That'll Be the Day (the Music Died): 50 Years Later

Music Features Buddy Holly
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That'll Be the Day (the Music Died): 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago to the day, on Feb. 3, 1959, a single-engine plane carrying three influential musicians took off from a small airport in Mason City, Iowa, at around 1 a.m. The rock 'n' rollers on board had just finished playing their last show in Clear Lake, just south of the airport, at the Surf Ballroom. What Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson thought they were getting was a warm ride to what should've been the next stop on the tour in Minnesota. It was, from all accounts, the tour from hell. Poorly planned routes, sick musicians and worst of all, a bus with a broken heater in the dead of winter. Thirty-six bucks for warmth probably didn't seem too bad of a deal, considering the situation.

For those who don't know the rest of the story, the little plane didn't make it far, crashing into a snowy cornfield shortly after take off. Later that morning, the three young men and the pilot were found dead amongst or near the wreckage. And while folk-singer Don McClean would go on to coin that event "the day the music died" in his 1972 hit, "American Pie," for many aspiring musicians, this was only the beginning of something great—a day of birth rather than death.

The effect of this loss is difficult to measure or put into words, which is why we left it up to a small handful of those influenced by these great musicians. It's strange to see how much someone can say with so few words regarding that day (Paul Westerberg), or how some unlikely musicians find parallels between their's and Buddy's music (Ben Lee). But that's the beautiful part of remembering that sad day 50 years ago: It's impact is endless and will only continue to influence the future of music.


Click here for a 17-track List of the Day in memory of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.

Click here for Paste's review of two Holly reissues, Memorial Collection and Down the Line: Rarities.


Rhett Miller:

Buddy Holly was one of us. A crack-up, a rocker, a goof, an oddball Texan. He loved to make music. You can hear it in his songs. He brought a sense of playfulness to his productions. He stood up to the industry during a time in which everyone else laid down. Those songs were his. Undeniably. I admired him during my youth as much as any musician to whom I was exposed. As a kid, I went with my family for weekly dinners at a little diner called Roscoe White's Easy Way, though we of course referred to it as The Greasy Way. At each table of the diner was a small jukebox. "Peggy Sue" was my favorite cut on the jukebox. The stuttered "P", the "uh-ooh's." Who else was doing this stuff? Nobody! Years later, I'd get to work with the great Waylon Jennings. One of my favorite moments involved picking Waylon's brain about Buddy Holly, for whom Waylon had played bass, and hearing stories of Buddy Holly, the guy. Buddy sounded like a dude with a great sense of humor. Quick to laugh. Self-deprecating, especially when it came to his famous falsetto. Was he country? Rockabilly? Rock and roll? It doesn't matter, does it? Listen to these records, kids. These are songs. Great songs. Pure and simple. His untimely death helped cement his place in the history of rock, but it robbed us of a great talent. I wish he was here right now, sharing a bill with the Old 97's, hanging out in the dressing room, making me laugh my head off.

Joe Bradley (Black Lips):
The day the music died, the world saw the loss of some great musicians. Buddy Holly had been one of the first mainstream successes that actually wrote and performed his own songs. His charming delivery, southern style and minimalist approach to rock and roll has continued to inspire generations of people. He may not have been as handsome as Elvis, but he had a swagger that could hold to the best of them.

Let's not forget The Big Bopper, whose interesting style could have gone a number of different directions. Personality sells whatever wares one has to offer. He may have gone on to retire to a disc-jockey job on radio, or perhaps opened a used-car lot, using convincing methods of advertisement like clubbing baby seals if you don't get your butt down there to take advantage of his craaaaaazy deals.

And Ritchie Valens? Maybe not quite as good as the other two, but definitely has his moments. "Donna" is a lady killer: so sweet and syrupy, like a blueberry triple-stack of homemade pancakes. Check please. What? I didn't order three dead musicians!

Lindi Ortega:
Well, what can I say?

I just recorded my own version of "Everyday" by Buddy Holly, and it furthered my appreciation of his songwriting. He had a fantastic, unique voice and style. It truly is a shame his life was cut short, as I'm sure he would have written many more classic tunes that we would still be singing today.

My first introduction to Ritchie Valens was the movie La Bamba. I must have listened to the soundtrack a million times. I don't think there is a girl on this planet that doesn't wish their name was Donna so they could have such a beautiful song ("Donna") to claim for their own.

Valens was of Mexican decent, so immediately I identified, because I am as well. His background and culture are what made his music so original. He helped create a movement. I think all us musicians aspire to do that in our careers, and that's why Valens is so respected. Valens was another sad loss for the music world. He was so talented and such a dynamic performer.

I think February 3rd is a day to celebrate the lives of these wonderful artists, a day to sing along to their tunes, a day to appreciate their contribution to music history. These artists are both still relevant because there are so many young aspiring musicians that can still learn from them and the careers they led, and the rest of the world can still appreciate the timeless music they created.

Jason Stollsteimer (The Von Bondies):
Ritchie Valens most definitely had an influence on me. The amount he achieved and created in his very short life was something that most musicians strive for and never reach over a normal life span. His songs have touched so many generations. Sadly, there is not enough information or footage of him while he was alive and touring to really know the true potential he had.

Nicole Atkins:
[Buddy] influenced my love for music from when I was little and would connect with my parents over his music in the car. Also, the movie they made with Gary Busey is one of the first music movies I can remember watching. He was one of the first rockers with swagger, showing that you didn’t need typical "movie star" looks to have a sexy and dangerous swagger. You just needed good tunes and some attitude. And, a song like "Everyday" is one of the most perfect and simple songs ever written and listening to it today still sounds as fresh as I’m sure it would have back when it was written.

I think the reason that the deaths of Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper had such an effect on people back then all the way up through now is because they were so young and were the brightest stars in rock 'n' roll at the time and were supposed to be the future of music. Imagine if we lost three of our biggest, most influential, youngest musicians all at the same time right now. God forbid!