. No one is quite sure as to what went wrong, but the best guess is that snow quickly picked up in intensity after departure, the plane took a nosedive at over 170 mph and flipped over on itself on the ground with no survivors. The snow had continued through that night and 7 inches of snow was recorded near the crash site by the next morning.

The wreckage of the plane crash discovered the next morning was scattered across nearly 300 yards in an Iowa cornfield just miles away from the airport.

Aftermath

Holly’s pregnant wife, María Elena, learned of his death via a television news report. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage the following day, reportedly due to “psychological trauma”. Holly’s mother, on hearing the news on the radio at home in Lubbock, Texas, screamed and collapsed.  In the months following the crash, authorities would adopt a policy against releasing victims’ names until after the families had been notified.

Despite the tragedy, the “Winter Dance Party” tour did not stop. Fifteen year old Bobby Vee was given the task of filling in for Holly at the next scheduled performance in Moorhead, Minnesota in part because he “knew all the words to all the songs” (Source: “Bobby Vee Biography”. bobbyvee.net. Paragraph 3. Retrieved February 3, 2019). Jennings and Allsup carried on for two more weeks, with Jennings taking Holly’s place as lead singer (Source: Carr, Joseph; Munde, Alan (1997). Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas. Texas Tech University Press. ISBN 978-0-89672-365-8). Other teen sensations were added to the tour including 18-year-old Frankie Avalon. 

Meanwhile, funerals for the victims were held individually. Holly and Richardson were buried in Texas, Valens in California, and Peterson in Iowa.  Holly’s widow, María Elena, did not attend the funeral and has reportedly never visited his gravesite. She later said in an interview: “In a way, I blame myself. I was not feeling well when he left. I was two weeks pregnant, and I wanted Buddy to stay with me, but he had scheduled that tour. It was the only time I wasn’t with him. And I blame myself because I know that, if only I had gone along, Buddy never would have gotten into that airplane” (Source: Kerns, William (August 15, 2008). “Buddy and Maria Elena Holly married 50 years ago”. Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Archived from the original on March 23, 2016. Retrieved April 29, 2015).

Final Notes

Charles Hardin Holley, known professionally as Buddy Holly, was 22 years old when he died in the plane crash and was a main pioneer of rock and roll in the 1950’s despite a career which lasted just a year and a half.  Along with his band The Crickets, he had many hits including ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Everyday’. Despite the short career, Holly’s influence on early rock ‘n’ roll was almost unmatched.  He was barely out of high school when he opened for Elvis Presley in 1955 and influenced such big artists as The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Additionally, the first Rolling Stones single released in the U.S. was cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’.  Buddy Holly was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Jiles Perry “J.P.” Richardson who became better known as “The Big Bopper” was notorious for his “rockabilly” style.  His 1958 song ‘Chantilly Lace’ went to number six on the pop charts and he wrote the song called ‘White Lightning” recorded by singer George Jones and it climbed to number one on the country charts in early 1959. He was 28 years old at the time of the crash. In 2007, the body of Richardson was exhumed for reburial in a different part of the cemetery.  This was due to the State of Texas Historical Sign being awarded to the “The Big Bopper”, and a bronze statue would subsequently be erected at his grave. The Forest Lawn cemetery (Beaumont, TX) did not allow above-ground monuments at that specific site; therefore, his body was to be moved to another area that was better suited. Richardson’s son, Jay Perry, took this opportunity to have his father’s body re-examined to verify the original coroner’s findings.  There were rumors surrounding the accident that there had been an accidental gunshot on board the aircraft, causing the crash, after a farmer discovered a .22 caliber pistol at the crash site which allegedly belonged to Buddy Holly.  Another rumor claimed Richardson survived the initial impact of the crash, and crawled out in search for help, as his body was found a greater distance from the wreckage. Several X-rays of Richardson’s body concluded that the musician died instantly, no traces of lead were found from any bullet, nor any indication that any shot was fired.

Richard Steven Valenzuela, known professionally as Ritchie Valens, was a Mexican American singer and guitarist and despite a very short career of only eight months had several big hits including ‘Donna’ and most notably “La Bamba’ which he had adapted from a Mexican folk song. Valens was just 17 years old when he died on that fateful February 3rd of 1959 and was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

The song “American Pie” written by American singer and songwriter Don McLean was released on the “American” Pie album in 1971.  It reached number one on the charts in the US during 1972 and stayed there at number one for four weeks.  Ultimately, it would be listed as the number 5 song on the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)’s “Song of the Century” project. In 2017, McLean’s original recording was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant”. The repeatedly mentioned phrase “the day the music died” refers to the plane crash on February 3rd, 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, “The Big Bopper”, Ritchie Valens and pilot Roger Peterson. The crash was not known by that name until after McLean’s song became a hit, but, from here on out, February 3rd, 1959 will be remembered as “The Day the Music Died”. 

Video (courtesy YouTube) of “American Pie” by Don McLean (with lyrics).

Meteorologist Paul Dorian
Arcfield
arcfieldweather.com

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