February 3, 1959: The Day the Music Died


On February 3rd, 1959, musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were killed when their airplane crashed in Iowa a few hours after taking off. The crash was blamed on bad weather and pilot error.

After many mechanical issues with their tour bus, (or rather, an old school bus) Holly got a plane for him and his band to fly between stops on their Midwest tour. Though there is some controversy as to how Valens and Richardson, their own separate acts, ended up on the plane rather instead of Holly's bandmates, they were the 3 who ended up on the flight.

Their deaths were memorialized largely through Don McLean's hit stong "American Pie", in which he refers to February 3, 1959 as the day the music died.


To kick off their Winter Dance Party Tour, Buddy Holly assembled a band consisting of Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch and Frankie Sardo. The tour was going to go through 24 cities in 24 days throughout the midwest.

Also along for the ride was hit new artist Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, and the band Dion and the Belmonts, who were performing their own separate acts for publicity and profits on the tour.

The tour began in Milwaukee, and travel became an issue quickly. During planning, the distance between the cities wasn't really accounted for, and instead of making a circle around the Midwest, minimizing travel time and maximizing efficiency, they were zig-zagging between cities, with over 400 miles between sometimes.

The organization that booked the tour took a lot of criticism. Buddy Holly historian Bill Griggs said of the order of the cities, "It was like they threw darts at a map," and said that it was "the tour from hell".

They traveled between cities in "reconditioned school buses, not good enough for school kids", said Griggs. They also kept breaking down, and it is estimated that they went through 5 different buses in the first 11 days of the trip, each just as sub-par as the last.

The artists had to load and unload the bus by themselves for each show, leaving them out in the cold Midwest January for long periods of time. And, the buses weren't equipped to handle the weather, and the heating system inside broke down.

Quickly, people began to feel the affects of the weather. Valens and Richardson came down with flu-like symptoms, and Brunch was hospitalized for frostbite, requiring another band member to pick up playing the drums each night.

On February 2, they arrived at Clear Lake, Iowa having driven 350 miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin. And, because of the worst planning of all time, their next show was 365 miles away and they'd drive through 2 cities they had played in the next week. And then they had another 325 trip after that one.

And so, to avoid the misery of another bus trip, Holly decided to charter a plane.


Flight arrangements were made with Dwyer Flying Service, and they were told that Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old pilot who built his entire life around flying would be taking them. (2)

It would be $36 per passenger and there were only 3 seats on the airplane. (The airplane was not called American Pie, despite what some people think.) (2)

The most widely accepted version of events is that Richardson, who had the flu and (imaginably) didn't want to get worse by riding in a freezing cold bus, asked Holly's band member Jennings if he could have the spot. (2) (This is supported by Jennings, who said he even joked to Holly that he hoped their plane crashed, a comment which haunted him for years. (3))

For the other spot, Valens asked for Allsup's seat and they flipped a coin, Valens winning the coin toss. (2)

However, Dion of the Belmonts has contradicted this, saying that Holly approached him, Valens and Richardson, saying that they were the ones making the money so they should be the ones who got to fly, and he never actually offered the seats to the other band mates. Dion also says he and Valens flipped a coin for the 3rd seat and he won, but let Valens go because it was too expensive. (2)

But regardless of how the 3 ended up on that plane, they did. And it was the last thing they did. (2)

The weather before the plane took off was lightly snowy and a bit windy. The plane took off at 12:55 AM central time. After takeoff, the tail light could be seen gradually descending until it was out of sight. (2)

Hubert Dwyer, owner of the plane company, tried to get in contact with Peterson but was unable to. So, he hopped in a plane of his own to retrace the route, and saw the wreckage barely 6 miles away from where they took off. He alerted the sheriff, and a deputy headed over to the crash site. (2)

The plane was in a field belonging to Albert Juhl. It had impacted the ground at nearly 170 miles per hour. The right wing hit the ground first and it essentially cartwheeled across the field for 540 feet before stopping. (2)

The bodies of Holly and Valens were ejected and found within the wreckage of the plane. Richardson's body had been ejected and thrown over the Juhl's fence, landing in his neighbor's property. Peterson's body was also found entangled in the wreckage. (2)

It was reported that they all died instantly upon impact, with the pilot's cause of death being brain damage, and the musicians dying from "gross trauma to the brain." (2)


Holly's wife was pregnant at the time of the crash and learned of his death on the TV. The couple had only been married 6 months. She had a miscarriage shortly after. Holly's mother found out on the radio, and she screamed and collapsed.

This lead to a rule being adopted by authorities to not disclose victims' names until after family was notified. Obviously, given that Kobe Bryant's family saw news of his death in the media before being notified, this rule isn't always followed.

The band continued on with the tour, having 15-year-old Bobby Vee sing in place of Buddy Holly.

An investigation into the crash found that the ultimate cause of the crash was the pilot's unwise decision to fly in such conditions. In fact, though he had a lot of experience flying, he or the company itself were not authorized to fly in conditions where they couldn't see. Though Peterson knew the conditions were bad, he wasn't given a detailed brief before taking off, and the weather was hardly mention.

Rumors spread that a gun had gone off in the aircraft which lead to the crash, because allegedly, a nearby farmer had discovered a gun near the crash site. Another rumor was that Richardson had survived the crash and crawled out of the wreckage to get help, which is why his body was further away than the others.

His family had his body exhumed, but the original report stood: There were no signs of a gunshot, and he died immediately on impact, as nearly every bone in his body was fractured.

The musicians live on through many means, including movies, memorial concerts, monuments, roads, and perhaps most famously of all, songs. They may have died 61 years ago, but their memory lives on with every play of "American Pie".


1. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-day-the-music-died

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_the_Music_Died


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