On This Day: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson Killed in Plane Crash on ‘The Day Music Died’ in 1959

by Emily Morgan

Rock-n-roll lost some of its biggest stars more than 60 years ago when three of the genre’s greats crashed into an icy field north of Clear Lake. On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson tragically died after a Winter Dance Party tour stop in Clear Lake.

Holly, 22, Richardson, 28, and Valens, 17, were the talent on the Winter Dance Party tour, following each of their commercial hits with “That’ll be the Day,” “Chantilly Lace,” and “La Bamba.”

For nearly a month, they toured around the Midwestern part of the country, which they kicked off on Jan. 23, 1959, in Milwaukee.

However, some dubbed it the tour from hell. Traveling from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Iowa and again to Minnesota took a toll on the tour bus and the band members. The bus often broke down since they were driving the 300-plus miles through the frozen, desolate Midwest.

After playing in Davenport and Fort Dodge, IA, the tour stopped Feb. 2, 1959, at the Surf Ballroom — as a last-minute change in schedule. Tickets cost $1.25.

Buddy Holly’s Last-Minute Schedule Change Altered History Forever

Exhausted from riding on the bus and desperate for a good night’s rest, Holly chartered a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza from Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City. The plane’s pilots weres scheduled to take three members to Fargo, North Dakota. 

Guitarist Tommy Allsup decided his fate by flipping a coin for a spot on the plane. Richardson asked country legend Waylon Jennings, Holly’s bassist at the time, for his seat on the plane since he had come down with the flu. 

Just before 1 a.m., the plane crashed nearly 6 miles northwest of the airport.

Pregnant at the time, Holly’s widow, María Elena Holly, received the tragic news via a television report. Following the psychological trauma of the event, she suffered a miscarriage the next day. 

Afterward, Holly’s death and the miscarriage of his unborn child motivated officials to adopt the policy of not revealing a victim’s identity until the family receives word. 

Following the event, pop culture and music would never be the same. The tragedy has been forever eternalized in popular culture through music and film, such as the 1978 Academy Award-winning biopic The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey as Holly, and the 1987 Valens film, La Bamba, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as the music icon.