TO QUOTE DON McLEAN’s song American Pie, Feb. 3 marked the 60th anniversary of the day the music died. The reference, of course, is to the 1959 plane crash that killed rock ’n’ roller Buddy Holly, two other performers and the pilot of the four-seater plane in which they were travelling.
I remember the event clearly.
It happened just three days shy of the first anniversary of the 1958 Munich air disaster. That particular crash killed, among others, eight members of the Manchester United soccer team. In both Ireland and the U.K., it was a huge story for weeks.
Comparatively, the Holly tragedy received muted coverage. While it was a focal point for schoolyard chatter and the specialty publications that followed the pop music world, it quickly came and went in the mass media.
Born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas, on Sept. 7, 1936, Holly was only 22 when he died. But in the brief period he’d been writing and recording, he produced an impressive roster of songs, many of which are still performed.
His death occurred in what we’d now consider unusual circumstances.
Schlepping around the frigid American midwest in the depths of winter, Holly was headlining a poorly-organized Winter Dance Party tour that zigzagged through several states. Compounding the gratuitously elongated travel times, the tour was moving by chartered buses, vehicles with intermittent or completely non-functioning heating. Apparently, the temperature was so chilly that the drummer had to be hospitalized for frostbite!
So when the tour played the small town of Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 2, Holly decided to get a jump on the future schedule by arranging for a plane to fly him to the next date. That way, there’d be a chance to get some rest and attend to mundane considerations like laundry.
The plane was a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza with room for a pilot and three passengers, each of whom paid $36 for the privilege. It took off shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 3 and crashed in a snowy farmer’s field less than 10 kilometres into its journey. All four occupants were killed instantly.
The official investigation concluded that the pilot embarked on a flight for which, due to weather and visibility, he didn’t have the requisite skills. There was also the fact that unfamiliarity with a key element of the plane’s controls may have led him into believing he was ascending rather than descending.
The obvious question is what someone like Holly was doing in such a bizarre situation. To answer that, it’s necessary to take a step back and look at the context.
First, although he had several hits under his belt, Holly’s star stature wasn’t in the same league as that of, say, Elvis Presley. You wouldn’t have found Elvis playing a tour in Winter Dance Party circumstances. But Holly needed to work and he took what was available.
Second, the music industry has changed dramatically since 1959. We’ve become used to images of rock musicians travelling in pampered luxury and pulling down exorbitant performance fees. That, however, wasn’t the general case in the 1950s.
Back then, the rock ’n’ roll business was in its infancy and there wasn’t nearly as much money sloshing around the system. Rather than a glamorous jaunt, touring could be a gritty slog of poorly designed itineraries, bad food and sleep deprivation.
Among the early rock ’n’ roll personalities, Holly stood out for his innovativeness.
In addition to a distinct vocal style, he had the self-confidence to take control of his artistic direction. Where others deferred to older and ostensibly wiser producers, he didn’t.
He was also quick to see the potential of technology. Features like double-tracking and overdubbing provided the ability to deliver a recorded audio experience over and above what was feasible in a live performance.
And unlike most of his peers, he wrote much of his material. He wasn’t unique in that regard – Chuck Berry springs to mind – but he was unusual.
His music, too, has stood the test of time. Just last year, an album blending Holly’s 60-year-old vocals with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra sold well over 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom.
Ultimately, Don McLean was wrong. Buddy Holly may have died but the music didn’t.
Pat Murphy is a history buff who writes about the goings on in our world. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.
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