Monday, February 4, 2008
Remembering: The Day the Music Died
49 years ago today in Iowa countryside, the music died
By THOMAS ZACHEK
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Feb. 2 marks 49 years since Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper took off in the early morning from Clear Lake, Iowa, and went down to their deaths in a plane crash.
It was rock 'n' roll's first great tragedy.
Like the music they sang, they were so young. Valens, just 17, had two hits to his credit, "Donna" and the upbeat "La Bamba," adapted from a Mexican folk song and now a staple of oldies bands.
The Bopper was a deejay who got interested in novelty tunes, trying to make it with "Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor." His intended hit went nowhere, but there was plenty of interest in its flip side, an ad-libbed ditty called "Chantilly Lace." The oldest of the three at 28, Richardson left a pregnant wife who, five months later, gave birth to J.P. Richardson Jr., who now tours singing his dad's songs.
Then there was Holly, generally considered one of rock music's early geniuses. At only 22, Holly had a string of classic rockers like "That'll Be the Day" and "Maybe Baby" and had begun to move in the direction of sophisticated ballads like "True Love Ways."
Holly wanted to stay in New York with his pregnant wife and record, but management insisted that a winter tour was necessary, though it was poorly planned. It followed a circuitous route from Milwaukee's Million Dollar Ballroom on Jan. 23, criss-crossing Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, playing Green Bay on Feb. 1 and then Clear Lake, a last-minute addition, on Feb. 2.
They traveled in a series of decrepit buses ill-equipped to handle our brutal Midwest winter. The buses kept breaking down, even forcing them to cancel a matinee in Appleton and continue to Green Bay to play the Riverside that night.
Holly was so tired and cold that he wanted to charter a plane from Clear Lake so that he could get to Fargo, N.D., early and be more rested.
It was never determined why the plane went down five minutes after takeoff, but the crash silenced at least one, if not three, of rock 'n' roll's first great voices.
Holly influenced legions of rock performers. His driving, upbeat, feel-good tunes are the essence of rock 'n' roll. In an era when singers didn't write their own material and sometimes didn't even play on their own records, Holly was the whole package - songwriting, arranging and performing.
With his tight pants and black eyeglasses, he looked like the quintessential nerd - until he hit the first chord and you realized that coolness is not what you look like but what you do. His wearing glasses on stage gave impressionable and nearsighted young John Lennon permission to do the same. And in their Duluth audience was a gangly teenager from Hibbing named Bobby Zimmerman.
The first track from the first Rolling Stones' album is a Holly song. Waylon Jennings started out playing with Holly (and gave up his seat on the plane to Richardson). The Beatles covered Holly and credited him as a major influence, right up there with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Paul McCartney says that when the Beatles first started out, they gravitated toward Holly's songs because all they needed were three chords.
Indeed, Holly and the Crickets were one of the first garage bands, and every young band trying their hand at chords and licks follows in their footsteps.
It is sadly ironic that Milwaukee radio stations don't play Holly's music today, since the airwaves are filled with his musical descendants and you can hear his influence every day.
Thomas Zachek of Hubertus is a retired teacher. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org