Death of Buddy Holly and Lost Innocence

By Carl M. Cannon

Hello. It’s February 4. On this date in 1959, sadness was the order of the day for fans of a galvanizing new music genre – wherever they lived.

Little Richard once described the new sound this way: “The blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock 'n' roll.” In the winter of 1959, several young musical midwives were showing off that new baby to enthusiastic audiences in the dance halls of the upper Midwest.

Three of them, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, would lose their lives in the cause. After playing two sold-out shows in Clear Lake, Iowa, they headed to a small airport in nearby Mason City. It was an hour after midnight, so it was officially Feb. 3, 1959, when pilot Roger Peterson took the three young musicians in a single engine Beech Bonanza airplane, headed toward Fargo, N.D.

They were all so very young. At 28, the Big Bopper was the old man of the group. Buddy Holly was only a year older than the 21-year-old pilot; Ritchie Valens, who played his huge hit “Donna” in Clear Lake, had yet to turn 18. And he never would. That night, as wind blew snow across the runway, their plane took off, flying directly into a blizzard – and immortality.

Holly was just out of high school in Texas when he opened for Elvis Presley in 1955. As Little Richards noted, the blues were a foundation for the new sound. But so were hillbilly tunes, gospel music, and – in Ritchie Valens’ case - Mexican mariachi and flamenco guitar.

All of that was on display on Holly’s planned 24-day, 24-town “Winter Dance Party Tour,” as was the two-guitar, one-bass, one-drum ensemble he popularized, and which would be adopted by bands ranging from the Beach Boys and the Beatles to the Talking Heads.

Although the paradigm of the tragically hip rocker who died young – and whose sound continued to play on the radio – had not yet become a sad staple of the music industry, who can blame young people for wanting to hear more of this sound? Buddy Holly hadn’t been making records for even two years. Ritchie Valens wasn’t old enough to buy cigarettes.

In 1971, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” introduced the doomed young musicians to a new generation of music lovers while portraying the 1959 plane crash as a metaphor for the nation’s lost innocence.

“I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride,” Don McLean wrote, “but something touched me deep inside the day the music died.” The songwriter was alluding to María Elena Holly, but not only her.

“American Pie” is a fine song, but Feb. 3, 1959, was not the day the music died, not literally. By 1971, Don McLean’s dancing teenagers in “pink carnations and pick-up trucks” were grown, most with kids of their own – and both generations were listening to the music. In fact, it wasn’t even the day Buddy Holly’s music died.

The young man’s body was on its way back to Texas on this morning 54 years ago, but his widow was living in New York in a Greenwich Village building called The Brevoort, in apartment number 4-H, a two bedroom place that rented for $1,000 a month (and would go for a cool $2.4 million today).

Although the Hollys only lived there a few months, one of the ways Buddy spent his time was recording songs on Ampex tape. The Buddy Holly “Apartment Sessions,” consisting mostly of Buddy and his acoustic guitar, included “Peggy Sue Got Married” - and are jewels in the early trove of rock music.

“Dearest,” another of the apartment session songs, was included in the soundtrack to the 2007 movie “Juno.” Thus was Buddy Holly introduced yet again to a new audience, this one young enough to have been the grandchildren of those fans in their “pink carnations and pick-up trucks” who first heard the music that has never died.

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