THE BLOG
03/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Day the Music Died

The catchphrase comes from Don McLean's classic 1971 recording "American Pie", but it refers to an event a decade earlier, on February 3, 1959: Fifty years ago this week.

Early that morning, a small aircraft crashed outside Clear Lake, Iowa, killing pilot Roger Petersen and his three passengers, headliners from the music show that had played Clear Lake's Surf Ballroom the previous evening. The Big Bopper, Texan disc jockey J.P.Richardson, was with the tour on the back of his novelty hit Chantilly Lace; 17-year-old Ritchie Valens had two hit singles, with the second and biggest of them, Donna, still fresh in mind that February. Today Valens is best remembered for the B-side of Donna, his rearrangement of a traditional Hispanic folk song which would grow into a rock anthem, La Bamba, around the guitar riff he created for it.

But the legend of The Day The Music Died is built around the third passenger, the performer who chartered the plane. Buddy Holly's 20 months as a chart topper made him the most experienced of the show's acts, even if disappointing sales of his last two single releases had hinted at a star on the wane. Holly had grown frustrated by touring on a bus that frequently broke down in the freezing northern winter. He was anxious to get ahead to the next date in Fargo, North Dakota in time finally to get his laundry done properly.

He planned to travel with his two band members, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. Fatefully, Richardson and Valens individually talked them both out of their seats, a fact that haunted Jennings and Allsup for many years to come.

Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holley was born in September 1936 in Lubbock, the isolated cotton capital of the north west Texas plains. Growing up in a strict southern Baptist family, with music all around, notably from two older brothers, Buddy performed at junior high schools, alongside a shifting population of other schoolboy musicians. In early days, the dominant partner was Bob Montgomery, later a noted Nashville producer and father of country star Kevin Montgomery. Other key figures were guitarist Sonny Curtis and, a little later, drummer Jerry Allison.

Initially favoring country music with an occasional nod in the direction of black southern blues, Buddy and his friends were hugely impressed when a young Elvis Presley played in Lubbock. Holly's band opened one of these shows, which led to an offer to record in Nashville. Two trips in 1955/56 led to two single releases by Holly, but no sales impact. The Nashville production system was not the right framework for the sound Holly was trying to work out. Hugely disappointed, he resumed playing in and around Lubbock, often simply as a duo with Allison on drums.

By early 1957, Holly had learned of Norman Petty's studio 90 miles away across the New Mexico border in Clovis. There, with Allison, guitarist Niki Sullivan and bass player Larry Welborn, Holly re-worked "That'll be The Day", a song he and Allison had written for one of the earlier Nashville Sessions. The demo was passed to Coral records in New York under the name The Crickets, via industry connections of others who used Petty's studio.

Petty's name was added to the songwriting credits, Petty arguing that he had a track record as a composer that would help engage the attention of the record company. As producer, engineer and source of additional instrumentation as well as overdubbed backing vocals, Petty was undoubtedly a contributor to the string of hits which would emerge over the next 18 months. But his was the one name to appear on credits for every new song developed in his studio, while the rest of the band's names seemed to appear on random credits, a situation which would lead to future problems from which lawyers, at least, have prospered ever since.

To the band's surprise Coral chose to release the demo as it stood. After a slow start, the new recording was destined to reach the top of the charts in both American and Britain. Meanwhile the new band had work to do, both on the road and in the Petty studio. At this point Joe B Mauldin was recruited from another Lubbock band to take over on string bass, possibly because he owned one, unlike his predecessor.

As their first record became a nationwide hit, the band embarked on a grueling touring schedule criss-crossing the country. Sullivan decided to opt out by the end of the year, but the remaining trio continued, and by March 1958 were in England. There, key figures in the coming British invasion of American popular music were hugely influenced by a band that played as a self-contained unit, writing its own material and with Holly setting the tone through his distinctive work on his Fender Stratocaster (an instrument not previously seen in Britain and a revelation to those striving to work out how the band created its sound). This was something very different from the studio system products that occupied the charts up to that time. Future Beatles Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Graham Nash of the Hollies and later CSNY, and many other embryonic British bands were inspired by what they saw.

By October 1958, The Crickets were in some disarray. Holly had recently married. His new wife's own experience in New York's music publishing business was probably a factor in his questioning the way Petty controlled the band's business. Allison had also recently married, and the relationships were significantly changed. Holly wanted to move The Crickets' business base to new management in New York. Allison and Mauldin were less keen. Initially they agreed but were then persuaded by Petty to stay in Texas. So Holly moved alone.

Holly's wife was pregnant. He had no access to his earlier earnings, with everything in lawyers' hands. After several months working out new demos in his New York apartment, he signed up for the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour.

Don McLean saw February 3, 1959 as The Day the Music Died, but really it was the day the legend of Buddy Holly was born. Holly's last single release in his lifetime, It Doesn't Matter Any More, had been attracting little airtime in the first weeks of 1959, but it now took off both in America and Britain becoming a huge hit, driven in part by the sad irony of the title. Coral records rapidly assembled a dozen tracks from single releases into the album The Buddy Holly Story, which would stay on some charts for years.

In the sparse but informative sleeve notes for that album, music journalist Ren Grevatt concluded that Holly had "left his own special legacy, a group of wonderfully exciting records which would have sustained appeal for years to come." That was a brave statement in an era when chart stardom seemed to come and go in months, not years. But even Grevatt probably wasn't thinking that many of those songs would feature regularly on radio stations worldwide fifty years on. What really kept the legend alive?

Holly was the first martyr of the rock era -- or the second if you count James Dean. Only the death of country star Hank Williams six years earlier had made a similar kind of similar impact in the wider music world, and Williams died from health problems created by his life style. Holly's death had more in common with that of movie star James Dean in 1955, but even that auto accident carried a sense of self-inflicted disaster, unlike Holly's. Tribute songs recorded by Eddie Cochran and others in the US and Mike Berry in Britain provided some clues to the sense of loss among fellow musicians and the record-buying public.

By 1962, a new generation of British rock bands were emerging, many having taken their cue from the electrifying impact of what they had seen in the Crickets' live and British television appearances during that 1958 tour. The Beatles included a version of Holly's Words of Love on their second album -- their very first, unreleased, recording having been a version of "That'll Be The Day". The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, had their second successful single with a reworking of a Crickets' b-side, Not Fade Away. Through the 1960s and well beyond, the Buddy Holly songbook was source material for generations of top acts, sometimes in faithful cover versions, other times with intriguing rearrangements.

The mid-1960s British invasion reminded some American audiences what Holly had done for rock n' roll. But interest across the pond stayed barely visible until the infectious rhythm and lyrics of Don McLean's 1971 hit started prompted new interest in the story behind the song. Although McLean didn't publish his own interpretation until several decades later, the opening narrative could only relate to the events of February 3, 1959, and to Holly in particular. The song generated interpretative articles in the press, and re-awakened interest in Holly's music and story.

The 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story was originally planned for TV but became an Academy Award-winning triumph, even if some of its detail offended those close to the real story. Stars ranging from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen spoke of their continuing respect for Holly's music, while Paul McCartney produced a memorable television tribute film. Buddy the Musical was launched in London in the 80s and is still to be found in several cities today.

The musical probably told the story more authentically than the earlier movie. Frustration with the movie was made clear in a song Sonny Curtis wrote immediately after its opening night in Lubbock in 1978. His lyrics for The Real Buddy Holly Story conclude:

"The levee isn't dry

And the music didn't die

Because Buddy Holly lives

Ev'ry time we play rock n' roll"

Fifty years on from 3 February 1959, radio and TV stations across the country and around the world are giving some of those classic tracks, and the few surviving monochrome tape clips, yet another airing. So perhaps Sonny Curtis is closer to the truth than Don McLean. Thanks to them both, and many others, for helping to keep the story and the music alive.