It was 60 years ago last Sunday when a small airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed into a corn field in northern Iowa. The musicians, along with their pilot, were killed, and “The Day the Music Died” became indelibly written in the annals of rock and roll.
Buddy Holly was just 22 when he died, having revolutionized music with his band The Crickets. Known for popularizing the standard rock and roll band configuration of two guitars, a bass, and drums, Holly had major hits with songs like That’ll Be the Day and Peggy Sue and was a major influence on later artists including Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Eric Clapton.
Ritchie Valens was even younger than Holly when he died, all of 17 years old. But by then, he’d already recorded two hit singles, La Bamba and Donna and had become a symbol of the Chicano rock movement.
DJ-turned-singer The Big Bopper was perhaps best known for his song Chantilly Lace. He’s the only one of the three not to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The tragedy has been commemorated in the films La Bamba and The Buddy Holly Story, but it was Don McLean’s 1972 song American Pie that really fixed the tragedy in the public imagination.
McLean’s eight-and-a-half minute epic spent four weeks atop the Billboard charts. Harvard University Library has a copy of the lyrics; Madonna covered the song in 2000; “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied it with The Saga Begins, a summary of Star Wars: Episode 1. And in 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America named the song No. 5 on a list of the “Songs of the Century,” just behind Respect and This Land Is Your Land.
One way to commemorate the young, influential artists who died that day 60 years ago: Check out a performance of Don McLean performing the song that honored them at the BBC in 1972.