Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Day the Music Died


On this day in 1959, a small plane crashed on its way to Fargo-Moorhead, instantly claiming the lives of four young men—three of them rising stars in the hot new music genre called Rock and Roll. A little more than a decade later, the day was immortalized as “the day the music died” in Don McClean’s cryptic popular song “American Pie.”

The occupants of the chartered four-passenger Beech Bonanza were 22-year-old Charles Hardin Holley, who was known as Buddy Holly, 17-year-old Richard Steven Valenzuela known as Ritchie Valens, 28-year-old Jiles Perry Richardson, known as The Big Bopper, and 21-year-old Roger Peterson, the pilot.

According to the Civil Aeronautics Board Accident Report, they were just five minutes into their planned flight from Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo when Peterson likely became disoriented due to weather conditions and darkness, and confused by instrumentation he was not familiar with. Peterson and his passengers probably had no idea the plane was descending at 170 miles-per-hour toward a frozen cornfield. No one witnessed the 1:00 am crash. It was discovered in a search after daybreak. None had survived the impact.

For the three musicians, it was an abrupt end to brief yet influential careers, and to a grueling non-stop 24-day tour, near the half-way point. The “Winter Dance Party Tour” had started in Milwaukee on January 23rd, and was haphazardly criss-crossing the frigid Upper Midwest, playing in a different ballroom, auditorium, or armory each and every night.

Other musicians on the package tour included Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings, Frankie Sardo, and Dion and the Belmonts. They were all traveling in a bus that kept breaking down and had no heat. Each one-night-stand was followed by a bone-chilling ride to the next city…24 winter dance parties in 24 days.

There were no Interstates in 1959. Imagine traveling from Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Duluth, Minnesota, then to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and on to Clear Lake, Iowa (all about 300 mile trips)…on two-lane a smoke-filled school bus with no heat. These people were mostly from Texas and Southern California. They were miserable on that bus, and they were getting sick.

The next gig was at the Armory in Moorhead, Minnesota--a long cold ride from Clear Lake. Buddy Holly had had enough and decided to charter a plane. Fellow musicians were invited to share the ride, and the cost--$36 each. Dion didn’t want to pay the price, and chose the bus. Waylon Jennings reportedly was in on the charter, but gave his seat to the Big Bopper, who was sick and would use the time to see a doctor in Fargo. Tommy Allsup and Ritchie Valens flipped a coin for the remaining seat. Valens won the toss…

Dion recalls, “The next day, I stood in the lobby of the hotel in Moorhead, Minnesota. There was a television on the wall, announcing that the plane carrying Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper had gone down in the storm. There were no survivors.”

As fans and families mourned the tragic loss and the musicians were laid to rest, the promoters booked replacements and the show went on. The Winter Dance Party Tour continued as planned…in 13 more cities. They scrambled to find some local talent to play in Moorhead, and found fifteen-year-old Robert Velline, also known as Bobby Vee, of Fargo. He played that “day the music died”...and a career was born.