Buddy Holly was just 22 when his life suddenly ended in a plane crash on February 3rd, 1959. He achieved great success and accomplished a lot in his very short life. Although his untimely passing occurred 55 years ago, his music and legend continues to live on in pop culture.
Most of us were not even born at the time he achieved fame. However, his hit songs, like Peggy Sue and That'll Be the Day remain well known and still generate sales.
The Surf Ballroom in Iowa was the last place Buddy Holly, J. P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens performed before boarding the plane that fateful night. The ballroom honors these men with a tribute show each year on February 2nd.
Buddy Holly's Childhood Years
Buddy was born in Texas in 1936. His parents named him Charles, but everyone knew him as Buddy. He had two older brothers, and likely got the nickname due to his being the youngest in the family.
It was clear that Buddy had musical talent from a very young age. His brothers gave him music lessons. He learned how to play the guitar and a banjo before starting school.
Buddy also loved to sing. At the tender age of five he won his first talent contest. Music was always a big part of his life. He sang in the school choirs, and teamed up with a friend to sing in local talent shows in both junior and senior high school. The schools where he was a student back in the 1950s have murals to honor his memory.
Singing at one of the dance parties that were popular in the 50s
His Successful Career
Buddy was very well-known in Lubbock, Texas, his home town, by the time he finished high school. The ambitious young man set out prove himself as a major recording star.
In the fall of 1955 Buddy and two of his childhood friends performed the opening act for Elvis Presley, who was not well-known at the time. Later they opened for Bill Haley and the Comets. Buddy's talent was noticed by people scouting for musical talent, and in 1956 he signed his first recording contract.
Buddy formed a band, consisting of himself, a rhythm guitar player, drummer, and bass player. They decided to call the group The Crickets. One of the four men decided to leave the group shortly after, although he was not replaced. Things did not go well at the studio, as Holly didn't approve of the restrictions that was placed on the group. Buddy wanted more control than they were willing to give him. Two songs were recorded, but neither one was successful.
Their year-long contract expired, and they were not offered another one. Buddy was more determined than ever to be successful. He hired a new manager who soon signed the group up to a new contract with a different studio. Within two months they released their first song called 'That'll be the Day'. It was a big hit and made Buddy Holly and The Crickets major stars. Before the year was over they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. This program was known for its showcasing both emerging performers as well as well known celebrities. It was certainly a coup for anyone to appear on Ed Sullivan in those days.
Buddy Holly's Final Year
Buddy wrote the songs that became so well loved. He also had a separate recording contract as a solo artist. Buddy and the original Crickets band parted ways in 1958. He moved to New York as he believed it would advance his career.
That is where he met a young receptionist who worked for a music publishing company. Buddy was instantly smitten, and asked her to marry him on their first date. She did not need much convincing, and the couple were married within a couple of months.
This was a time when many celebrities still enjoyed some privacy. The marriage was successfully kept secret from many people. Buddy's fans would learn about it after his death. Nevertheless, the young couple was almost inseparable. She helped manage his career and travelled with him when he went on tour.
Buddy recorded some music as a solo artist. Although his career was going well, he was having trouble with his manager, who was not paying Buddy the royalties he had earned. He hired a lawyer to try and resolve the dispute.
He was offered an opportunity to participate in a dance party tour along with Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson, and The Belmonts. Buddy started a new band for the tour. One of the band members was Waylon Jennings, who would eventually achieve great fame himself.
The tour was poorly organized, as no one seemed to take into account the distance between the participating venues and how long it would take to get from one place to another. The weather conditions were also bad as it was bitterly cold. Buddy and the other band members were travelling by bus and living in miserable conditions. The bus was very cold, as it was not equipped for the cold temperatures, and the performers were getting sick. The long travel times between cities meant there was little time for personal relaxation or even mundane tasks like doing laundry.
On February 2nd, the group was scheduled to appear in Clear Lake Iowa. They were booked to pay in Moorhead, Minnesota the next day. Buddy and the rest of the performers had already been on the road for over a week by this point. He decided to charter a plane, so they would arrive at their destination in plenty of time to rest and be ready for the next show.
February 2nd, 1959
Following their performance in Clear Lake, Buddy, Ritchie, and J. P. headed to nearby Mason City for their flight. Waylon was scheduled to fly with them, but J. P. was not feeling well, so Waylon let him go with the others instead.
The plane took off shortly after midnight on February 3rd. It was morning before anyone realized they were missing. Shortly afterwards, the wreckage was discovered a few miles from the Mason City airport.
No one knows the exact cause of the crash, but the investigation decided that pilot inexperience and error played a major role in the tragedy. Weather conditions were not good at the time, and the pilot had not been informed conditions were worse at their intended destination.
Buddy's wife had not accompanied him on the tour, as she was in the very early stages of pregnancy. She found out about the crash from watching TV. In those days, it didn't seem so important to tell loved ones ahead of time before the news became public. Today there is a policy that families always are notified first.
She suffered a miscarriage the next day. Buddy's mother learned of his death from a report on the radio. His funeral and burial took place in Lubbock, the city where he grew up and where his family still lived.
February 3rd, 1959, has become known as The Day the Music Died. This was taken from the song American Pie which was written in tribute to the young lives that were lost that day.
Memorials have been erected at the crash site. and the Surf Ballroom has an annual concert in February in honor of the young men. as taken from the 1971 song American Pie, which was written to commemorate the young lives that ended that day.
We will never know what Buddy, Ritchie and J. P. may have accomplished if they had lived. The oldest one at the time was J.P., who was 28. He was also known as The Big Bopper. Buddy was 22, and Ritchie was just 17.