I post this on the 57th anniversary of what some call the Day the Music Died.
But what would The Music have been like if things had played out differently on the night of Feb. 3, 1959, when the crash of a small airplane in the Iowa countryside claimed the lives of three of rock and roll’s up-and-coming stars at the time? Besides Buddy Holly, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens, also perishing in that cornfield near Clear Lake was the pilot, Roger Peterson, who had already worked a 17-hour day and was trying to fly in bad weather despite not being certified for instrument-only flight.
For starters, the future of popular music could have been different, even without changing the fate of that flight to Moorhead, Minn. (Holly, the star of the Winter Dance Party tour that the musicians were part of, had chartered the plane to gain time for rest and laundering clothes, and to avoid the problems the tour’s buses were having.)
Holly’s bass player for the tour was Waylon Jennings, who two decades later would become one of the pillars of the Outlaw Country movement. Jennings was supposed to be on the plane, but surrendered his seat to Richardson; the size of the latter, a former high school defensive lineman, made him uncomfortable on the bus, plus he was sick with the flu.
What, though, if the pilot and his passengers had not tried to defy an incoming snow storm? What if Holly hadn’t tried to save time? What would have been the trajectory of his career, and those of Richardson and Valens?
At the time of the crash, Charles Hardin Holley was well on his way to superstardom. He had been performing for nearly four years at that point, recorded about 50 songs — most of them his own creations — and already had three Top 10 hits, including the No. 1 “That’ll Be the Day,” and placed five others in the Top 40.
At that, though, Holly’s career was just starting to take off. In the year preceding his death, he and the Crickets had appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TV variety show, toured Australia and England, and he had recorded his first solo album (his first LP was credited to the Chirping Crickets).
Holly was one of a number of big stars in early rock and roll at that time, and while the others’ careers and lives lasted longer, they didn’t always go well. Chuck Berry’s progress was sidetracked by multiple arrests; Elvis turned to movies and Vegas shows, and his tremendous success was in part his undoing.
I get the impression, though, that Holly probably wouldn’t have followed the path of wretched rock excess. He had married the year before his death, his wife often accompanied him on tours and he was addressing problems with bad management. But how would the changes in society that influenced so much of the music of the 1960s have affected him?
Would Richardson have continued to be an upper-tier star? He had had just the one No. 6 hit, the classic “Chantilly Lace,” but had written two other songs that were No. 1 hits for other artists (including country’s Ole Possum, George Jones).
The Big Bopper’s style was more rockabilly, and he might have met the same fate as Carl Perkins, relative to Elvis. Richardson wasn’t as creative and original as Holly, but he might have grown.
The other two were older — Richardson was closing in on 30 — and both had four-plus years experience in the music business, but Valens was more of a question mark on the Day the Music Died. He was only 17, and had been performing for just about a year and a half; his first recording was made only eight months before his death.
Born Richard Valenzuela, Valens was of Mexican descent and had grown up listening to mariachi and other traditional forms of his ancestors’ music. His best known (although not the highest charting) hit, “La Bamba,” is his rock adaptation of a traditional Mexican folk song, sung entirely in Spanish.
Valens was by all accounts a charismatic stage presence, he wrote some of the songs he recorded, his guitar style influenced later performers and he is credited with being a pioneer of Chicano rock. That sub-genre, other than performers like Trini Lopez and the Champs, and the latters’ hit “Tequila,” didn’t seem to go much of anywhere until the late 1960s and later, with Santana, Los Lobos and others; perhaps if Valens had lived, it might have succeeded sooner.
Despite his early death, Holly had a tremendous influence on The Music and the people that performed it. His hiccough-inflected vocal style perhaps didn’t become as big a trend, but his guitar and performing styles and songwriting influenced a lot of artists.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles saw him on U.K. television shortly after they met and began their musical association. The first recording by the first proto-Beatle group, Lennon’s skiffle band the Quarrymen, was Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day”; and the Crickets’ moniker was reflected in the name they would choose for their band.
Mick Jagger saw Holly and the Crickets perform live on their 1958 English tour, Rolling Stones co-founder Keith Richards modeled his guitar style on Holly’s, and the band’s first U.S. single (and highest-charting release in the U.K. up to that point) was Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” A 17-year-old Robert Zimmerman, yet to become Bob Dylan, saw Holly and the Crickets two nights before the plane crash.
Shamefully, I didn’t have one Holly recording in my collection — until this week, when I purchased a greatest hits collection, which is playing through the headphones as I finish this post. Most of the songs are familiar, but many I’m hearing for the first time performed by their creator.
Holly’s songs are sparse and clean in instrumentation but melodic, catchy and upbeat — creating the feeling that Don McLean described: “I can still remember how/That music used to make me smile.” Contrary to McLean’s “American Pie,” The Music didn’t die on Feb. 3, 1959 — but it was definitely changed, and it’s interesting to muse on what it would be like otherwise.