When Elvis Presley died, 25,000 people gathered outside Graceland in the sweltering Memphis heat. John Lennon’s murder drew millions of people to Central Park for a silent vigil. But when Buddy Holly’s plane went down in an Iowa cornfield at a little past 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1959, there was nobody waiting for him among those swirling snowdrifts. The Lubbock, Texas singer never had a vigil. His home did not become a pilgrimage site and his family never held a memorial service for his fans. Yet with each passing decade, the myth of Buddy Holly has grown by substantial degrees. (See rare photos of Buddy Holly.)
If you go by the numbers, Buddy Holly’s career — which lasted a year and a half with only one number one single — hardly seems the stuff of legend. He only accepted top billing on the 24-day, 24-town “Winter Dance Party” tour alongside the Big Bopper (of “Chantilly Lace” fame) and Richie Valens (“La Bamba”) as a way to dig himself out of bankruptcy. And yet his influence on early rock ‘n’ roll is almost unmatched. Holly was barely out of high school when he opened for Elvis Presley in 1955. He popularized the two guitar, one bass, one drum lineup that so many acts (the Beatles, the Kinks, Talking Heads, Weezer) would later adopt. When a self-conscious Roy Orbison saw Holly’s black rimmed glasses and slim jim ties, he decided not to let his homely, face-for-radio looks hinder his singing career. (For a while, John Lennon even adopted the style). Holly wrote his own material and used his signature pitch-changing hiccup to move seamlessly between country, R&B and rockabilly. When he died, he was only 22.
On February 2, 1959, Holly and his tourmates were on the eleventh night of their Winter Dance Party tour through the snow-covered Midwest. It was a Monday — a school night — but 1,100 teenagers crammed into Clear Lake, Iowa’s Surf Ballroom for two sold out shows. They wore blue jeans and saddle shoes and screamed for 17-year-old Richie Valens, whose single “Donna” was about to go gold. Between sets, Holly solicited people to join him on the charter airplane he’d hired to fly to the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota. The musicians had been traveling by bus for over a week and it had already broken down once. They were tired, they hadn’t been paid yet and all of their clothes were dirty. With the airplane, Holly could arrive early, do everyone’s laundry and catch up on some rest.
A 21-year-old pilot named Roger Peterson had agreed to take the singer to Fargo, North Dakota — the closest airport to Moorehead. A snowstorm was on its way and the young pilot was fatigued from a 17-hour workday, but he agreed to fly the rock star to his next gig because, hey, he would be flying Buddy Holly. The second show ended at midnight. The musicians packed up their instruments and finalized the flight arrangements. Holly’s bass player, Waylon Jennings, was scheduled to fly on the plane but gave his seat to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from a cold. Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsup agreed to flip a coin with Richie Valens for the remaining seat. Valens won. The three musicians boarded the red and white single-engine Beech Bonanza around 12:30 on Feb. 3. Fans flocked to the tarmac, waving and crying and asking for autographs. The musicians waved back and then climbed onto the plane. Snow blew across the runway but the sky was clear. Peterson received clearance from the control tower, taxied down the runway and took off. He was never told of two weather advisories that warned of an oncoming blizzard.
The plane stayed in the sky for only a few minutes; no one is quite sure what went wrong. The best guess is that Peterson flew directly into the blizzard, lost visual reference and accidentally flew down instead of up. The four-passenger plane plowed into a nearby cornfield at over 170 mph, flipping over on itself and tossing the passengers into the air. Their bodies landed yards away from the wreckage and stayed there for ten hours as snowdrifts formed around them. Because of the weather, nobody could reach the crash site until the morning.
In Texas, a neighbor told Holly’s mother to turn on the radio. When the news report came out, she screamed and collapsed. In Greenwich Village, Buddy Holly’s pregnant wife heard the news on television and suffered a miscarriage the following day, reportedly due to “psychological trauma.” In the months following the crash, authorities would adopt a policy against releasing victims’ names until after the families had been notified.
The Winter Dance Party tour continued, with Waylon Jennings singing Holly’s songs and other teen sensations, including 18-year-old Frankie Avalon, flown out to finish the tour. Holly’s body was shipped back home to Lubbock, Texas. His Baptist family never approved of his music and none of his songs were played at his funeral.
Then a strange thing happened. Holly’s last single, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” had endured sluggish sales. The music industry had not yet discovered the commercial allure of untimely deaths, and record executives were shocked to see the song shoot up to number 13 on the charts.
Months went by, yet Holly’s albums continued to sell. Decca rushed out a greatest hits album, which would float on and off the Billboard charts for another seven years. Britain devoured Holly records faster than the record company could produce them. Demo tapes, B-sides, previously unreleased recording sessions — they all shot up the British charts and turned Holly into one of the forefathers of the British Invasion that would strike America five years later. Both John Lennon and George Harrison learned to play guitar in part by listening to Buddy Holly records. The first Rolling Stones’ single released in the U.S. was cover of Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” (See a video of Buddy Holly singing “Peggy Sue.”)
The first song memorializing the musicians — Eddie Cochran’s “Three Stars” — was recorded just one day after their deaths. But Don McLean’s 1971 single “American Pie” turned the plane crash into a metaphor for the moment when the United States lost its last shred of innocence. McLean envisioned that last Buddy Holly concert in Clear Lakes, Iowa: teenagers in pink carnations and pick-up trucks, dancing and falling in love and dancing some more. The snow fell silently outside as the country teetered on the brink of the 1960s; no one in the ballroom had any idea what would happen next.