Three of the nation’s top rock ‘n roll singing stars – Ritchie Valens, J. P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson, and Buddy Holly – died today with their pilot in the crash of a chartered plane. The singers, members of a rock ‘n roll troupe touring Midwest cities, died because they wanted to make a fast hop between dates so they could get their shirts laundered.
The tragedy that ended the careers of the three rising stars symbolized, in a way that was powerfully real, the decline of the strange new music that was carrying us into adolescence and adulthood. In rock and roll one has to be a fan as well as a listener, and the energy of the music depends on stars as much as it does on expertise and creativity. Send Jimi Hendrix to prison for a few years, bust John Lennon and Mick Jagger just one more time, and it won’t matter much how good the next album by the Byrds sounds. Rock and roll is not composed in conservatories or judged in museums – this is one world where infinity does not go up on trial. 19 and 59 – the stars were gone.
The sound Buddy Holly had brought together was left to the second stringers, members of the bands who previously had been happy to back him up or copy his material. Then Bobby Vee appropriated the Crickets for an LP, and hired a young piano player, Bob Dylan, for his road band. That was where the momentum was. Rock and roll, as Dylan himself put it, became “a piece of cream.” Today, we can discover that the heritage of that flimsy, beautiful era comes to more than just the million-sellers everyone remembers. The spirit of the old music, brash, innocent, is a spirit our best craftsmen have never lost, and the memories are more than music – they jump out of an awareness of crucial, sometimes tragic events that exaggerate every note of “La Bamba” and “Peggy Sue” until there’s just a lot more there to hear.
Following an appearance before 1000 fans at Clear Lake last night, they chartered a plane at the Mason City Airport, two miles east of here, and took off at 1:50 AM for Fargo, North Dakota. Their Bonanza four-seat single engine plane crashed minutes later. If Buddy Holly were alive today I’ve no doubt that he, like Johnny Cash, would be recording with Bob Dylan. (The band, for their part, tried to get Gene Vincent to visit the sessions for their latest album, only to discover him living in a hospital in Los Angeles, crippled by an accident.) When young Bob Dylan brought an electric rock and roll band on stage at a junior high school music pageant back in Hibbing, Minnesota, to a reception similar to the one he received when he did the same thing at Newport years later, Buddy Holly tunes were most likely part of the program. Traces of Holly’s vocal style, his phrasing rather than his insane changes from deep bass to something resembling soprano, pop up all through Dylan’s career: on an obscure 1962 Columbia single, “Mixed-Up Confusion,” on “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” on “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” anywhere you look. Dylan and Holly share a clipped, staccato delivery that communicates a sly sense of cool, almost teenage masculinity. The plane skidded across the snow for 558 feet. Holly, 21, was found twenty feet from the wreckage.
Following his death, Coral Records released half a dozen albums of Holly’s hits and memorabilia. While The Buddy Holly Story (biggest hits, Coral CRL 757279) ought to be part of everyone’s collection, there is much more. Holly’s obscure recordings, made on home tape-recorders, in high school with his pal Bob Montgomery, demos and rehearsal acetates, have been re-recorded with studio musicians, often the Fireballs, supplementing the original vocal tracks. The feeling one gets from listening to these cuts, an uneven collection of various Number One records (“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “Shake Rattle and Roll,” “Blue Monday,” “Love is Strange,” “Rip It Up,” and so one), is that of visiting a funeral parlor to watch an embalmer touch up the face of a body mangled in an accident. The guy does a great job but you still don’t recognize the face. For the most part, these records are interesting historically, not musically – they show where Holly came from, sounding like an anemic Carl Perkins on “Blue Suede Shoes,” until he finally emerges as an original, able to master any sort of material in a way that is unique and compelling. His vocal on “Love Is Strange” steals the song from Micky and Sylvia. Holly had it all down. Sometimes, these ancient cuts provide a real sense of what rock and roll might have become had Holly lived.
Valens, a 17 year old recording sensation hailed as “the next Elvis Presley,” was thrown forty feet. Valens, from Pacoima, California, was rapidly becoming one of the hottest singing talents in the country. His first record, of a song he had written called “Come On, Let’s Go,” was released last summer and made him famous. Richard Valenzuela, a Southern California boy. Ruben of Ruben and the Jets was patterned after Ritchie, and much of the material on the Cruising album is a fair representation of Valens’ music. Today, it might all seem rather laughable, but for Ritchie and his fans, as Zappa would be the first to admit, it was no joke, it was just the way it was. “We made this album because we really like this kind of music: just a bunch of old men with rock & roll clothes on sitting around the studio, mumbling about the good old days.”Valens was a hero to the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles, and they cheered him on with the same kind of support they gave when one of their boys faced a black welterweight in the annual Golden Gloves Tournament. It meant a lot to break into a field that had always been in the hands of larger, more established minorities – blacks, Italians, Okies – Ritchie was the first Chicano singer, a hero, just a kid, but a hero.
Valens sang fragile melodies with the enthusiasm and commitment of Little Richard, and the tension that resulted from a fusion of these two elements in a single song captivated his audience and made him a star. Imagine Little Richard singing “Whispering Bells” or perhaps something like Mary Hopkin’s “Goodbye” the way he sang “Lucille” and you have Ritchie Valens. He could turn it around: “Donna” is as touching a ballad as “I Threw It All Away.” Valens took an old Mexican festival song, “La Bamba,” gave it a rock and roll beat, and scored with one of the most exciting records of the era. The split second flashes of the intro, the guitar break that happens before Ritchie has finished with the words – they were all in so much of a hurry the notes pile up on top of each other until the song itself explodes.
This story is from the June 28th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.