The Day the Music Died

This article is about the plane crash. For other uses, see The Day the Music Died (disambiguation).

The Day the Music Died

The memorial marking the crash site, 2003
Accident summary
Date February 3, 1959 (1959-02-03)
Summary Spatial disorientation, pilot not qualified to fly in IMC conditions.
Site Near Clear Lake, Iowa, United States
43°13′13.3″N 93°22′53.1″W / 43.220361°N 93.381417°W / 43.220361; -93.381417Coordinates: 43°13′13.3″N 93°22′53.1″W / 43.220361°N 93.381417°W / 43.220361; -93.381417
Passengers 3
Crew 1
Fatalities 4 (all)
Aircraft type Beechcraft Bonanza
Operator Dwyer Flying Service, Mason City, Iowa
Registration N3794N
Flight origin Mason City Municipal Airport, Iowa
Destination Hector Airport, North Dakota

On February 3, 1959, rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with pilot Roger Peterson. The event later became known as "The Day the Music Died", after singer-songwriter Don McLean so referred to it in his 1971 song "American Pie".

At the time, Holly and his band, consisting of Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Carl Bunch, were playing on the "Winter Dance Party" tour across the Midwest. Rising artists Valens and Richardson had joined the tour as well.

The long journeys between venues on board the cold, uncomfortable tour buses adversely affected the performers, with cases of flu and even frostbite. After stopping at Clear Lake to perform, and frustrated by such conditions, Holly decided to charter a plane to reach their next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota. Richardson, who had flu, swapped places with Jennings, taking his seat on the plane, while Allsup lost his seat to Valens on a coin toss.

Soon after take-off, late at night and in poor, wintry weather conditions, the pilot lost control of the light aircraft, a Beechcraft Bonanza, which subsequently crashed into a cornfield, leaving no survivors.


Buddy Holly terminated his association with the Crickets in November 1958. For the start of the "Winter Dance Party" tour, he assembled a band consisting of Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar), and Carl Bunch (drums), with the opening vocals of Frankie Sardo. The tour was set to cover 24 Midwestern cities in as many days. New hit artist Ritchie Valens, J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Dion DiMucci and his band The Belmonts joined the tour to promote their recordings and make an extra profit.[1][2]

Winter Dance Party Tour schedule, 1959

The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The amount of travel soon became a logistical problem. The distances between venues had not been properly considered when the performances were scheduled. Adding to the disarray, the tour bus was not equipped for the weather. Its heating system broke down shortly after the tour began, in Appleton, Wisconsin. While flu spread among the rest of the performers, drummer Bunch was hospitalized in Ironwood, Michigan, for severely frostbitten feet. The musicians replaced that bus with a school bus and kept traveling.[3] After Bunch was hospitalized, Carlo Mastrangelo of the Belmonts took over the drumming duties. When Dion and the Belmonts were performing, the drum seat was taken by either Valens or Buddy Holly. As Holly's group had been the backing band for all of the acts, Holly, Valens, and DiMucci took turns playing drums for each other at the performances in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Clear Lake, Iowa.[4]

On Monday, February 2, the tour arrived in Clear Lake. The town had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom, Carroll Anderson (1920-2006), and offered him the show. He accepted, and they set the show for that night. By the time Holly arrived at the venue that evening, he was frustrated with the tour bus and decided to charter a plane to take him, after the show, to Fargo, North Dakota. The party would have picked him up for the next tour stop, in Moorhead, Minnesota, saving him the journey in the bus and leaving him time to get some rest.[3]

Flight arrangements

refer to caption
A V-tailed Bonanza similar to N3794N, the accident aircraft

Surf Ballroom manager Anderson called Hubert Dwyer, owner of the Dwyer Flying Service, a company in Mason City, Iowa, to charter the plane to fly to Hector Airport in Fargo, the closest one to Moorhead.[5] Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old local pilot described as a "young married man who built his life around flying".[6]

The flying service charged a fee of $36 per passenger for the flight on the 1947 single-engined, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza (registration N3794N[7]), which could seat three passengers plus the pilot.[8] A popular misconception, originating from Don McLean's eponymous song about the crash, was that the plane was called American Pie. In fact, no record exists of any name ever having been given to N3794N.[9]

Richardson had contracted flu during the tour and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said in jest: "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings responded: "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes", a humorous but ill-fated response that haunted him for the rest of his life.[10]

Ritchie Valens, who had once had a fear of flying, asked Tommy Allsup for his seat on the plane. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide.[5] Bob Hale, a DJ with KRIB-AM, was working the concert that night and flipped the coin in the ballroom's side-stage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss for the seat on the flight.

Dion had been approached to join the flight, although it is unclear exactly when he was asked. He decided that since the $36 fare (equivalent to US$292.7 in today's money)[11] equaled the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he could not justify the indulgence.[12]

Take-off and crash

After the show ended, Anderson drove Holly, Valens, and Richardson to the Mason City Municipal Airport.[13] The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet (910 m) AMSL with sky obscured, visibility 6 miles (9,700 m) and winds from 20 to 30 mph (32 to 48 km/h). Although deteriorating weather was reported along the planned route, the weather briefings pilot Peterson received failed to relay the information.[14]

Mason City and Clear Lake, Iowa

The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today's runway 18) at 12:55 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, February 3.[15] Dwyer, the owner of the flight service company, witnessed the take-off from a platform outside the control tower. He was able to see clearly the aircraft's tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 ft. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view. Around 1:00 a.m., when Peterson failed to make the expected radio contact, repeated attempts to establish communication were made, at Dwyer's request, by the radio operator, but they were all unsuccessful.[6]

Later that morning, Dwyer, having heard no word from Peterson since his departure, took off in another airplane to retrace his planned route. Within minutes, at around 9:35 a.m., he spotted the wreckage less than 6 mi (9.7 km) northwest of the airport.[6] The sheriff's office, alerted by Dwyer, dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl.[16]

The Bonanza had impacted terrain at high speed, estimated to have been around 170 mph (270 km/h), banked steeply to the right and in a nose-down attitude. The right wing tip had struck the ground first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet (160 m), before coming to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl's property.[6]

The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the torn fuselage and lay near the wreckage. Richardson's body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl's neighbor Oscar Moffett, while pilot Peterson's body was entangled in the plane's wreckage.[6] With the rest of the entourage en route to Minnesota, it fell to ballroom manager Carroll Anderson, who had driven the party to the airport and witnessed the plane's takeoff, to identify the bodies of the musicians.[17] County coroner Ralph Smiley certified that all four victims died instantly, citing the cause of death as "gross trauma to brain" for the three artists and "brain damage" for the pilot.[18][19]


Holly's pregnant wife, María Elena, learned of his death from the reports on television. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, reportedly due to "psychological trauma". Holly's mother, on hearing the news on the radio at home in Lubbock, Texas, screamed and collapsed.[1] María Elena Holly did not attend the funeral and has never visited the gravesite. She later said in an interview: "In a way, I blame myself. I was not feeling well when he left. I was two weeks pregnant, and I wanted Buddy to stay with me, but he had scheduled that tour. It was the only time I wasn't with him. And I blame myself because I know that, if only I had gone along, Buddy never would have gotten into that airplane."[20]

The "Winter Dance Party" tour did not stop; Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup continued performing for two more weeks, with Jennings taking Holly's place as lead singer.[21] Meanwhile, the funerals of the victims were being held individually; Holly and Richardson were buried in Texas, Valens in California, and pilot Peterson in Iowa.

Official investigation

A tangled mass of metal with a wing and landing gear wheel barely recognizable, on a snowy field
The wreckage of N3794N as found by the authorities on the morning of the accident

The official investigation was carried out by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, precursor to the NTSB). It emerged that pilot Roger Peterson had over four years of flying experience, of which one with Dwyer Flying Service, and had accumulated 711 flying hours, of which 128 on Bonanzas. He had also logged 52 hours of instrument flying training, although had passed only his written examination, and was not yet qualified to operate in weather that required flying solely by reference to instruments. He and Dwyer Flying Service itself were certified to operate only under visual flight rules, which essentially require that the pilot must be able to see where he is going. However, on the night of the accident, visual flight would have been virtually impossible due to the low clouds obscuring the stars, the lack of a visible horizon, and the absence of ground lights over the sparsely populated area.[6]

Furthermore, Peterson, who had failed an instrument checkride nine months before the accident, had received his instrument training on airplanes equipped with a conventional artificial horizon as source of aircraft attitude information, while N3794N was equipped with an older-type Sperry F3 attitude gyroscope. Crucially, the two types of instruments display the same aircraft pitch attitude information in graphically opposite ways.

The CAB concluded that the accident was due to "the pilot's unwise decision to embark on a flight" that required instrument flying skills he had not proved to have. A contributing factor was the pilot's unfamiliarity with the old-style attitude gyroscope fitted on board the aircraft, which may have caused him to believe that he was climbing when he was in fact descending (an example of spatial disorientation). Another contributing factor was the "seriously inadequate" weather briefing provided to the pilot, which "failed to even mention adverse flying condition which should have been highlighted".[6][22]

Subsequent investigations

On March 6, 2007, in Beaumont, Texas, the body of J.P. Richardson was exhumed to rebury it in a more fitting part of the local Forest Lawn cemetery. The musician's son Jay Perry took the opportunity to have his father's body re-examined to verify the original findings, and asked forensic anthropologist William Bass to carry out the procedure.

Among the rumors surrounding the accident that this second examination sought to verify was that an accidental firearm discharge took place on board the aircraft and caused the crash, since two months after the event, a farmer had found at the crash site a .22 pistol known to have belonged to Buddy Holly. Another rumor had Richardson surviving the initial impact and crawling out of the aircraft in search for help, prompted by the fact that his body was found farther from the wreckage than the other three.

Dr. Bass and his team took several X-rays of Richardson's body and eventually concluded that the musician had indeed died instantly from extensive, nonsurvivable fractures to almost all of his bones; no traces of lead were found from any bullet. Coroner Smiley's original report was therefore confirmed.[23][24]

Calls to reopen the investigation

In March 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the successor to the Civil Aeronautics Board, received a request to reopen the investigation into the accident.[25] The request was made by L. J. Coon, a retired pilot from New England who felt that the conclusion of the 1959 investigation was inaccurate. Coon suspected a possible failure of the right rudder, or a problem with the fuel system, as well as a possible improper weight distribution. Coon also argued that Peterson may have tried to land the plane and that his efforts should be recognized.[26][27] In April 2015, the NTSB declined the request, citing that the evidence presented by Coon was insufficient to merit the reconsideration of the original findings.[28]


Notification of victims' families

Following the miscarriage suffered by Holly's wife and the circumstances in which she was informed of his death, a policy was later adopted by authorities not to disclose victims' names until after their families have been informed.[1]


A memorial service for Roger Peterson was held at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ventura, Iowa, on February 5. A funeral was held the next day at St. Paul Lutheran Church in his hometown of Alta; Peterson was buried in Buena Vista Memorial Cemetery in nearby Storm Lake. His grave site is located at coordinates N 42 39.189 W 095 13.996. Peterson's parents later received condolence letters from the families of Holly and Valens.


Memorial concerts

Fans of Holly, Valens, and Richardson have been gathering for annual memorial concerts at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake since 1979.[30] The 50th-anniversary concert took place on February 2, 2009, with Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely, Wanda Jackson, Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, Chris Montez, Bobby Vee, Graham Nash, Peter and Gordon, Tommy Allsup, and a house band featuring Chuck Leavell, James "Hutch" Hutchinson, Bobby Keys and Kenny Aronoff. Jay P. Richardson, the son of the Big Bopper, was among the participating artists, and Bob Hale was the master of ceremonies, as he was at the 1959 concert.[31][32]


A sculpture of sort, consisting of two white posts holding a black spectacles frame in Buddy Holly's characteristic style
Signpost near the Clear Lake crash site

In June 1988, a four-foot-tall granite memorial bearing the names of Peterson and the three entertainers was dedicated outside The Surf Ballroom with Peterson's widow, parents and sister in attendance; the event marked the first time that the families of Holly, Richardson, Valens and Peterson had gathered together.

In 1989, Ken Paquette, a Wisconsin fan of the 1950s era, made a stainless steel monument that depicts a guitar and a set of three records bearing the names of the three performers killed in the accident.

The monument is on private farmland, about 14 mi (0.40 km) west of the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue, 5 mi (8.0 km) north of Clear Lake. A large plasma-cut steel set of Wayfarer-style glasses, constructed by Michael Connor of Clear Lake, similar to those Holly wore, sits at the access point to the crash site.

Paquette also created a similar stainless steel monument to the three musicians located outside the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Holly, the Big Bopper, and Valens played their second-to-last show on the night of February 1, 1959. This second memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003.[33] In February 2009, a further memorial made by Paquette for pilot Roger Peterson was unveiled at the crash site.[34]


A road originating near the Surf Ballroom, extending north and passing to the west of the crash site, is now known as Buddy Holly Place.[35]


"American Pie"
The song "American Pie" dubbed the accident "The Day The Music Died"

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See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Suddath, Claire (February 3, 2009). "The Day the Music Died". Time. Retrieved April 29, 2015.
  2. Everitt 2004, p. 10.
  3. 1 2 Everitt 2004, p. 13.
  4. "Connection to Buddy Holly Death". Retrieved February 3, 2011.
  5. 1 2 Everitt 2004, p. 14.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Civil Aeronautics Board (September 23, 1959). "Aircraft Accident Report" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 26, 2009. Retrieved February 4, 2009. (Archive)
  7. "FAA Registry". Federal Aviation Administration.
  8. Schuck, Raymond 2012, p. 16.
  9. "American Pie". Retrieved 16 April 2015.
  10. Jennings & Kaye 1996, p. 70.
  11. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved October 21, 2016.
  12. DiMucci, Dion (1988). The Wanderer. Beech Tree Books. p. 89.
  13. Everitt 2004, p. 15.
  14. Everitt 2004, p. 16.
  15. Everitt 2004, p. 17.
  16. Everitt 2004, p. 18.
  17. Everitt 2004, p. 21.
  18. "Death certificates" (PDF). Awesome Stories. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  19. "Coroner's investigation" (PDF). Awesome Stories. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  20. Kerns, William (August 15, 2008). "Buddy and Maria Elena Holly married 50 years ago". Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Retrieved April 29, 2015.
  21. Carr & Munde 1997, p. 155.
  22. "Aircraft Accident Report: File No. 2-0001" (PDF). Civil Aeronautics Board. September 15, 1959. p. 3, "The Aircraft" section.
  23. Griggs, Bill. "Big Bopper Exhumation". Retrieved April 26, 2015.
  24. "Autopsy of 'Big Bopper' to Address Rumors About 1959 Plane Crash". The Washington Post. January 18, 2007. Retrieved April 26, 2015.
  25. "Board considers reopening investigation into plane crash that caused the death of Buddy Holly". KITV. March 3, 2015. Retrieved March 4, 2015.
  26. Kilen, Mike (March 4, 2015). "NTSB considers reopening Buddy Holly crash case". Des Moines Register. Gannett Company. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  27. Pilkington, Ed (March 5, 2015). "Buddy Holly plane crash : officials consider reopening 1959 probe". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  28. "Buddy Holly crash investigation will not be reopened". The Des Moines Register. Associated Press. April 28, 2015. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  29. 1 2 McDonald 2010, p. 33.
  30. "Winter Dance Party History". Surf Ballroom. Archived from the original on February 4, 2012.
  31. Bream, Jon (February 3, 2009). "Fans Pack Surf Ballroom for Tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper". CMT News. Retrieved February 2, 2013.
  32. Coffey, Joe (February 5, 2009). "Holly, Valens, Richardson Remembered: 50 Winters Later". Premier Guitar. Retrieved February 2, 2013.
  33. Jordan, Jennifer (April 11, 2007). "The Day the Music Died". Articles Tree. Archived from the original on February 7, 2012. Retrieved January 30, 2009.
  34. Jordan, Jennifer (February 2, 2009). "Memorial to Buddy Holly pilot dedicated at crash site". Des Moines Register. Retrieved April 14, 2009.
  35. "Clear Lake, Iowa: Buddy Holly Crash Site". Retrieved June 25, 2011.
  36. Crouse 2012, p. 86.
  37. Thimou, Theodore (December 28, 2006). "Preview: The Twice-Famous Don McLean Plays Rams Head". Bay Weekly. Archived from the original on June 13, 2008. Retrieved September 11, 2008.


  • Carr, Joseph; Munde, Alan (1997). Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas. Texas Tech University Press. ISBN 978-0-89672-365-8. 
  • Crouse, Richard (2012). Who Wrote The Book of Love?. Random House Digital. ISBN 978-0-385-67442-3. 
  • Everitt, Rich (2004). Falling Stars: Air Crashes That Filled Rock and Roll Heaven. Harbor House. ISBN 978-1-891799-04-4. 
  • McDonald, Les (2010). The Day the Music Died. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4691-1356-2. 
  • Jennings, Waylon; Kaye, Lenny (1996). Waylon :An Autobiography. Warner Books. ISBN 978-0-446-51865-9. 
  • Schuck, Raymond (2012). Do You Believe in Rock and Roll? Essays on Don Mclean's American Pie. McFarland. ISBN 978-1-4766-0036-9. 

Further reading

  • Lehmer, Larry (2004). The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens (illustrated ed.). Music Sales Group. ISBN 0-8256-7287-2. 
  • Rabin, Staton (2009). Oh Boy! The Life and Music of Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer Buddy Holly (illustrated ed.). Van Winkle Publishing (Kindle). ASIN B001OQBLLG. 
  • Schinder, Scott; Huxley, Martin; Skinner, Quinton (2000). The Day the Music Died (illustrated ed.). Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-03962-8. 
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