February 3 marks a historic day in American culture. It is the day three rock 'n' roll stars died in a plane crash right at a time when their popularity and impact on a new genre of music was skyrocketing. It was Feb. 3, 1959, often referred to as the day the music died.
The musicians were Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson).
Hannibal residents reflected on the day 54 years ago. "It was a sad day. It was quite a shock," Jerry Ruhl remembers. We hear that they were going from one location to another and bam, it hit. Their music was definitely something we listened to a lot."
"I was working. It was at work where the buzz hit," adds Dori Stanek. "They were very popular and they were young."
Holly, 22 at the time of his death, was the most popular of the three. His hits "Peggy Sue," "That'll Be The Day," and "Oh, Boy," amongst many others, put him at the top of the charts throughout the '50s. Ritchie Valens was only 17, but was hitting the airwaves with his songs "Donna" and "La Bamba." The Big Bopper, 28, became popular for singing "Chantilly Lace" with the notorious opening, "Hellooo Baaaby." He was also an accomplished song writer. "White Lightening," one of George Jones' signature songs, and "Running Bear" a number one song for Johnny Preston and Sonny James were both penned by The Big Bopper.
"That's a good one, that Chantilly Lace," Stanek said.
"Buddy Holly had so many hits in a short amount of time. It's unbelievable what he could have done if he had lived longer. How many more people would he have influenced," Jim Myers points out. "But when you listen to the Beatles interviews or some of the early English bands, they were all influenced by Buddy Holly. And you can hear it a lot in their music too."
Ruhl also acknowledges how Valens played a role at the time.
"That was probably some of the early Latin embellishment we started hearing then," Ruhl said. "You were used to things from Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) but then you get 'La Bamba' coming in and basically you're hearing some Latin music mixed in."
All three singers had just finished performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa when Holly arranged a quick flight to their next stop on the Winter Dance Party Tour in Moorhead, Minn. Holly's backup singers, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, were supposed to be on that flight, but the Bopper asked Jennings for his seat and Allsup lost a coin toss to Valens. The pilot, Roger Peterson, who was also killed in the crash, thought he could battle through the snow storm, but fate didn't allow that to happen.
Page 2 of 2 - "It had been on the radio," Larry Gerdeman, who was 11 at the time, said. "I remember hearing people talk about it."
"I heard it on the radio," remembers Mike Marx, who was 16 in 1959. "I planned to go to the concert, it was coming to Springfield, Ill., but when the crash happened that changed all that. Being a young kid like that and those guys being some of your favorites at the time, it was really kind of hard to take."
While this was a sad day for many teens and rock 'n roll listeners, some folks didn't have much to say about the crash. That's because rock 'n roll was not popular at first.
"That was the devil's music, you didn't listen to rock 'n roll," Gerdeman said. "All the kids were listening to that music then."
"It was thought of as being a little high tempo for most people," Ruhl said. "During that time, we had a lot of local bands and everything else that played at the National Guard Armory and we'd go every Friday night or Saturday night. It was thought of as — I guess you'd call it risque."
But no matter how many national news reports there were, no matter how many folks tried to encourage folks to go against this new type of music, rock 'n' roll prevailed. It has become part of an era, part of our culture and to this day still popular in its own right.
It's probably why the term 'the day the music died' is merely just a set of lyrics from the hit song "American Pie," because Marx, Stanek and Ruhl all note the singers died, but their music lives on.
And it's probably why a cornfield in Clear Lake, Iowa is sacred ground. A place of remembrance, reflection, and in some instances, faith. After all, other singers have died in plane crashes: Patsy Cline, Rickey Nelson, Jim Croce, just to name a few.
"I just think they were all riding high at the time, they all had No. 1 hits, which I don't think is the case with the others," Marx said. "Rock 'n' roll was more popular at the time."