I was sitting on the green and cream Pacific Stage Lines bus on my way from the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby to the town of New Westminster for an appointment with the worst hack dentist known to kids with dentist terror and bad teeth. Needless to say, I was not very happy.
The bus pulled over at a way-stop and a girl from my class got on. Her eyes were wet with tears and she asked me if I had heard. What it was she had heard was that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper had been killed in a plane crash some place far away.
So, that was where I was on “the day the music died.”
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper: “Helllllllllloooo, Baby”). Three kids who died and made a career for Don McLean that might have otherwise been relatively lacklustre.
I’m not sure how I reacted. I’m not sure how the other kids who were my contemporaries reacted. I know they didn’t bring in any grief counselors like they might nowadays. We were kids. We didn’t really get ‘death’ yet. Sort of like James Dean who’d been wiped out in a road accident a while earlier.
Anyway, the point of this exercise is that today is the 55th anniverary of the deaths of a trio that ultimately proved much more musically significant than anyone might have considered at the time. Well, maybe the Big Bopper has never proved to be so significant as he was more of a novelty performer.
However in the cases of Holly and Valens, their impact has been huge. I am often staggered by the breadth of Holly’s creative oeuvre. Song after song and all of them good emanating from this geeky-looking bespectacled chap from Lubbock Texas. He wasn’t a Presley-looking heartthrob but lets be honest. EP couldn’t have written a song if his life had depended on it.
I only saw Holly once, on the Ed Sullivan Show. Not a lot of footage of him kicking around, alas. But his songs were so good and much more mature than your average bobbysoxer crap of the day. Years later I was to find that my dad often played my BH records I’d left behind when I grew up. I was surprised to find that out, and mentioned it to him.
“Why not,” he said. “They were good and catchy songs.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me that?” I queried.
“You didn’t tell kids things like that in those days, you know, that somehow not all of their music was crap.”
I had a little more respect for the old man after that admission.
And Ritchie Valens. He wasn’t yet 18 when his brief life was snuffed out in that plane crash in a wretched February in the Midwest. And yet, any male who ever slow-danced with a special someone to Oh Donna fully appreciated what the lad could do. And La Bamba, other than Volare the only foreign language song to ever be a blockbuster hit at that point in time. I always wished I understood Spanish so I could sing it with the actual lyrics. I found it amusing to later discover than Valens, with his Chicano background didn’t understand Spanish either.
There could have been one more major musician death that day. And that was Waylon Jennings (doing vocals with the Crickets at the time) who gave up his seat on the airplane to Valens.
And that’s my brief testament to the Day the Music Died and through those chaps into immortality. And the immortality stems from the fact we can still listen to their offerings and find them wonderful.