I cant remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.
Those words are from the 3rd stanza of the intro of Don McLean's 1971 song, "American Pie." They refer to the events of the night of February 2-3, 1959, when a plane crashed in a field near Clear Lake, Iowa, where earlier that evening there had been a performance featuring 22-year-old Buddy Holly, 28-year-old J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and 17-year-old Ritchie Valens. The verse is about about Holly and the wife he left behind. Their last concert was on the 2nd, which is when they boarded the plane, which crashed a few minutes after midnight, thus they died on February 3.
I was 12 going on 13 when the plane crashed, in the 8th grade in suburban Mamaroneck NY. I bought the Don McLean album from which the song comes when I was 25, shortly before I returned to Haverford College for my 2nd (belated) attempt at a junior year.
On this 50th anniversary, I invite you travel with me as I look back to the 3 artists, and to the commemoration offered by Don McLean in his notable song.
J. P. Richardson was unfortunately known for only one hit, despite his gifts. He had been a DJ at a station in Beaumont TX before and after his service in the Army. A songwriter and musician as well as a DJ, he wrote the song "White Lightening" which become the first #! country hit by legend George Jones. He also wrote "Running Bear" for Johnny Preston. But he is best known for one song, "Chantilly Lace," in which he begins with one end of a phone call, and he then sings:
Chantilly lace and a pretty face
And a pony tail hanging down
That wiggle in the walk and giggle in the talk
Makes the world go round
There ain't nothing in the world like a big eyed girl
That makes me act so funny, make me spend my money
Make me feel real loose like a long necked goose
Like a girl, oh baby that's what I like
Richardson was a visionary. One can argue that he created the music video in 1959, shortly before he died. Here is a tape of Richardson lip-synching his one big hit on TV - and yes, that is Dick Clark introducing him:
Ritchie Valens (born Richard Steven Valenzuela), was only 17. He had two major hits, "Donna" - about a girlfriend; and "La Bamba" - a reworking of a Mexican wedding song. They appeared on the same single, two "A" sides on one record, and both were substantial national hits. He had a fear of flying dating to a day he was absent from school and two planes collided and crashed on the playground killing several of his friends. That is an accurate part of the movie about him, "La Bamba."
I was unable to find video of Valens performing live. But here are Youtubes of his two biggest hits. First, "Donna":
And then, "La Bamba," which many credit for introducing the influence of Latin music into rock. This was recorded live, and the singing begins about 2 minutes into the video:
Buddy Holly was perhaps the most successful of the three who died that night. Charles Hardin Holley had a meteoric - and very influential - career over the space of less than two years of national notice, although he began performing in his home town of Lubbock Texas several years earlier, in the mid 1950s. He was influenced by hearing Elvis Presley, for whom he later opened, and also Bill Haley and the Comets. He met his wife Maria Elena Santiago when she was working as a receptionist for a New York music publisher - she is the widowed bride to whom Don McLean refers in "American Pie."
Like Valens, Holly/Holley had a movie biopic made of his life, one that is not always completely accurate as to the facts. Yes, he and the Crickets did get booked into the Apollo, but he did not immediately win over the all-black audience, although after several performances hie music did make a connection. Holly refused to be bound by the normal conventions of racial divide - his Hispanic wife is only one illustration, his friendship with the black musicians with which he toured was another.
Holly had the greatest influence on me. I have a vinyl album of his hits, and own nothing by either of the others. Here is Holly with the Crickets performing Peggy Sue on, of all things, The Arthur Murray Dance Party:
and the same song, on the most important variety show of the 1950's and 60s, Ed Sullivan:
Here is the sound of them performing "Not Fade Away":
and to show how important an influence Holly was, here is a 1964 performance of the same song by the Stones:
And another big hit, "That'll be the day," in which you can hear his characteristic little hiccups:
Here's one of Holly's biggest hits, "Oh Boy":
and "Rave on" -
and the same song, sung by Beatle John Lennon:
My personal Holly favorite is without the Crickets, "I guess it doesn't matter any more" -
and a cover of the same by Linda Rondstadt -
By the way, while many people know from the movie that Donna is about a real person, but may not know that Peggy Sue was similarly about a real person. Here you can meet the women in more recent times:
For many people, the phrase "the day the music died" is irrevocably tied to Don McLean's American Pie. Don grew up near where I did, attending Iona Prep in New Rochelle while I attended Mamaroneck High School. Senior year two of my classmates organized two "hootenanies." John Emelin and Bob Morrow had their own little group called the Muscatel Mauraders. Somehow they had encountered Don, and thus I got to hear him years before he became famous, before he was the official New York State Folksinger.
There is an official website for Don McLean and American Pie, at which you can learn that the song - incredibly long even for the 1970s at more than 8 minutes, and yet still topping the Billboard charts - is
autobiographical and presents an abstract story of Don McLean’s life from the mid 1950s until when he wrote the song in the late 1960s. It is almost entirely symbolised by the evolution of popular music over these years and represents a change from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s. This is also very symbolic of changing America during this era. In Don’s life the transition from light (the innocence of childhood) to the darker realities of adulthood probably started with the death of Buddy Holly and culminated with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and the start of a more difficult time for America. In this 4 year period, Don moved from a fairly idyllic childhood existence, through the shock and subsequent harsh realities of his father’s death in 1961, to his decision in 1963 to quit Villanova University to pursue his dream and become a professional singer.
People have debated the lyrics ever since the song first appeared that autumn shortly before I returned to Haverford. This website is devoted to an analysis of the meaning.
But like all great works of art, the song - and the others on the same album, such as Don's tribute to Van Gogh, "Starry, Starry Night" - are best simply enjoyed, taken in as they were intended. So let me start with the latter, a song also sometimes called "Vincent," from a live performance in 1972 -
and from a performance on Imus, "American Pie"-
I always disagreed with the line I took for the title of this song. If there had been any concern of such loss, it was overcome by the movie biopics which introduced new generations to the artists and their music. And certainly Don McLean's tribute to the music and time of his youth and young adulthood (like mine), was a way of commemorating and keeping alive the memory of that music and those singers. The covers of his music - by artists like Lennon, the Stones, Ronstadt and so many others - and the inspired music of McLean demonstrate that the music did not die.
Still, in the middle of a February night in Iowa, Rock lost three major voices, all relatively young. As we look at rock revivals, we cannot but wonder what else they may have given us had they not died in that plane crash. This plane crash:
It will, shortly after we reach midnight Central time this coming night, reach that 50th anniversary. Don Maclean has a lyric in which he asks
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
I was 12, going on 13. When I heard the news I was shocked. Later I would similarly be shocked at the winter death of Otis Redding.
But for me, at least, the music has never died.
I am now 62 going on 63. Looking back over half a century, it seemed so much more innocent a time. We were not yet used to loss, being between Korea and Vietnam. It was before the domestic turmoil of the 60s. And yet, and yet . . . the loss of the three, and for me especially of Holly, was something that left something of an empty place. Perhaps that is why the last of his songs I offered, "I guess it doesn't matter any more," meant so much to me over the years. It represented something different, something that contained the qualities of wistfulness and of loss that the deaths offered me.
Don't let my title be true. Remember these artists, even if you were too young to have your life overlap with theirs. For many of us that day now half a century past is important, representing almost a loss of innocence.
They enlivened my life - every day I heard them. They still do. And I thank Don McLean for his tribute.
Tonight I will lift a glass, play the songs, listen, and remember.
How about you?