The Day The Music Died: The Life Of Buddy Holly

February 3, 1959, was the day the music died and Buddy Holly was killed tragically in a plane crash at the age of 22. He perished alongside the pilot and two other talented musicians, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. While Holly’s career may have been short-lived, he accomplished a lot during that brief period of time. Read on to learn about the life of one of history’s most influential rock ‘n’ roll stars…

He Started Playing Music At A Young Age

buddy4
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Charles Hardin Holley was born on Sept. 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas. He had three older siblings and his mother gave him the nickname “Buddy” at a very young age because she felt his birth name was too large for her little son. The future singer and songwriter would adopt the last name “Holly” without the “e” at the start of his recording career due to a misspelling.

As a kid, Holly learned how to play the piano, fiddle, and guitar (which his brother taught him to use). He also liked to sing, and there’s a 1949 recording of “My Two-Timin’ Woman” that demonstrates his nascent voice. His parents supported their son’s love of music.

Holly Was ‘Innately Endowed’ With Talent

buddy6
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Holly joined the school choir in high school, and fellow student Betty Dotts told NPR in 2019 that at the time she didn’t think his music was any good. Another choir member, George Nelson, also had a fondness for songwriting, but he admits his skills weren’t on the same level as Holly’s.

“I didn’t have anywhere near the talent that Buddy had,” Nelson told NPR. “He was just innately endowed with it, and he could play.” Nelson somehow beat Holly in a 1953 song contest, giving him “the only thing that I’ve got in my life that I could brag about.”

This hip-shaking singer proved to be a great influence on Holly.

Being An Opening Act For Elvis Presley Marked A Turning Point In His Career

buddy3
GAB Archive/Redferns via Getty Images

Following high school, Holly focused on country music, and his band performed regularly on his hometown’s radio station. He also served as the opening act for musicians that came through Lubbock during their tours. In 1955, he opened for Elvis Presley, which was a life-changing moment.

Bandmate Sonny Curtis later recalled: “When Elvis came along, Buddy fell in love with Elvis and we began to change. The next day we became Elvis clones.” Holly may not have looked like Elvis with his black glasses and bow tie, but he transitioned from country music to rock ‘n’ roll.

Holly’s Band Was Discovered At A Skating Rink

buddy1
John Rodgers/Redferns via Getty Images

Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t popular in Lubbock in the ’50s. Preachers would destroy piles of vinyl records because they believed the music was a bad influence on young people. Despite that, Texas teenagers would drive their cars out into the cotton fields to blast the music and dance their hearts out.

Holly and his band were discovered while playing at a skating rink. In 1956, his group had a new lineup called The Crickets. In 1957, Holly wrote the hit, “That’ll Be the Day,” which was a reference to a line John Wayne spoke in the 1956 film The Searchers.

Holly probably never expected to be a trendsetter.

Holly’s Signature Glasses Started A Fashion Trend

buddy2
Archive Photos/Getty Images

At the start of his career, Holly wore typical wire-framed glasses. That changed after his eye doctor recommended he wear horn-rimmed glasses reminiscent of Phil Silvers’ character Sergeant Bilko. After a while, the singer’s spectacles became known as Buddy Holly Glasses.

According to his optometrist, Dr. J. Davis Armistead, Holly had 20/800 vision and needed the spectacles. He was also happy with how they shaped his image. “It was Buddy’s perception that the glasses helped make him. He was really pleased,” Armistead later recalled. The Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas, features a 5-foot tall, 13-foot wide, 750-pound sculpture of the glasses.

Holly Got Married And Planned To Launch A Solo Career

buddy2
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In just one year, the Crickets charted seven different Top 40 singles. “That’ll Be the Day” topped the U.S. charts 500 days before Holly died tragically. His music tapped into issues teens could relate to, including love and loss. “Peggy Sue” is about missing a woman, “Ting-A-Ling” is about sexual urges, and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” is about how opposites attract.

In 1958, Holly went on a date with a woman four years his senior named Maria Elena Santiago. He proposed to her that night. They wed less than two months later, and they moved to Greenwich Village. Holly split up with The Crickets and decided to launch a solo career.

His Winter Dance Party Tour Had Logistical Problems

buddy9
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1959, Holly put together a band for the Winter Dance Party Tour, which included bassist Waylon Jennings, guitarist Tommy Allsup, and drummer Carl Bunch. The tour was difficult to manage because the distance between venues was quite far in some cases. Another problem was the tour buses, which weren’t heated and broke down two times in freezing temperatures.

Conditions were so bad, the drummer got frostbite on his toes on the bus and was hospitalized. This prompted Holly to look for alternative transportation. They were expected to play in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 2, so Buddy chartered a four-seat airplane for himself, Jennings and Allsup.

Luck was not in the band’s favor that fateful night.

The Most Notorious Coin Flip Of All Time

buddy12
RB/Redferns via Getty Images

The Clear Lake show ended prior to midnight, and as the group was getting ready to board the plane, Allsup agreed to flip a coin with Ritchie Valens over his seat. Valens called heads and won. He reportedly declared that it was the first time he’d ever won anything.

Out of the kindness of his heart, Jennings gave his seat up to the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), who was battling influenza and explained that the tour bus was not suitable for a man as big as he was. Despite the poor weather conditions, pilot Roger Peterson decided to fly anyway. He was not certified to fly by instruments only.

The Infamous Plane Crash

plane
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The pilot was just 21 years old and planned on taking the men to Fargo, North Dakota. He had already worked 17 hours that day and a storm was brewing, but he decided to make the trip because Holly was such a big star.

Around 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1959, the plane crashed into a cornfield just a few miles from the Mason City, Iowa, airport. The four occupants of the plane – Holly, Valens, Richardson, and Peterson – died instantly. The three musicians were ejected during impact and were killed due to massive chest injuries and brain trauma.

Help Didn’t Arrive Until 10 Hours Later

buddy10
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Peterson was reportedly never informed that a blizzard was coming. The plane was in the air for just minutes before it crashed. It’s unclear what led to the accident. Some speculate that Peterson flew right into the snowstorm and was unable to see anything. As a result, he flew down instead of up.

The plane crashed at a speed of around 170 miles per hour. It flipped over, and the bodies flew out of it. The scene of the wreckage was untouched for 10 hours because nobody could get to the site until the following morning.

Richie Valens Was Just 18 Years Old When He Died & He Had A Fear Of Flying

richievalens
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Mexican-American singer Ritchie Valens was just 18 years old when he died in the crash. He was just eight months into his career when he was killed. Valens was most known for his hit song “La Bamba,” which had its roots in Mexican folk music. He also sang “Donna,” which hit number two on the charts.

Valens made Spanish-speaking rock ‘n’ roll popular. He was also a self-taught musician who was so talented he could improvise music and lyrics on the spot. He was afraid of flying because several friends were killed in a plane accident over the playground of his junior high school.

The Big Bopper’s Son Exhumed His Body Nearly 50 Years Later

bigbopper
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Big Bopper was a rockabilly star who was most popular for his 1958 hit “Chantilly Lace.” Before he launched his music career he studied pre-law and spent two years in the Army. While working at a radio station, he saw kids doing a dance called The Bop and decided to name himself The Big Bopper.

In 2007, his son exhumed his father’s body because an internet rumor claimed a gun was fired on the plane and The Big Bopper had initially survived the crash. A forensic anthropologist concluded no foul play was involved. His son allegedly planned on auctioning his father’s original casket on eBay and donating proceeds to the Texas Musicians Museum but later downplayed the idea.

Something horrible happened to Holly’s wife after his death.

Holly’s Wife Lost Their Baby After Hearing About The Crash

GettyImages-922107598
Paul Harris/Getty Images

Holly’s mother heard about his death after a neighbor urged her to turn on the radio. Upon hearing the news, she cried and collapsed. Holly’s wife (pictured above many years later) learned of her husband’s death from a news broadcast. The next day she had a miscarriage, which was attributed to “psychological drama.”

After Holly’s untimely death at age 22, authorities instituted a policy in which they would notify victims’ families before releasing their names to the general public. The Winter Dance Party Tour wasn’t canceled. Jennings simply sang Holly’s songs, and Frankie Avalon, 18, filled in for the other stars.

Holly’s Record Label Released A Greatest Hits Album And British Fans Like John Lennon Loved It

buddy11
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Following Holly’s death, his single “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” went from mediocre sales to number 13 on the charts. This was a big deal because in those days the music industry didn’t capitalize on untimely deaths like it does today. Holly’s albums sold well following his demise.

His record label quickly produced a greatest hits album, which sat on the Billboard charts off and on for the next seven years. British fans in particular gobbled up his music. John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles learned to play guitar in part after listening to his music.

Holly Influenced Some Musical Greats, Including The Rolling Stones And The Beatles

buddy5
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Holly’s career may have been short-lived, but he exerted great influence over young musicians who were fans of his music, including Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan, who was just 17 years old when he saw Buddy perform during his final tour.

In 1964, the Rolling Stones covered his song “Not Fade Away,” and it wound up being their first top 10 single. The Beatles partially picked the name of their band name in tribute to The Crickets. Paul McCartney later bought the publishing rights to Holly’s music, demonstrating how much he admired the singer/songwriter.

Holly’s Hometown Was Slow To Embrace His Legacy

buddy8
Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Images

Lubbock, Texas, didn’t realize what they had lost until nearly two decades following Holly’s death. They eventually named a street and a museum after him and erected a bronze statue in a local park. The Crossroads of Music Archive at Texas Tech University contains the research of late music historian Bill Griggs, who methodically compiled information about the singer’s life.

Lubbock is also building the Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences in the city’s art district, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020. More than 60 years following his death, Holly’s legacy is still strong.

Holly was wrong about one major thing before he died.

Buddy and Ed Sullivan Didn’t Respect Each Other

buddy-holly-ed-sullivan-clash

Although Holly and the Crickets performed on the Ed Sullivan Show twice, they were not fond of each other. The band was planning on performing their song “Oh Boy” on the show, but Ed Sullivan refused, saying that the lyrics were too suggestive for his audience.

Holly wasn’t open to Sullivan’s opinion, however, and they went ahead with their original plan. To show his displeasure, Sullivan mispronounced Holly’s name when introducing him to the stage, and even turned off his guitar amplifier. Holly refused to play on the show again.

Holly Didn’t Expect Rock ‘N’ Roll To Go The Distance

buddy7
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Holly’s music made some long-lasting impressions on the industry. The Crickets were the first to create what is now standard in rock ‘n’ roll lineups: two guitars, bass, and drums. Holly was also one of the first musicians to feature double-tracking on his albums.

He had no idea his work would be revolutionary. During a 1957 interview with Canadian disc jockey Red Robinson, Holly was asked whether he believed rock ‘n’ roll would still be popular within the next six or seven months. Holly answered, “I rather doubt it.” It’s now more than 60 years later, and he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ Pays Homage To The Trio Of Musicians

mcclean
Chris Walter/WireImage via Getty Images

The day after the plane crash, Eddie Cochran wrote the song “Three Stars” about the musicians. But the tribute song that most people know and love is 1971’s “American Pie” by Don McLean. The tune is a metaphor for the rock ‘n’ roll generation losing its innocence. It topped the charts in America, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

McLean pictured the teens attending the final Buddy Holly concert in Iowa wearing pink carnations, driving pick-up trucks, and dancing. The lyrics included: “I can’t remember if I cried/ When I read about his widowed bride/ Something touched me deep inside/The day the music died.”

Gary Busey Played Him In The 1978 Film The Buddy Holly Story

busey
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1978, the biographical film The Buddy Holly Story hit theaters. It starred Gary Busey in the titular role for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Others stars included Don Stroud, Charles Martin Smith, Conrad Janis, William Jordan, and Maria Richwine, who played his wife.

Busey and the other stars did their own singing and played their own instruments. Busey recalled in his biography that he lost 32 pounds to play Holly, who was just 146 pounds when he died. The film was a big success, earning $14.3 million at the box office with a budget of less than $2 million.

Not Everyone Was Happy With The Film Based On Holly’s Life

buddy1
General Artists Corporation/Getty Images

Record producer Norman Petty worked with Holly and The Crickets and felt the movie didn’t accurately portray the singer and his relationships with people in his band and the industry.

“I think that everyone in Buddy’s life was done an injustice because the movie makes Buddy look like a tyrant, a personal and musical tyrant, which he was not,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 1978. “He was very definite about his musical ideas but he was also a very warm, nice, human individual. People like [bandmate] Jerry Allison were very important to Buddy’s life, musically and personally.”