The Music Dies In An Lowa Cornfield

“It was already snowing at Minneapolis, and the general forecast for the area along the intended route indicated deteriorating weather conditions,” wrote the Civil Aeronautics Board investigators six months after the crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson on this day in 1959. “The ceiling and visibility were lowering…and winds aloft were so high one could reasonably have expected to encounter adverse weather during the estimated two-hour flight.” All of this information was available to 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson, if only he had asked for it. Instead, he relied on an incomplete weather report and on the self-confidence of youth in making the decision to take off from Clear Lake, Iowa, shortly after midnight on February 3, 1959. Untrained and uncertified in instrument-only flight, Peterson was flying into conditions that made visual navigation impossible. “Considering all of these facts,” the investigating authorities concluded, “the decision to go seems most imprudent.”

The young pilot’s decision to go may well have been influenced by the eagerness of his almost equally young client, Buddy Holly, to spare himself and his backing band another miserable night in the unheated tour bus that had already sent his drummer to the hospital with symptoms of frostbite. Eleven days into a scheduled 23-stop tour, Holly was fed up, worn out and looking forward to a good night’s rest in a warm bed before the next night’s show in Moorhead, Minnesota. In a similar mindset was a tired and ill J.P. Richardson, who played on the sympathies of Holly’s guitarist to wangle his seat on the flight with Holly. That guitarist was future country legend Waylon Jennings. Meanwhile Tommy Allsup, Holly’s guitarist, offered to flip a coin with up-and-coming young star Ritchie Valens for his seat. And so it was that Peterson’s Beechcraft Bonanza carried not Holly and his band, but Holly and two of the three other stars of the Winter Dance Party Tour on its ill-fated flight. Dion di Mucci was the fourth of those stars, but he would join Allsup, Jennings and the various other tour musicians on the freezing bus ride ahead.

The plane would crash, and Holly, Richardson, Valens and Peterson would be dead, within five minutes of takeoff, as the direct result of pilot error. Only the next morning, when Waylon Jennings learned what had happened hours earlier, would he recall his final, good-natured exchange with Buddy Holly. “Well,” said Holly when he learned of Jennings’ swap with the Big Bopper, “I hope your old bus freezes over.” Jennings’ response: “Well, I hope your plane crashes.”

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