It was 59 years ago Saturday (February 3rd, 1959) that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash after a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa. The three had been performing along with Dion & The Belmonts as part of the Winter Dance Party Tour, which would cover 24 cities in a short three-week period from January 23rd to February 15th. Holly, who had parted ways with longtime backing group the Crickets the previous year, was backed up by a then-unknown Waylon Jennings on bass and Tommy Allsup on lead guitar.
Throughout the tour, the musicians' bus was either breaking down or often without heat. At one point, it was so cold that the tour's drummer developed frostbite, resulting in the Belmonts' Angelo D'Aleo -- as well as Valens -- serving double-duty by filling in on drums. When the tour finally arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2nd, 1959, Holly had made plans to fly out to the next city directly after the show, rather than brave the unheated 430-mile bus trip to Moorhead, Minnesota. He had hoped to get to their next stop with time to rest and do his laundry.
Holly chartered a plane to fly him and his band to Fargo, North Dakota, near Moorhead. Jennings and Allsup gave up their seats to Richardson and Valens. Dion was supposed to be on the plane rather than Valens, but balked when he heard that his share would be a whopping $36 -- the exact amount of his parents' monthly rent back home in the Bronx. When Holly learned that Jennings wasn't going to fly, he said, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up!" Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your plane crashes!" This friendly banter would haunt Jennings for years. Valens, who was sick, told Allsup, "I'll flip you for the remaining seat." On the toss of a coin, Allsup lost the seat -- but won the rest of his life.
The red Beechcraft Bonanza took off from Mason City, Iowa, ten miles east of Clear Lake, at around 1:50 a.m. on February 3rd, 1959. A cold wind immediately gave way to a snow, which drastically reduced visibility. The ground was already blanketed in white. The pilot may have been inexperienced with the instrumentation.
The plane never made it to Minnesota.
Minutes after takeoff, one wing hit the ground and the small plane corkscrewed over and over. The three young stars and pilot Roger Peterson died immediately on impact. Over the years there has been speculation as to whether a gun was accidentally fired inside the plane, disabling or killing the pilot. The most logical explanation suggests that encased in a sea of white snow, with only white below, Peterson simply flew the plane into the ground.