Sixty years ago on a bitterly cold night in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly, 22, stepped in a small plane with Ritchie Valens, 17, and the J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
They never got out alive.
Feb. 3, 1959 is a day that lives in rock and roll infamy but Don McLean called it “the day the music died.” McLean immortalized Holly in the song “American Pie” and will sing that number Friday during a 7 p.m. concert in the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center.
The next day – Saturday, Feb. 2 – Johnny Wild and the Delights play “The Day the Music Lived” tribute show at Katie Belle’s, starting at 5:30 p.m. Andy Matchett, aka Johnny Wild, has often portrayed Buddy Holly on stage and captures Holly’s zestful energy and passion for rock and roll. Two other performers will appear as Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, who was 28 at the time of his death.
Sixty years after that fateful flight in Clear Lake, here are some reasons to remember Holly, Valens and the Bopper.
Paul Anka wrote Holly’s last hit song, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” Anka, who had toured with Holly, appeared at The Sharon two years ago and said, “Buddy asked me to write that song.” Anka sang it on stage while playing acoustic guitar and it was still an emotional moment for him.
Rocker Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) was close to Holly and Valens. Shortly after they died, Cochran wrote a tribute called “The Three Stars.” Cochran reportedly developed a premonition he also would die young. He was 21 when he was killed in an auto accident in 1960 while touring England.
Bobby Vee was born in Fargo, N.D., and the local singer and his band, The Shadows, were called to replace Holly on the “Winter Dance Party” tour’s next date in Fargo. Vee, who died in 2016, became a singing star during the early ’60s with such hits as “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Rubber Ball” and “Devil or Angel.”
Over in England, three scruffy and greasy “Teddy Boys” named John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison started a band. They wanted to be like Buddy Holly and his band, the Crickets. Instead of Crickets, John and Paul would call themselves Beatles. One of the Beatles’ early records was a cover of Holly’s “Words of Love.”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were two more scruffy English teenagers. They formed a band called The Rolling Stones and their first big American hit was a cover of a Buddy Holly song, “Not Fade Away.”
Waylon Jennings played bass for Holly on the “Winter Dance Party” tour. Jennings, who died in 2002, was close to Holly and the Crickets – drummer J.I. Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin. Jennings had a seat on the airplane because no one wanted to ride a broken down, cold tour bus. But he gave up that seat to the Big Bopper, who had the flu. Guitarist Tommy Allsup also gave up his seat on the plane to Valens (they flipped a coin for it and Allsup lost).
Jennings would later become a major country music star and he put Allison and Mauldin in his band.
Sonny Curtis played with the Crickets in Buddy Holly’s teenage band in Lubbock, Texas. Curtis toured with Holly but was drafted. He wrote a Holly hit, “Rock Around With Ollie Vee.” He later wrote such hits as “I Fought the Law,” “Walk Right Back” and “More Than I Can Say.”
Curtis is known for writing the theme to the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” called “Love Is All Around.” Three Crickets – Curtis, Allison and Mauldin – like Buddy Holly are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Actor Gary Busey earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Holly in 1978’s “The Buddy Holly Story.”
Actor Lou Diamond Phillips portrayed Ritchie Valens in the 1987 bio flick, “La Bamba.” Valens was 17 at the time of his death but left behind two classic American songs: “Donna” “and La Bamba.” Los Lobos hit the top of the charts in 1987 by singing that song on the movie soundtrack.
Alt rock band Weezer scored a major hit with the 1994 single “Buddy Holly,” with the memorable lyric: “Woo-ee-oo, I look just like Buddy Holly/ Oh-oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore/I don’t care what they say about us anyway/I don’t care ’bout that.”
Tony Violanti meets the Crickets in The Villages. Yes, that’s me. The Crickets – J.I. Allison, Joe B. Mauldin (who died in 2015) and Sonny Curtis — played Savannah Center in 2006 with Rocky and the Rollers. I got to meet and spend some time with them – and it was a thrill.
They talked about old times. Allison told me how he and Buddy wrote a song after seeing the John Wayne movie, “The Searchers.” In that movie, Wayne kept saying, “That’ll be the day.”
“After the movie, Buddy and I went up to my house,” Allison told me. “I had a big bedroom with an upright piano and a drum set. Buddy and I are sitting there and he says: ‘We got to write a song.’
“I said, ‘That’ll be the day.’ Buddy goes, ‘That’s a good idea. It sounds right.’ It took us 30 minutes to write it. That’s the first song I ever wrote with anybody, and that song changed my life.”
I was nine years old when Buddy Holly died. Until then, nobody I knew, or cared about, had died. I was lucky. But this guy who touched me with his music was suddenly gone. I didn’t understand it then and I still feel that way now. So does Allison.
“I’m still not over it and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” Allison told me. “Buddy Holly will always be Buddy to me.”
So here we are 60 years later. Buddy’s still gone – but Buddy lives on.
Tony Violanti is a veteran journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.