The Night the Music Died

Searching for the ghost of Buddy Holly in Clear Lake, Iowa.

February 2009By Comments

A small memorial marks the spot in the Iowa cornfield where Holly’s plane crashed on February 3, 1959.
Photograph by David Bowman

it came out of the sky about five miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa, and slammed into the frozen earth. The right wing dug a six-inch-deep furrow for 57 feet as it disintegrated into bits of fabric and metal. The fuselage bounced hard, careening and ripping apart over the next 500 feet while the nose gear, door frame, and tail cone were all smashed loose and scattered, until what was left of the red Beechcraft B35 Bonanza finally came to rest against a barbed-wire fence at one end of a long, empty cornfield. It was just past 1 a.m. Deep inside the twisted mass was the body of the pilot. Outside lay the bodies of three young men who had been thrown from the plane at more than 100 miles per hour. They had all been killed on impact, their bodies broken, their heads smashed open. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Jiles P. Richardson, also known as the Big Bopper, were dead.

If you believe, as I do, that the modern age is defined as that period beginning sometime in the fifties when the Kids started to dictate what the Grown-ups would hear, see, wear, and think, then the plane crash killing the three teen idols (and their pilot, Roger Peterson) was the first modern tragedy. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were years down the road, as were the deaths of rock gods Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain. On February 3, 1959, Holly, the four-eyed country boy from Lubbock, became the first martyr of American pop culture. His iconic status was sealed twelve years later by “American Pie,” folk singer Don McLean’s sprawling 8-minute, 33-second tribute to “the day the music died.” The song spent four weeks as the country’s number one hit, the longest song ever to do so.

Last June, I visited the Iowa cornfield where the music died. My guide was Jeff Nicholas, a mild-mannered farmer who owns the field. Nicholas has become the unofficial keeper of the Holly flame in Iowa. Not only does he maintain a modest monument at the crash site, but he is the president of the Surf Ballroom, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving the majestic old dance hall near downtown Clear Lake where Holly played his last show. I had come to town for a tribute concert to Holly, Valens, and the Bopper in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of the Surf (it opened in 1933, then burned down and was rebuilt in 1948), a party not unlike the one that the Surf will host this February 2, on the fiftieth anniversary of the last concert before the crash.

Clear Lake is a small resort town of tidy two-story wood and brick homes with nice yards; it looks and feels like Eisenhower’s America. Apart from Holly, the biggest local celebrity is Meredith Willson, the author of The Music Man, who hails from nearby Mason City. Nicholas drove me north through town, up Buddy Holly Place, and soon we were cruising on a gravel road through flat, rolling cornfields and soy fields, with old, faded barns and large gunmetal granaries. We made a right and a left and came to a stop at 315th and Gull Avenue. “This is it,” said Nicholas, who at fifty has a thin mustache and hair just turning gray. He led me into the hip-deep corn, walking in a furrow next to the fence. The wind blew hard, and the green stalks waved like kelp under the sea.

After about ten minutes we came to the monument. It was a simple stainless-steel sculpture of a guitar with the musicians’ names and the date of their deaths alongside three 45’s inscribed with the song titles “Peggy Sue,” “Donna,” and “Chantilly Lace.” Draped over the guitar’s fret board was a rosary. A pair of Holly-like glasses had been balanced on top. Fans had left various other tokens—business cards, a student ID, a debit card, coins, guitar picks, plastic flowers, and a biscuit from US Airways, still in its package.

Nicholas reached down and began pulling up weeds from around the base. The only sound was the wind rushing through the corn and the occasional bird chirping as it cruised through the cool air. We looked south and southeast at the farmhouses and coppices of trees on the horizon. Nicholas pointed out a lone windmill. “Some people believe the plane’s wing hit that,” he said. I imagined the four-seater buzzing over nearby farms in the freezing dark. Elsie Juhl, who lived on the farm with her husband, Albert, had said she heard it early that morning. Afterward the Juhls would find body parts and pieces of the plane scattered around their land.

Nicholas and I stood in the breeze, watching the skies. “We’ve thought of putting up a sign and a walkway,” he said, “but we like how simple it is.”

The rolling guitar riff at the beginning of “That’ll Be the Day” is, to me, one of the most exciting three seconds in all of rock and roll. That song was among the first John Lennon ever learned to play. Holly’s tunes changed the lives of many aspiring rockers, from legends like Lennon and Paul McCartney to contemporary bands like Vampire Weekend. “Everything he did you still hear on the radio today,” Keith Richards once said. “Not bad for a guy from Lubbock, right?” And it wasn’t just the music. Holly’s appearance and attitude said that it was okay to look like a geek as long as you made cool music.

But Holly had been a rock star for only eighteen months when he died, at age 22. It all happened so fast. Born Charles Hardin Holley (after the e was dropped accidentally in a contract, he decided to leave it off), he grew up playing country music. One of his first bands opened for Elvis in 1955, when Holly was just 18 years old. Hearing Elvis play live changed Holly forever. He moved toward a more rockabilly sound and started the Crickets. Stardom followed fast: “That’ll Be the Day” was his first hit, in the summer of 1957; then came “Peggy Sue,” an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and tours and shows with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard, who described him as “a wild boy for the women” (for an entirely unwholesome and possibly apocryphal example of said wildness, consult page 84 of The Life and Times of Little Richard, or Google “Buddy Holly,” “Little Richard,” and “titty”).

In August 1958 he married María Elena Santiago, a receptionist at his publisher’s office, in New York. He moved to Greenwich Village, split with the Crickets, and hired a lawyer to help him break away from his manager and producer, Norman Petty, with whom he was fighting over royalties. Holly had all kinds of plans. He wanted to start a record label and a publishing company (which he planned to name Taupe, after the color of his Cadillac), build a studio and a pressing plant in Lubbock, and act in the movies. But he needed money. So he signed up for the Winter Dance Party, a package tour with rising and current stars that barnstormed the Midwest. After a month on the road, he’d be back in New York.

The other acts on the Winter Dance Party lineup were Ritchie Valens, a 17-year-old kid from the San Fernando Valley who had had a breakout hit with “Come On, Let’s Go”; the Big Bopper, a 28-year-old deejay from Beaumont who had made a splash that year with a novelty hit, “Chantilly Lace”; Dion and the Belmonts, a quartet of teen singers from New York with a few minor hits (“I Wonder Why” may be the most notable); and Frankie Sardo, an Italian kid from New York with another minor hit, “Fake Out.” Holly would be the top draw. At Christmas he returned to Lubbock to put a new band together. Earlier Holly had befriended and recorded a young deejay and singer named Waylon Jennings. Now he told him to learn how to play the bass; Tommy Allsup would play guitar and Carl Bunch drums.

The tour had no frills. Jennings, Allsup, and Bunch backed up all the stars, who sang through one microphone and whatever primitive public-address system the local promoter had found for the show. Sardo—whom Jennings later called “the worst singer you ever heard in your life”—was on first, then the Bopper, Valens, the Belmonts, and Holly (sometimes the Belmonts played second). There were no set changes; the show was a dance, and the stars played one after the other, the earlier acts doing a handful of songs and the later ones getting more time. Holly played 45 minutes to an hour. He began every performance with the old folk song “Gotta Travel On,” then moved through his hits, as well as “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” which had just been released, and a few covers, such as “Lucille,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Salty Dog Blues.” The whole concert was about two hours long.

That winter was brutally cold, and the musicians traveled in a series of cramped, drafty old charter buses that kept breaking down. The first performance was a January 23 show in front of six thousand kids in Milwaukee, where the temperature was 17 below zero. From there the tour crisscrossed between Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The bands played every night, sometimes driving three or four hundred miles to make shows in tiny towns like Kenosha, Mankato, and Montevideo. After about a week, they were miserable. Valens was sick, and the Bopper was coming down with the flu. There was never any time to do laundry, so besides being cold, the buses began to stink. “We smelled like goats,” Jennings later recalled. On January 30 Holly asked the Fort Dodge, Iowa, promoter about chartering a plane.

The next day the Winter Dance Party played a show at the Duluth National Guard Armory (Bob Dylan later claimed he was in the audience and that Holly had looked right at him). That night, the bus broke down on a lonely country road in rural Wisconsin. It was 30 below. The singers burned newspapers in the aisle and drank whiskey to keep warm as they waited to hitch rides to the nearest town. Bunch, the drummer, got so cold he had to be taken to a hospital and treated for frostbite. The afternoon show was canceled, but the band took a train to that evening’s gig, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for which Valens and one of the Belmonts subbed for Bunch on drums. A new bus was secured for the trip to Clear Lake, though Allsup says that Holly tried again to charter a plane, despite the bad weather. “He had no fear of flying in a small plane,” Allsup told me. “His theory was, you could land a small plane anywhere.” Holly loved flying—he and his brother Larry had taken a lesson, and he had dreamed of one day using a plane for touring. This night, however, he failed to locate one, so he climbed into the new bus, which had its share of problems too. Among other things, the heaters barely worked. By the time the troupe rolled into Clear Lake, Holly was determined not to get on a bus again.

Holly spent the last five and a half hours of his life in Clear Lake, but the way the town reveres him, it’s as if he were a native son. “Let’s face it,” one local told me, “Buddy’s death is the only thing that ever made Clear Lake what Clear Lake is. Otherwise it’d be just another little resort town.” His presence is everywhere, especially at the Surf Ballroom, where the tribute concert was held. About one thousand people showed up; the average age was maybe 65. Some wore hoopskirts and saddle shoes, others Converse sneakers. While we waited for the show to begin, I wandered around the dance hall, checking out the murals depicting seaside idylls and the ceilings painted in the wide green-and-white stripes of an old-fashioned beach tent.

Holly’s face is in every room at the Surf. Ten giant color prints hang in the main ballroom. Along the walls are photographs of Holly and the Crickets and Holly onstage at other shows on the Winter Dance Party tour (pictures have surfaced from every show on the tour except the one in Clear Lake); there are drawings of Holly, paintings of Holly, and original 78’s by Holly preserved behind glass. Valens and the Bopper each have a shrine, and there are pictures of graying Crickets and other fifties-era musicians who have played at annual reunion concerts over the years.

The June show featured a performance of John Mueller’s Winter Dance Party, a traveling re-creation of the original fronted by John Mueller, a singer and an actor who played Holly in the long-running Broadway hit musical Buddy . . . the Buddy Holly Story. Mueller’s show, which features the Bopper’s son, Jay P. Richardson, as his dad and a Las Vegas singer and guitarist named Ray Anthony as Ritchie Valens, has been touring every December, January, February, and March since 1999. Both the Valens and Holly estates have endorsed it as the official tribute show.

The Big Bopper was introduced first. Richardson bounded onstage, looking an awful lot like his father (tall, wide, and wearing a leopard-skin jacket). Backed by a drummer, bass player, guitarist, and saxophonist, he sang “White Lightning” (which the Bopper had written) and talked about his dad. When he did “Chantilly Lace”—holding an antique black telephone as a prop, just like the Bopper used to do—the whole crowd sang along: “Oh, baby, that’s-ah what I like!”

Anthony came on next as Valens. He plugged in his guitar and sang “Come On, Let’s Go.” When he did “La Bamba,” he demanded that everyone get up and dance, and all ambulatory Iowans complied, singing and waving their arms in the air. Most dancers were content to sway gently back and forth, holding hands and twirling, but some were determined to prove they could still rock. One paunchy sexagenarian twisted down to the floor and stiffly straightened up again while his wife good-naturedly looked on.

“And now, from Lubbock, Texas,” the announcer said, “Buddy Holly!” Mueller, who’s from Wichita, Kansas, ran onstage and strapped on his Stratocaster, and the band played “Maybe Baby,” with the drummer and the sax player singing the “ahhhhh-ah-ah-ah-ah” harmonies. Mueller is a skilled impersonator. He wears fake glasses and a short haircut, sets his legs like Holly did, and plays his guitar perfectly, from the intro to “That’ll Be the Day” to the rockabilly riffs in “Blue Days, Black Nights.” The drummer played the rolling tom-toms of “Peggy Sue” and slapped his thighs on “Everyday,” just like Jerry Allison, the drummer for the Crickets, did. “Buddy!” people called out. “Buddy!” The technology of rock and roll has changed since 1959—the drum kit was miked, everyone had vocal monitors—but the songs were identical, note for note, riff for riff. It was as if Holly had never died, that the years since 1960 had not passed so fast.

At some point in the evening Nicholas introduced me to Jerry Dwyer, the man who had owned the infamous plane. Dwyer is a mystery—even locals don’t know for certain what he thinks about the tragedy. He was the last man to see Holly, Valens, and the Bopper alive and the first to find their bodies. In many ways he is the haunted survivor of the crash. One Clear Lake resident told me, “Jerry and I are good friends, but I’ve never mentioned Buddy Holly to him because it has to be incredibly painful. Four human beings died in his airplane.” Dwyer was sued by Valens’s family in 1959 for $1.5 million in lost income (the case was ultimately settled). Several people told me he still gets angry calls in the middle of the night from Holly diehards screaming some version of “You killed Buddy!”

Allsup, who has stayed in touch with Dwyer, told me, “He blames himself for letting Roger go up there—that’s my opinion.” Over the years, Dwyer has turned down almost every interview request ever made to him, so I was surprised when I raised the possibility and he said, “Sure, I’ll visit with you.” I had read that he harbors an alternative theory about the crash, that perhaps it was caused by a fight onboard. I wanted to ask if it was true that he had kept some of the wreckage, and why. But I turned to watch the band for a few seconds, and when I turned back, Dwyer was gone.

When the Winter Dance Party bus pulled into the parking lot of the Surf Ballroom around 7:30 p.m. on February 2, 1959, teenagers were lined up in the cold, waiting to get in. One of them was thirteen-year-old Michael Bainter, who was raised in Clear Lake. “Buddy was a huge star,” he told me, “bigger than Elvis as far as I was concerned. I would have crawled out my bedroom window and been grounded a month if my parents had said I couldn’t go.” Today Bainter and his wife live just down the street from the ballroom. His old friend Mike Grandon lives a block away. Grandon has been the Cerro Gordo County treasurer since 1975, but back in 1959 he was just a boy trying to meet girls. “It was a teen dance,” Grandon recalled. “I think you had to be thirteen to get in.”

Inside, the musicians rushed to set up the equipment. The Bopper sat and chatted with Bob Hale, a local deejay, and Hale’s pregnant wife. The Bopper’s wife was also pregnant, and when Kathy Hale took his hand and placed it on her belly, he said, “I can’t wait to get home to that.” Holly talked to ballroom manager Carroll Anderson about chartering a plane to fly to the next gig, in Moorhead, Minnesota, 360 miles away, so he could get some sleep and do some laundry. Anderson said he’d help him find a plane. Anderson couldn’t find Dwyer, who owned Dwyer Flying Service, but he located one of his pilots, 21-year-old Roger Peterson. It would cost $108 for the trip. Holly agreed. “He was determined to fly,” said Allsup.

A thousand teens were on hand for the show. Anderson, who died in 2006, said in a 1977 interview he did with Bill Griggs, the founder of the Buddy Holly Memorial Society, that the musicians played two sets, starting on time at eight with Sardo. Five decades have dulled the memories of the kids who were at the show, though most I talked to still recall the Bopper’s performance. “I remember what a huge presence he was,” says Grandon. “He was big, boisterous, had a big smile on his face, waved his arms a lot, was very animated.” Dave Leonard, of Mason City, Iowa, had a similar impression of the garrulous Texan. “Buddy Holly was kind of quiet, and Ritchie Valens didn’t say a whole lot either,” says Leonard, also thirteen in 1959, though he admits he wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the singers. Like a lot of boys, he was there for other purposes. “There’s a brick wall in front of the men’s room. We’d sit on that wall because sooner or later every gal in the place would walk by that spot. We’d go up and watch the band too. We enjoyed the music, but we were there girl hunting.”

Holly finished the first set at 9:30, and the musicians took an intermission. The stars signed autographs and made phone calls from the ballroom’s backstage pay phone. Everyone knew about the plane—Holly was planning on taking Jennings and Allsup with him, and at some point that evening the ill Bopper approached Jennings. “We were really good friends,” Jennings told me in 2000, two years before his death. “He said, ‘Man, I’ve been sick. I have the flu. I can’t get any rest at all. Would you mind if I take your place on the plane?’ And I said, ‘Well, if it’s okay with Buddy, it’s okay with me.’ ” Holly okayed the deal. When Valens heard about the plane, he asked Allsup to give up his seat, but the guitarist refused. Valens persisted throughout the rest of the night, but Allsup kept turning him down.

After the intermission, the musicians returned and played a second set. When it came time for Holly’s last song, Sardo, the Bopper, Valens, and the Belmonts all joined him. Hale says Holly announced, “Hey, we’d love to do more, but we have a plane to catch. We’ll be back in the spring for the Spring Dance Party!” For their final tune the band launched into one of Chuck Berry’s songs, by some accounts “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (an anagram of which—as a die-hard Holly fan once discovered—is “rhyme man be dead on snow”).

Backstage, Holly and Jennings ate hot dogs, and Holly mocked his friend for not going with him on the plane. “I hope your damned bus freezes up again,” Holly said, laughing. Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” It was two friends having fun with each other but, as Jennings wrote later, “That took me a lot of years to get over.”

The musicians signed autographs, and Holly, the Bopper, and Allsup got in Anderson’s station wagon for the trip to the airport. This was the first time the musicians had broken their usual load-out protocol, and Holly asked Allsup to go back in and check to make sure they hadn’t left anything. While he was looking, Allsup bumped into Valens, who was signing a final autograph at the backstage door. Allsup remembers, “He asked me, ‘You gonna let me fly?’ For some reason I pulled out a fifty-cent piece, flipped it, said, ‘Call it.’ He called heads.” Valens won.

Anderson drove him, Holly, and the Bopper to the local airport, where they arrived at about 12:40 and met Dwyer and Peterson. The three musicians each paid $36 and got in the Beechcraft Bonanza—Holly in front. The plane taxied, sat on the runway for a few minutes, and took off at about 12:55 a.m., heading north. Dwyer later told investigators that from his point of view, in the airport tower, he thought he’d detected the plane “going down at a very slow rate of descent as it went farther away from us. I would guess that it was approximately four miles north of us. I thought at the time that probably it was an optical illusion.”

Peterson hadn’t filed a flight plan but told the airport controller that he would as soon as he was aloft. He never did, and Dwyer spent the next several hours trying to contact the plane, then calling airports along the northern path—where nobody had seen or heard anything. The controller in Fargo, North Dakota, told him the airport was closed due to a blizzard. Frustrated and worried, Dwyer took another of his planes up a little after nine that morning and half an hour later spotted the wreckage five miles from the airport. He called Anderson, who notified Hale, who was on the air at KRIB. Hale interrupted the record he was playing and broke the news to the world that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper were dead. “Then I reached over for a Holly album and put it on and just dropped the needle,” he told me. He couldn’t remember the song.

Federal investigators from the Civil Aeronautics Board spent three days poring over the crash site, and since there was no evidence of fire or equipment failure, they turned to the pilot. Peterson, they were told by flight instructors, sometimes suffered in-flight vertigo and disorientation. One instructor noted that during a March 1958 training flight, Peterson had been “very susceptible to distractions.” The CAB report, released in September 1959, concluded: “It is believed that shortly after takeoff pilot Roger Peterson entered an area of complete darkness and one in which there was no definite horizon; that the snow conditions and the lack of horizon required him to rely solely on flight instruments . . . ” Peterson was licensed, but he was not certified to fly by instruments alone. In the pitch-dark northern plains, with an overcast sky hiding the stars above and no city lights below, he couldn’t tell which way was up.

Iowans didn’t take kindly to the idea that one of their own had caused the crash, and over the years other theories were advanced. The most controversial one came after Holly’s pistol, which he carried in the bottom of his shaving kit, was found by Albert Juhl in the cornfield two months after the crash. Holly had the gun because of the large amounts of cash he carried after the shows. One empty shell was in the pistol, meaning it had been fired, but Juhl told the sheriff that was because he had shot it himself to see if it still worked. Nonetheless, a story took shape that perhaps there had been a struggle. Perhaps drugs and alcohol were involved (these were, after all, rock stars). One rumor has it that during one of Holly’s last phone calls with his young wife, María Elena, the couple had argued; perhaps he was so distraught that he started shooting.

Examiners never found any signs of gunplay (shells in the wreckage, bullet holes in the fuselage, or gunshot wounds to the bodies), but many locals remain convinced that some kind of onboard violence contributed to the crash. The theory gained enough momentum that in 2007 Jay Richardson paid to have his father’s body exhumed and examined by a forensic anthropologist. (It wasn’t just because of the gun; the Bopper’s body had been found farther from the plane than the others, on the other side of the fence, leading some to wonder if he had survived the impact and crawled away.) The expert concluded that the Bopper had died on impact. “There was no foul play,” he stated. After Griggs, the Holly expert, had a chance to look over the Bopper’s X-rays, he reported on his Web site, “It seemed that every bone had been fractured at least once.”

Griggs has his own theory. “I think the wings iced,” he told me. “Dwyer kept calling Peterson on the radio, and he never responded. I think he was too busy trying to keep the plane in the air.”

One person who remains a skeptic is Jerry Dwyer. I called him a few months after my visit, hoping he would remember his tentative okay to sit for an interview. I was in luck. Dwyer still flies, still has a hangar at the Mason City airport, and confirmed that he still gets nasty calls in the middle of the night, though not as often as he used to. “Yeah, I’ve had death threats and everything else,” he said. “Nobody has shot at me as far as I know.” I’d heard he was writing a book about the crash and his experience. “I’m working on it,” he confirmed, adding that he hopes to have it out within a year. “I’m gonna stir things up, and some folks are not gonna like it. But you have to remember: I was the only guy there.” He wouldn’t elaborate, but he did acknowledge that he had kept some of the wreckage. “There’s a reason I still have it.”

“Because it backs up your theory of what caused the crash?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied darkly, “I would think so.”

The survivors of the Winter Dance Party tour went on to enjoy various careers in show business. Dion left the Belmonts and had a series of huge hits in the sixties, including “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer.” Jennings became one of the biggest country stars of the seventies. Allsup turned himself into one of the greatest session guitarists ever, backing up everyone from Bob Wills to Willie Nelson and playing on some 6,500 recording sessions with three hundred artists (in 1987 he opened a club in Dallas’s Deep Ellum called Tommy’s Heads-Up Club; he still has the coin that saved his life). Allsup’s rhythm section partner, Carl Bunch, became a minister, singing Holly’s songs but with new, Christian lyrics. Sardo moved into film, acting in and producing B movies, like The Human Factor.

Holly wasn’t the only one of the three teen idols to become larger-than-life in death. Valens, the first great Mexican American rock star, influenced several generations of bands, including Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys, and his life was the basis of the popular 1987 film La Bamba. A biopic of the Bopper is under way now too. Its working title is “The Day the Music Died.”

Of course, the music didn’t really die. Before leaving Iowa, I went back out to the cornfield and stood alone at the crash site. It was sad and eerie yet also strangely unsatisfying. The world long ago moved on from this place. The corn grew again and died again and grew again. Kids thousands of miles away and dozens of years in the future heard the music made by the guys who died here, and it moved them so much that they started making music too. As I walked back through the corn to my car, a song played over and over in my head. It was “That’ll Be the Day,” and it made me glad to be alive.

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  • J

    If only the higher ups at the entertainment industry had paid Holly he could have bought a car. Instead they made them all take terrible chances and they lost. They reformed, refigured the music and brought them in from across the ocean. We can turn it all back the way it is supposed to be.

  • Shelby T Mitchell

    Indeed the day the music some fifty-six years ago.