The Day the Music Died

On 5 June 1956, the King was Born when Elvis shocked the world with his wild hip gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Show. The New York Times called him “a bore in a burlesque show”, and The New York Daily News called him “Elvis the Pelvis” but fuck the squares: the girls loved him, and the boys wanted to be him. When the country woke up on the 6th, Doris Day, Bing Crosby and Perry Como were surprised to find out they were no longer the music stars they were when they went to bed. Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Dance Party went daytime national and a Philadelphia’s small afternoon music show, American Bandstand, got a new teenage host, Dick Clark, and within a month it went national. Small regional acts were soon playing across the country. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochrane, Wanda Jackson and a new Vanguard of Cool had unfettered access to the American soul.

For the next 20 glorious months, there was no “White Music” and there was no “Black Music”, there was only Rock and Roll. It and in particular its swing dancing, wild, devil-may-care sub-genre of Rockabilly, dominated the American consciousness.

Unfortunately all good things come to an end. Jerry Lee Lewis was a national pariah after marrying his 13 year old cousin in December 1957. Elvis was drafted in March 1958. Also that year, Alan Freed, and just about every DJ in America, was caught up in the “Payola scandal” of accepting bribes for record plays. Little Richard left the music industry to pursue a life of ministry in 1958, and also that year Gene Vincent was shut down after the IRS forced him to sell everything to pay his taxes. Johnny Cash had a messy divorce from the Sun Music and started recording gospel music. His friend Carl Perkins left soon thereafter.

Not all was lost, in late 1958, four of the biggest names in Rock and Roll toured together across the Midwest. Buddy Holly was a founding member of Rock and Roll and his bespeckled appearance gave heart to millions of teenagers that they too could get laid if they played the guitar. Dion spoke straight to audiences’ needs with “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue”. JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, was the face of Rockabilly with his anthem “Chantilly Lace”. And finally Californian Ritchie Valens, whose Spanish language “La Bamba” converted entire demographics to Rock and Roll. Their Winter Dance Party tour played to screaming crowds at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on 2 February 1959.

The tour was having problems, not musically but logistically. The tour venues were too far apart and the bands were stuck in old buses for far too long, so long that it was affecting their set up times and performances. The weather was freezing and one of the tour buses lacked heat. Several band members were sick. Before the show at the Sun Ballroom, Holly decided to charter a plane for him and his band, the Crickets, to get to their next show at Moorhead, Minnesota. The manager of the ballroom contracted Dwyer Flying Service to fly them to Fargo, North Dakota, a short drive from Moorhead.

After the show, Richardson, who had the flu asked Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, if he could have his seat, and Jennings graciously acquiesced. Valens asked Holly’s guitarist for his seat and they flipped a coin on it. Valens won. Dion was asked if he wanted the last seat on the plane, but the $36 price was exactly what his mother to rent his childhood apartment and he couldn’t “justify the indulgence”.

When Holly learned Jennings wasn’t taking the flight he joked, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings snarkily responded, “Well, I hope your old plane crashes”.

The comment haunted Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.

In the snowy weather, the pilot had no stars to observe, no lights on the ground to judge his position and he couldn’t even see the horizon. He flew straight into the ground and the plane cartwheeled across a field in Clear Lake, Iowa. There were no survivors.

The Golden Age of Rock and Roll was over.

The Music died in an Iowa cornfield.

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