“Rock & Roll as we know it wouldn’t exist without Buddy Holly” – Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
One of the most influential creative forces of the ’50s, Buddy Holly was a remarkable musician who wasn’t afraid to experiment. He blended rock, blues, gospel, and every other style he admired into his songs. His impact was so far-reaching, that within his brief career (of only 18 months), he managed to revolutionize rock & roll.
Only 22 at his time of death, Buddy Holly created songs that would go on to inspire huge names like Elton John, The Beatles, Don McLean, The Rolling Stones, and more.
If only he hadn’t boarded that plane…who knows what other outstanding things this musical prodigy would have done?
Here’s a glimpse into the day the music died.
Three musicians – Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens boarded a plane piloted by Roger Peterson and headed to what was supposed to be their next tour stop. However, none of them ever reached their destination. Instead, they nosedived right into the ground, a fateful tragedy that has since been remembered as the day the music died.
Out of the bunch, Holly was the biggest star. He was admired for his catchy hits like Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day. Ritchie Valens was a star on the rise and Richardson, also known as The Big Bopper, caught the nation’s attention with his fun tune, Chantilly Lace.
The three musicians were flying around the country as part of the Winter Dance Party, a tour that involved a hectic 24-concerts-in-a-span-of-three-weeks schedule. They had already performed at several locations before reaching their final concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
At this point in the tour, Holly was tired of the freezing, uncomfortable tour busses, so he decided to charter a plane instead. The two other passenger seats beside him were originally reserved for his bandmates, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup.
The thought of a cozy, fast plane trip was tempting. Ritchie Valens ended up butting in by challenging Tommy Allsup to a coin flip. The winner gets the chair, he told him. Tragically, Valens won the coin flip but lost his life.
The Big Bopper, on the other hand, wasn’t feeling too well so he begged Waylon Jennings to give him his spot. According to Jennings, he and Holly made fun of the swap a little before saying goodbye. “I hope your damned bus freezes up again,” Holly told him. “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” Jennings responded. This remark would haunt him for the rest of his life.
After their concert at the Surf Ballroom, Holly, Valens, and Richardson headed to the Mason City airport for a midnight departure. 21-year-old Roger Peterson was a young pilot, but he had four years of flying experience.
Sadly, he missed out on a weather advisory that had been announced a little before their takeoff. A short while into the flight, the aircraft ran into some issues and crashed. After the plane failed to show up in Fargo, the search for them began.
Their plane was found only a few miles from their destination. The scene was horrific. Roger Peterson’s body was trapped in the cockpit, while the three musicians had been thrown out of the plane in the crash.
The original investigators working on the accident blamed it on the pilot and the poor weather conditions. However, over time, this conclusion has been brought into question. In 2015, aviation experts called for the tragedy to be re-examined.
According to a 2015 report published in the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune, L.J. Coon, a retired pilot from New England told the paper that “Roger would have flown out and about this airport at night, under multiple different conditions.”
Coon suggested possible technical failures like an issue with the right v-tail, a problem with the fuel system, as well as uncalculated weight distribution. Coon also pointed out that Peterson tried to land the aircraft and that his brave efforts should be recognized.
The New York Times, as well as many other newspapers across the nation, published dramatic headlines revealing “Iowa Air Crash Kills 3 Singers.” The tragedy marked an abrupt end to three young lives and their careers.
Buddy left behind a pregnant wife, Maria, who, sadly miscarried shortly after learning about his death. Richardson’s wife was also pregnant at the time of their death, but she gave birth a while later to a baby boy named Jay. Valens, who was just 17 years old, had just gotten married to his high school sweetheart.
Three Stars was released shortly after the accident. The heart-rending ballad remembered Ritchie Valens as the one “just starting to realize [his] dreams” and how Buddy Holly’s songs “could make the coldest heart melt.”
It also presented one of The Big Bopper’s most memorable catchphrases: “You know what I like.” But the most famous tribute to the lost stars was released years later in 1971: Don McLean’s number one hit, American Pie.
In his 1971 classic, McLean sings, “I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride,” the widow being Maria Elena Holly, Buddy’s wife. The couple had married just two short weeks after meeting each other in New York.
Interestingly, she doesn’t agree with the song’s central premise. “Buddy may not be here, but the music has not died,” she told reporters, “It is still alive and well.”
To this day, Maria still controls a lot of the continuing endeavors related to her husband’s music.
The plane crash happened during the snowy winter in a rural area, so many of the small items on the plane weren’t found until months later when the snow began to melt. Among these recovered treasures were Buddy’s iconic black glasses.
They were stashed away in an envelope at the local police department until two decades later, in 1980, when an officer stumbled upon them. The discovery marked the beginning of a tough custody battle between Holly’s wife and fans.
Buddy Holly was more than admired; he was worshipped. After word of his spectacles was released, Holly’s die-hard fans pounced on the opportunity to own them. They offered ridiculous sums. One even offered his entire life savings of $502.
Maria Elena Holly eventually won the case and got her husband’s glasses back. Eventually, she sold them to a museum in Lubbock. They’re on permanent display, so if you’re interested in checking them out, you now know where to go!
When Holly first started, he had plastic and wire-framed spectacles, but his eye doctor convinced him to wear horn-rimmed models instead. This model soon became popularized as “Buddy Holly Glasses.”
Buddy became so attached to his glasses that began feeling like “the glasses helped make him,” according to his optometrist, Dr. J. David Armistead: “He was really pleased. Holly needed those glasses because he had 20\800 vision.
There was another weird finding that was discovered in the debris by the farmer whose field the plane crashed into. He spotted a gun lying in the middle of all the mess. But that wasn’t the most concerning bit.
What was concerning was that the pistol appeared to have recently been fired. Investigations that followed confirmed that the gun belonged to Buddy Holly. Their autopsies refuted the theory that they had been shot, but the presence of Holly’s gun still remains a mystery.
Following the terrible plane crash, the Winter Dance Party tour was in dire need of someone to replace the singer. Sold out crowds around the nation still longed to see some kind of performance. The man who was hired to fill in for Holly was an anonymous young singer.
The unknown singer was Bobby Vee, a guy who would turn out to be a 1960 pop idol. He later released hits like “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” It’s sad to think about it this way, but Holly’s death introduced us to one of the biggest stars of the 60s.
Buddy’s then-pregnant wife, Maria Elena, heard of her husband’s unexpected death in a horrible way. Instead of getting a call from someone close to them, the poor widow heard of his demise on a TV news report.
She went into a state of shock and disbelief. Due to the emotional trauma, Maria Elena couldn’t bring herself to attend his funeral. The trauma hasn’t subsided. It’s been said that she hasn’t visited his grave to this very day.
As a result of the utterly horrible way in which Maria found out about Buddy’s death, and the tragic miscarriage that followed, authorities agreed on a new policy. They made sure that media sources could no longer reveal the names of victims until members of their families have been informed first in private.
This was a much-needed policy. Who knows how many grieving people this has saved from hearing such devastating news on TV? It’s horrible to think that if Maria had found out differently, perhaps their baby would have survived.
Buddy Holly grew up in Lubbock, a safe little town in West Texas. His parents worked hard to provide for him and his siblings, but hard work didn’t necessarily mean good money. His dad would often return home with less than a dollar in his pocket.
Buddy’s older brother recalled feeling angry when he found out they were pregnant with his little brother. They didn’t have enough to eat as it was! Now they were going to have another mouth to feed!
Buddy showed a musical interest from a young age, and his parents wanted him to have fun with it. They wanted him to learn how to sing and how to play the guitar, but sadly, had no money to pay for his lessons.
Buddy wasn’t one to give up. He finally managed to gather enough money to pay for his own guitar, and as soon as he held it in his hands, he began to experiment. “It sounded like a different instrument when Buddy played,” his brother recalled.
Buddy learned how to play the guitar with his childhood friend, Bob Montgomery. Guitar playing turned into songwriting which turned into song-singing. When they decided it was time for a name, they called themselves Buddy and Bob.
Bob played rhythm, Buddy played the lead, and the only thing they felt was missing was a bass player. That is, until they saw Elvis play. Seeing that he had a drummer, they decided to look for one themselves.
In the mid-‘50s, the world of music was ruled by Elvis. On one occasion, on February 13, 1955, Elvis hip-swiveled his way to Lubbock, and Buddy and Bob were given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to open up for him.
Seeing Elvis perform on stage, it dawned on the boys that music was about a lot more than just music. It was about power, sex, and passion. The girls were going nuts for Elvis, and the boys wanted a bit of the action too.
Buddy and Bob eventually got a record deal with Decca Records, after which they headed straight to Nashville. The big city was a massive difference from their little hometown, and the boys felt both intimidated and excited by it.
The Nashville sessions kicked off at the start of 1956, but it soon became apparent that the guys at the recording studio were more interested in Buddy than in Bob. Being the incredible friend that he was, Bob told Buddy to go ahead without him.
Artists change their names for various reasons, but there aren’t many who change their names due to a misspelling. The singer used his childhood nickname Buddy, but his last name turned to Holly with no “e” after Decca records misspelled it on their original contract.
Buddy liked the way it looked and decided to keep it simple and just roll with the new spelling. It was a subtle and meaningless change, although we have to admit, Holly without an “e” looks way better.
Buddy Holly had one massive single that topped both the U.S. and British charts – That’ll Be the Day, released in 1957. The idea came to him after watching The Searchers with his friend and bandmate Jerry Allison.
In the movie, starring John Wayne, Wayne says “That’ll be the day” every time he disagreed on something. Legend has it, that after the film, the two boys kept repeating the sentence when suddenly, Buddy started humming and strumming, and 30 minutes later, they had themselves a song.
Decca Records’ producer, Owen Bradley, wasn’t a big fan of rock & roll. He suggested slowing the tempo and raising Holly’s vocal pitch on the record That’ll Be the Day. The whole thing sounded bogus to Holly, but he went along with it.
Eventually, the quality of the sessions was so bad that the record label decided to drop him. However, Holly knew that he had a hit on his hands and went to Norman Petty who owned a little studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Petty became his manager and helped him release the unforgettable hit.
Holly’s single Peggy Sue, released in September 1957, was originally inspired by Holly’s niece, Cindy Lou Kaiter. However, Jerry Allison, the drummer who co-wrote the song with Holly and Petty, urged them to change the name after his girlfriend at the time, Peggy Sue Gerron.
The song hit number three on the Billboard chart and was ranked 197th on Rolling Stones’ list of the 500 greatest singles of all time.
Fun fact: Peggy and Jerry married. Not so fun fact: they divorced a while later.
Rest assured; this isn’t an overstatement. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were all huge fans of Buddy Holly and the Crickets. When trying to come up with a new name for their band (they were called the Quarrymen at first), they thought of insects.
They thought of beetles and then, finally, after a lot of brainstorming, they settled on The Beatles. “It was beat and beetles, and when you said it, people thought of crawly things, and when you read it, it was beat music,” John Lennon once explained.
Sadly, Buddy never lived to see his greatest contribution to music: the influence he had on the Beatles. Just as America will never forget when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon and Paul McCartney said they never forgot the day they watched Holly & the Crickets perform on the Sunday Night Show at the London Palladium.
Not only did their performance ignite the boys’ love of rock n’ roll, but it also inspired their on-stage personas. Holly’s influence on the future Beatles was so strong that they even chose his hit, “That’ll Be the Day,” as one of the songs they recorded during their first-ever recording session.
Buddy Holly once turned down Ed Sullivan. In 1957 and 1958, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were knee-deep in work. They were constantly on tour, jumping from concert to concert, and barely had time to perform anywhere other than their booked location.
They had already performed on the Ed Sullivan show twice before and even butted heads in the latter performance because Sullivan believed the song “Oh Boy!” was too rowdy. When he called them over the third time, the boys refused. “The Lubbock boys don’t need Ed anymore,” Buddy allegedly told Sullivan’s people.
Before Buddy Holly, pop music and songwriting were considered, most of the time, separate businesses. Pop idols had to sing well, dance, and look good. They didn’t necessarily have to write their own songs.
But Holly and the Crickets took a different approach. They wrote most of their songs and inspired the next generation of rock ‘n’ rollers to do the same. The fact that they relied on their own lyrics and melodies made them unique and put them in the forefront of the pop scene.
Not many know this, but the band broke up during Buddy’s lifetime. The singer is strongly associated with the Crickets, but there was a time when the boys decided to say goodbye for good due to creative differences.
After the split, Holly moved to New York to follow new career opportunities, while his former bandmates stayed close to home. The breakup was on good terms, and the group still hoped to reconnect sometime in the future. Unfortunately, that never happened…
Another rock ‘n’ roll icon who saw Buddy Holly perform and fell in love with music is Roy Orbison. As a shy and self-conscious young guy, Roy Orbison had a lot of reservations about being in the spotlight.
But once he saw how confident Buddy Holly was on stage, wearing his thick glasses and looking more like a math major than a pop star, Orbison was convinced he could do the same. He felt encouraged to overcome his insecurities.
Fun fact about Buddy: When he was a kid, he and his brothers came up with a sneaky plan to win a local talent contest. Buddy, who didn’t know a single chord at the time, pretended that he was playing the violin, while his brothers played their instruments alongside him.
Their goal was to make it seem like they were all jamming away. To fool the audience, they greased the strings of the violin so no sound would be made. Buddy faked it extremely well because team Holley ended up taking first place!
Buddy was one innovative guy, and among his many unique ideas, was the sequel single he released to his song Peggy Sue. In 1959, he followed it up with the single Peggy Sue Got Married.
The song was a continuation of the story of Peggy Sue’s tale. Releasing a sequel song was considered very rare at the time. It was recorded a little before the plane crash, so he never got to hear how the finished song came out.
The list of legends Holly had an effect on seems endless. This time – Elton John. When John was just a wee 13-year-old, he looked up to Buddy Holly. But apart from admiring his music, there was one little fashion item he loved the most.
Buddy’s glasses. Those thick, beautiful spectacles drew John’s attention so much that he decided to get a pair of his own, despite not needing glasses in the first place! He saw perfectly well. He just wanted to look like Buddy, that’s all.
Despite his success, Buddy Holly was struggling financially before he died. His dire state was why he agreed to go on the winter tour in the first place. Being on the verge of bankruptcy, he knew he had to do something before it was too late.
Buddy decided it was best to perform a bit around America and generate some revenue to kick-start his income again. Sadly, this seemingly harmless decision cost him his life.
Buddy Holly had high hopes for his future. He genuinely believed he had a long and prosperous career ahead of him, one that wouldn’t remain solely in the field of music. The star had dreams of appearing on the big screen.
In fact, a little before the accident, he moved to New York City and dove deep into the artsy scene. He became inspired to start taking acting classes in the hopes of one day landing a part in a film.
Norman Petty was one smart manager. He knew that the ladies (and men) were crazy about Buddy, so he made it his top priority to keep them wanting and longing for more. That meant that Holly had to keep his image clean and available.
When Holly married Maria in the summer of 1958, Petty was distraught. He was scared that Holly’s lovestruck fans would stop listening to him if they knew. For that reason, he asked Buddy to keep his love life on the downlow.
Fans of country music icon Waylon Jennings might be surprised to discover that they have none other than Buddy Holly to thank for his music. Way before he was a successful country star, a young Waylon Jennings was mentored by Buddy.
Holly kickstarted the dear Texan’s career by adding him to his group as a bass player and arranging his first professional recording session in early 1959. In less than two years, Holly managed to introduce us to a host of successful stars!
In the late 1950s, Buddy Holly was arguably more popular in Great Britain than in the U.S. And he influenced a string of musicians and groups that later emerged as part of what became known as “The British Invasion.”
Holly made such an impact on the Beatles that years after his death, Paul McCartney bought the rights to his music. “Buddy Holly was the first one that we were really aware of in England who could play and sing at the same time – not just strum, but actually play the licks,” John Lennon once said.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included Buddy Holly among its first inductees in 1986. They remarked upon the large body of work he produced during his short musical career “made a major and lasting impact on popular music.”
An innovator for writing his own material, Buddy also “pioneered and popularized the now-standard use of two guitars, bass, and drums by rock bands.” Holly’s contributions changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll for life.
Buddy Holly’s memorable life story inspired a Hollywood biographical film called The Buddy Holly Story (1978). For his portrayal of Holly, the lead actor, Gary Busey earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
The movie was widely criticized by the media, as well as by Holly’s friends and family, for several inaccuracies. Unsatisfied with the movie, Paul McCartney decided to produce his own documentary about Holly in 1985 called The Real Buddy Holly Story.
In 1997, Holly was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Three years later, he was inducted into Iowa’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. And in 2011, Lubbock hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Buddy and his wife, Maria.
That same year, a glimmering star bearing Buddy Holly’s name was placed on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, in commemoration of this incredible musician’s 75th birthday.
Buddy Holly left behind a mass of unfinished recordings – from solo transcriptions to informal jam sessions to tapes with songs intended for other musicians. The most recent recordings he made in his apartment in late 1958 were his final six original songs.
In the summer of 1959, Coral Records used two of them with backing vocals by the Ray Charles Singers with the hopes of simulating the Crickets’ sound. The finished singles became Holly’s first posthumous single, “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.”
The demand for Buddy’s unfinished music was so great, and he had recorded some of them so prolifically, that his record label was able to release new albums and singles for10 years after his death.
Norman Petty was responsible for the production of most of these new editions, using unreleased studio material, alternate takes, and even some amateur recordings. The final result, the “new” Buddy Holly album called Giant, was released in 1969.
In 1980, a sculpted statue of Holly playing his Fender guitar became the centerpiece of Lubbock’s Walk of Fame. The street honors memorable people who contributed to the city’s musical history.
Other memorials to the late singer include a street named after him and the Buddy Holly Center, which is a fine arts gallery and a museum of Holly memorabilia. It’s located on Crickets Avenue, right beside Buddy Holly Avenue.