60 years ago today was one of the saddest in music, and American history. Three of the biggest young stars of the newly born “rock and roll” were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, only about six miles from where they took off. Jay “The Big Bopper” Richardson was 28, Buddy Holly was 22, Ritchie Valens was 17, and pilot Roger Peterson was 21. February 3, 1959 would become known simply and sadly as “The day the music died.”
Photo Credit: The Guardian
They had been performing together along with Dion and the Belmonts on what was billed as the “Winter dance party”, covering 24 midwestern cities in 24 days. Buddy Holly had grown tired of the grueling demands of traveling by bus, especially one with a faulty heater in the midst of the unforgiving midwest winter. He arranged to hire a small plane to take he and his band to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. The plane took off at 1:00 A.M. into a blinding snowstorm, and crashed only a few minutes later.
Memorial at crash site. Photo Credit: Bob Sessions
Most music fans know the tragic tale. But what about those closest to the victims that were left to pick up the pieces of their life and continue on? Here are just a few of their stories:
One of the biggest stars in country music history, Waylon Jennings began playing with Buddy Holly’s back up band a few weeks before the tour began. Holly had dismantled his original band, “The Crickets” the year before and needed backups to tour with. Jennings was 21 years old, and had been in New York City recording sessions produced by Holly. He took a train to Chicago to meet up with Holly and the others for the tour. Since Holly originally chartered the plane for him and his band, Jennings had a seat with his name on it. The Big Bopper came to him and asked if Jennings would give him the seat, because the Bopper was not feeling well. Holly’s other band member, Tommy Allsup lost his seat in a coin flip to Ritchie Valens.
Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly
Photo Credit: Red Bubble
When Jennings told Holly that he had given up his seat, Holly said “I hope that ole bus breaks down.” Jennings responded, “Well I hope that ole plane crashes.” Jennings spent the rest of his life burdened with the guilt of that flippant comment. He struggled with alcoholism and chemical dependency for the rest of his life, many believe that his guilt over the plane crash was a significant contributing factor.
““I was so afraid for many years that somebody was going to find out I said that. Somehow I blamed myself. Compounding that was the guilty feeling that I was still alive. I hadn’t contributed anything to the world at that time compared to Buddy. Why would he die and not me? It took a long time to figure that out, and it brought about some big changes in my life — the way I thought about things.” – Waylon Jennings, 1996
Waylon Jennings died of complications from diabetes in 2003.
Jay Perry Richardson
The Big Bopper’s wife, Adrienne Joy Richardson was pregnant at the time of the plane crash. On April 28, 1959 she gave birth to Jay Perry Richardson, A.K.A. “The Big Bopper Junior.” He grew up without knowing much about his dad or his accomplishments. At the age of 24, he started up his own flooring business and was originally content to stay far away from the music industry. He later had a change of heart, and in May, 1991 he opened up the “Little Bopper Nightclub” in Katy, Texas. At the opening of the club, someone heard Jay singing along to “Chantilly Lace” by his father, remarked how similar the two sounded, and suggested he begin singing to pay tribute to his father. He performed many times, including many shows at the Surf Ballroom in Iowa, the last place his father ever played.
The Big Bopper Junior performing. Photo Credit: Beaumont Enterprise
As Jay Jr. grew into adulthood, he began to hear more and more rumors that there was something more to the plane crash that killed his father. His father’s body was found forty yards from the rest of the wreckage, and there was a gun also found near the debris. Conspiracy theorists floated the idea that the pilot may have been shot, and the Big Bopper died while trying to find help. In 2007, Jay Jr. had the Big Bopper’s body exhumed to be examined. He got the chance to see his father for the first time ever, and pluck a lock of his famous flat top haircut. He also saw first hand that nearly every bone in his father’s body was broken, and there was no evidence to support anything other than his dad was killed in a plane crash. The Bopper was reburied in a new casket.
After years of health struggles, Jay Perry Richardson died in 2013 at the age of 54.
“February made me shiver with every paper I’d deliver……bad news on the doorstep I couldn’t take one more step……I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride…….. But something touched me deep inside The day the music died.”
– Don Mclean, “American Pie” 1971
Marina Elena Santiago was no stranger to tragedy when she met the young rock star named Buddy Holly. Her mother had passed away when she was just 12 years old, after which her father sent her to live with her aunt in New York City. In the summer of 1958 she was working as a receptionist at Peermusic, where Buddy Holly was recording. He was immediately smitten with her and asked her out. She was 25 years old, and had never been on a date before. Marina told him, “You’ll have to ask my aunt for permission.” Holly did ask, got permission, and picked Marina up in a limousine that night. During dinner, he asked her to marry him. She thought he was joking, but he was 100 percent serious. A week later they flew to Lubbock, Texas to meet his parents, a week after that the two were married.
Photo Credit: Star Tribune
They lived blissfully in a New York City apartment for the next six months, she became pregnant. When the tour started, Marina wanted to join but Buddy wouldn’t have it. He told her that she needed to stay home, rest, and make sure that she and the baby would stay healthy. He called her every night before going on stage. He spoke to her from the Surf Ballroom on February 2, 1959, telling her he would call when he landed later that night. The next day, she learned of the crash and her husband’s death from television reports. She soon miscarried their child. (This caused the policy change of not announcing the names of deceased until family was notified).
Buddy Holly memorial at crash site
Photo Credit: Roadside America
Marina would remarry, have three children, and divorce. She is still alive, and now a grandmother who fiercely overseas the rights to Holly’s image and music. She has had several controversial legal battles, including a lawsuit against the woman who “Peggy Sue” was written about. She still fights her own guilt about the crash saying “I should have been on that tour with them…..I never would have let him get on that plane in that weather.” When asked what she does to commemorate the anniversary of her husband’s death she responded, “I pray for him…….just like I do every night.”
“I had a girl…..Donna was her name”- Ritchie Valens
Photo Credit: Ritchievalens.com
15 year old Donna Ludwig was cruising with the top down of a white convertible with six of her friends in San Fernando, California in 1958 when her boyfriend, Ritchie Valens came across on the radio singing about her. Her friends went nuts, but she recognized the song as the same one he sang to her on the telephone a year earlier. Five months later, she would be called into the Principal’s office to be told the news of her boyfriend’s death. The press would be waiting outside when she left the school to take pictures of her.
L.A. Times February 5, 1959
Donna Ludwig met Ritchie Valens after their freshman year of high school at a party for a car club called “The Igniters”. Her date was passed out drunk, so she began talking to Valens. He played his guitar for her and sang, “We Belong Together.” They soon were meeting up between each class, spending every lunch together, and dating when they could. Ludwig had to sneak around though, as her father forbid her from dating “A Mexican.”
After Ritchie’s death.
Photo Credit: Ritchievalens.com
“Going back to school after he died was so hard. I was devastated. I cried all the time and everyone pointed their finger at me. I didn’t want a big thing made about it. It was rough.” Her father coaxed her into singing and recording two songs about Valens and his death, hoping to make money of the romance between the two. She did sing them, but never forgave her father for making her do that. She moved out the day she turned 18, and never once spoke to her father again.
Elvis Presley asked her out on a date. She later said he was nice, but all he wanted to talk about was Ritchie. She married a musician when she was 19, but that only lasted a year. She got married twice more. She became a manager of a mortgage company outside of Sacramento, California. She never told her employees that she was the Donna from the song until 1987, when she took a day off of work to go see the premier of the movie “La Bamba.” She is still alive, and has maintained a close friendship with the Valens family who she says, “Treats me as one of their own.”
“Good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye…..the day the music died”
It has been 60 years today since the crash, and nearly 50 since Don Mclean released his epic tribute to the victims of the crash and the times that followed. The story continues to resonate, and still hurts. In addition to the several in this article, there were millions of fans left despondent by the deaths of these three stars who just starting to shine. Who knows how many great songs they would have written and lives they would have touched. Just like anyone who dies to young, their potential is sadly left only to the imagination. Just like anyone else who dies too young, they left behind those who loved them to deal with the never ending waves of the ocean called grief.
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