The Day the Music Died: Rock 'n' Roll's Darkest Day

El 3 de febrero de 1959, tres estrellas emergentes del rock murieron en un accidente aéreo. La tragedia los inmortalizó como iconos y su legado musical influyó en artistas como Elvis Presley o Bob Dylan.

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Molly Malcolm

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Wreckage of the V-tailed Bonanza plane.

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On the morning of 3rd of February 1959, Don McLean, a paperboy in New Rochelle, New York State, was forced to deliver devastating news. A chartered plane had crashed into a frozen field near Clear Lake, Iowa in the American Midwest, killing everyone on board. Its passengers were the musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, all up-and-coming stars in rock and roll music. The news made such an impact on McLean that in 1971 he would transform the tragedy into his own iconic song: American Pie has been covered multiple times by artists such as Hank Marvin and Madonna. But while it refers to the terrible plane crash, McLean said, it is really about America.


In the late 1950s, US society would undergo a profound change as baby boomers born after World War Two came of age. Rock and roll music was no longer seen as a teenage fad and became intrinsic to a wider socio-cultural movement. Charles Holley, a.k.a. Buddy Holly, was born in Lubbock, Texas. He played roller rinks and on the radio and opened for Elvis Presley in 1955 just before the Mississippi-born artist became a sensation. With his engaging personality, hairstyle, glasses and grin, Holly caught on, and in less than two years had released three albums. 


Only twenty-two when he died, Holly left behind dozens of unfinished recordings that proved incredibly innovative. He experimented with orchestration and double tracking, a technique in which a performer accompanies their own pre-recorded performance. He also popularised the now-standard rock band set-up of two guitars, bass and drums.


Ritchie Valens was just seventeen when he died, but the Los Angeles-born musician had already boosted the Spanish-speaking rock and roll movement with hits such as La Bamba, which was adapted from a Mexican folk song. “Big Bopper” was a twenty-eight-year-old radio host and musician credited with creating the first music video. He was only on the plane because he felt ill and Holly’s bass player Waylon Jennings offered him his seat, a decision that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. 


All three ill-fated stars had agreed to do the Winter Dance Party tour reluctantly because they needed cash. It zigzagged through the Midwest in freezing conditions. Exhausted, they wanted to fly to the next stop so they could get some sleep before the performance. The plane took off at 12.55am and the wreck was found just six miles away. While music may not have literally died that day, as McLean suggests in American Pie, the crash marked the end of an age of innocence, when faith in God was replaced by the belief that only rock and roll could possibly save your soul.

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