It was February as Don Maclean’s song ‘American Pie’ tells us, and it was cold. 60 years ago today, on 3 February 1959, was a day that deeply affected not just Don but millions of people across America and around the world. It was the day that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and JP (The Big Bopper) Richardson died in the infamous plane crash.
They were all appearing on the aptly named Winter Dance Party tour along with Dion and the Belmonts and an unknown, but hopeful, singer called Frankie Sardo. The shows themselves were fine, but the conditions were anything but. The band bus was so cold that Buddy’s drummer had to leave the tour with frostbite.
On 1 February the tour played Green Lake Wisconsin and the following day they were due in Clear Lake, Iowa, it was a 350-mile drive. So slow was their progress that they never made a promotional stop at a Mason City record store. They arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake around 6 pm. After dinner in a nearby restaurant Buddy told the manager of the Surf Ballroom that he wanted to charter an aircraft to fly to their next stop. It was a 500-mile drive to Moorhead Minnesota and that meant at least ten hours on the bus, probably more.
The Surf’s manager called Dwyer’s aviation in Mason City and was quoted $108 to charter a four-seat plane. Shortly after 8 pm the show kicked off with Frankie Sardo, followed by the Big Bopper and then Richie Valens. After the interval it was Dion and the Belmonts and at 10.40 pm it was time for Buddy – his first song, ‘Gotta Travel On’. After Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, the final song of Buddy’s set, just about everyone got back on stage for ‘La Bamba’, it all wound up around 11.30 pm.
Around midnight as Buddy, J.P. Richardson and Tommy Allsup, Buddy’s guitarist, were getting reading to leave the Surf Ballroom for the airport at Mason City. Allsup went back inside after Buddy had told him to check they had everything, he bumped into Richie Valens who was signing autographs. Richie was anxious to go on the plane, as he, like everyone, hated the bus. He convinced Allsup to toss a coin for the place. Tommy Allsup lost.
Shortly after 12.30 am Buddy, Richie and J.P arrived at the airport; it was snowing and the winds were increasing. Just before 1 am they boarded the 12-year-old Beech Bonanza; Buddy in the front with the pilot and the others in the back. Getting airborne just before 1 am the plane headed northwest towards Fargo, North Dakota, the nearest airport to Moorhead.
For certain, what happened next, we will never know. It appears that the pilot, who was inexperienced on flying with instruments, misread the dials and instead of climbing he started descending. In the darkness and the conditions, with no real horizon visible, there is only the plane’s artificial horizon to depend on. The plane crashed 5 minutes later on farmland belong to Albert Juel.
It was not until 5 am that an alert was issued for the missing plane and not until 9 am the next morning that the owner of Dwyer Aviation, flying his own plane and searching for any wreckage, spotted the crash site. All four men had died instantly and despite subsequent conspiracy theories that include Buddy forcing the pilot to hand over the controls, at gun point, there is little doubt that it was just a tragic accident.
In a bizarre footnote Frank Sardo was arrested in London in 1971 for conspiring to dispose of share certificates worth £5 million. According to British police some of the four men arrested with Sardo had links to the Mafia.