‘The Day the Music Died’: Buddy Holly Died in a Plane Crash on Feb. 3, 1959

It was a dark day in music history. On Feb. 3, 1959, rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson boarded a chartered plane after a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. Minutes later, the plane crashed, killing everyone aboard

The plane crash took the lives of three promising young stars. Holly was 22, Valens was 17, and Richardson was 28. The event stunned fans and was later famously referenced in the 1971 hit Don McLean song “American Pie.”

Buddy Holly had hits with songs such as “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day” 

Buddy Holly with band members
Buddy Holly (center) | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In the late 1950s, Texas native Holly was one of the hottest stars of the still-young genre of rock ‘n’ roll. His chart-topping songs included “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” In the winter of 1959, Holly embarked on the Winter Dance Party tour along with Valens and Richardson, both of whom had scored hits with “La Bamba” and “Chantilly Lace,” respectively. 

The tour was plagued with problems from the start. The musicians were traveling around Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa in the dead of winter. The tour buses that took them from gig to gig often broke down, according to the Des Moines Register, leaving the performers sick, cold, and frustrated. 

The plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens 

Side by side images of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens
[L-R] Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, the group was supposed to head north to Moorhead, Minn. Holly wanted to avoid the long drive, so he chartered a plane. Richardson was not feeling well, so he convinced Waylon Jennings, a member of Holly’s band, to give up his spot on the flight. Valens won a coin toss with Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsup to see who would get the remaining seat. 

Shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, the 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza departed from Mason City, Iowa. It crashed soon after takeoff in a field about 6 miles from the airport. Holly, Richardson, and Valens were killed, along with the 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson.    

Holly’s pregnant wife, María Elena Holly learned of her husband’s death when she heard it reported on television. She had a miscarriage soon after. The way Holly’s wife learned of her husband’s death prompted authorities to adopt a practice of not announcing the identity of the deceased until the family was notified. 

Buddy Holly influenced The Beatles and Bob Dylan   

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Holly’s life was short, but his influence was large. John Lennon and Paul McCartney have both named him as one of the inspirations for The Beatles. 

“Buddy Holly was the first one that we were really aware of in England who could play and sing at the same time,” John Lennon said in an interview published in Beatles Anthology. “Not just strum — but actually play the licks [and sing].”

Bob Dylan was also inspired by Holly. The Minnesota-born singer-songwriter even saw one of Holly’s last concerts, he revealed in his 2017 Nobel Prize lecture. 

“If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. … From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother,” Dylan said. Holly was “everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.”