At first glance, the title of this post sounds striking. Some of you may wonder, how can it be the day the music died? What’s that? Can music really die? Well, thinking about some music genres, one could argue that, if it hasn’t died, it’s being killed, but well, that’s not the focus of this post.
Music can’t die, and thankfully so, because for some, it serves as an escape valve within their lives, their problems, a way to momentarily forget what’s happening around us, simply letting ourselves be carried away by the rhythm, the notes, the words sung by those we’ve chosen.
Another thing is that when we hear the sad news of the death of a great musician, we feel that a part of the music has died, just like a small part of our hearts. Personally, that’s what I felt when Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, or Chester Bennington died. Each of them brought their personal touch to music, and their loss leaves a void that, even though filled by new artists, won’t be the same.
Each of you will experience this with different artists who have left their mark on you; for each of us, the day the music died has a different date. However, there is one day that is officially considered “the day the music died,” and that is Tuesday, February 3, 1959.
What happened on the day the music died?
What happened on the day the music died and what makes it deserving of such a title? Well, we’re going to tell you in this post, but in summary, on that day, rock and roll composers and singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson) died in a plane crash (which also claimed the life of the pilot Roger Peterson) during one of their trips as part of the tour they were conducting across the United States.
This day marks the beginning of the history of rock and roll according to Don McLean in his song “American Pie,” released in the year 1971 and which looks back at that musical decade.
Buddy Holly was only 22 years old on the day when, with his passing, the music also died. He was considered a pioneer of rock and roll, and though his short professional career lasted only 5 years, he managed to release 3 studio albums and become an institution, a legend, and an inspiration for other music giants like the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, or Freddie Mercury.
From the age of 5, Buddy was singing with his siblings and playing various instruments. He recorded his first songs with a wire recorder and was part of several groups between the years 1953 and 1958, including The Crickets. Thanks to his friendship with Elvis Presley, Buddy and The Crickets performed as his opening acts and gradually gained more recognition. Their joint successes include “Everyday,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy!,” and “Maybe Baby.”
In late 1958, he began his solo career, and as he was a bit short on money, he agreed to participate in the Winter Dance Party tour, which consisted of several concerts in different cities over three weeks.
It was after one of those concerts, returning from Iowa along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, that the tragic accident occurred which would end their lives. A February 3rd that would be labeled the day the music died. And all because the heating on the bus they were traveling in had broken, and in order to avoid suffering from the cold (some experienced frostbite), they chartered the airplane.
Meanwhile, Ritchie Valens, who was 17 years old on that fateful February 3rd, began his career with the group The Silhouettes. Even then, he was nicknamed the “regional Little Richard.” It was Bob Keane who helped him record his 2 unique albums in his home studio and also suggested he change his last name from Valenzuela to Valens, to make it easier for English-speaking audiences to pronounce and remember.
His songs “Donna,” dedicated to his then-girlfriend, “Come On, Let’s Go,” and his version of “La Bamba” (a tribute to his Mexican origins) stand out. “La Bamba” is also the name of the 1987 movie based on the life of the young Ritchie.
It’s said that Ritchie Valens “earned” his seat on the plane by flipping a coin against another artist, Tommy Allsup, from The Crickets. Life works in mysterious ways…
The Big Bopper
The third musician accompanying Buddy and Ritchie was Jiles Perry “J. P.” Richardson Jr., better known as The Big Bopper. This charismatic young man, who despite his powerful voice, was only 28 years old when the accident happened, started working as a DJ at a radio station. In fact, in 1957, he set a record by playing 1,821 songs for five days, two hours, and eight minutes straight, using the five-minute news breaks to take showers.
He also played the guitar and composed his own songs, with the most famous being “Chantilly Lace,” which was the third most listened-to song in the United States in 1958. During the Winter Dance Party, Jiles caught the flu due to the cold weather (several tens of degrees below zero) and the lack of heating on the bus, and he asked Waylon Jennings (from The Crickets) for his seat on the plane to reach a doctor, to which Waylon gladly agreed.
The climatic conditions made the flight difficult, which ended up crashing and taking the lives of the young artists and the pilot.
American Pie, or how Don McLean spoke about the day the music died in his song
In 1971, American singer-songwriter Don McLean wrote his song “American Pie,” in which he referred to this sad event as the day the music died. In the song, he gives an overview of the history of rock and roll, starting from that fateful February 3, 1959, and going up to 1970. He talks about the loss of innocence in the rock and roll culture and how it has changed, referencing artists, trends of the era, objects, etc.
For 8 minutes of the song, Don goes through and reminisces about how things were on the day the music died. The names of the deceased artists are never mentioned, although the album was dedicated to Buddy Holly, and McLean has never exactly clarified the meaning of “American Pie,” so everyone can interpret it as they wish… Melancholy, nostalgia, accepting that things change, that we lose some and gain others. All of this is told by Don in those 8 minutes where we can’t stop listening to his sweet and hypnotizing voice.
Killing Me Softly with His Song, or how Roberta Flack responded to Don McLean’s song
And that’s probably what happened to singer Lori Lieberman when she attended one of Don’s concerts and was left “flipping” with him. When she told songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox about it, she said that Don had “killed her softly” with his song. In fact, it inspired her to write a poem, which led to the creation of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” She also sang it in Spanish under the title “Toda Mi Vida En Su Canción,” and it was ultimately popularized by American soul singer Roberta Flack in 1973, and later by the Fugees in 1997, among others.
However, many people think that this song references “American Pie,” and that’s not true. The song that inspired Lori was “Empty Chairs,” which predates “American Pie” but evokes the same catharsis and feelings of nostalgia. One doesn’t know whether to cry, applaud like crazy, or do both. “Empty Chairs” is a clear example of not knowing what you have until you lose it. If we pay attention to the lyrics of “Killing Me Softly,” we can perfectly understand how Lori felt upon hearing Don sing.
The version of “Killing Me Softly” that became a hit was by American soul singer Roberta Flack, who won a Grammy for it in 1974. She had also won one the previous year with her song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
If there were any doubts about the importance of music and its roles, this story shows how music has connected different artists and eras, a way to communicate and tell stories that will always remain among us. Just like in the movie “Coco,” as long as someone remembers us, we don’t die, and the same goes for songs.
Because there will always be someone singing a song that reminds us of a moment in our life or even inspires us to create another song. Like in a conversation, but with musical notes and instruments.
(Madrid, 1988). Azahara P. Navas has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the Complutense University of Madrid and currently works as a language translator with knowledge of English, French, German and Greek.