With all due respect to Don McLean, Feb. 3, 1959 wasn’t the day the music died.
A half-century after the Iowa plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, the music – and the impact -- live on.
Holly, who died at just 22, proved a direct influence on the Beatles, whose name was, in part, an ode to the bespectacled musician’s group, The Crickets. The first primitive recording John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison made together as teenagers was a cover of Holly’s “That’ll be the Day.”
The Rolling Stones’ first American single was a version of Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which, with its unshakable Bo Diddley beat, was famously a frequent staple of Grateful Dead shows.
Holly also presaged the Beatles by becoming the first major rock act to use a strings. McCartney doesn’t own his own Beatles publishing rights – but he bought Holly’s.
Holly’s incredible musical output – including “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy” and “Maybe Baby” – has fueled countless cover versions, a 1970s biopic on his life and a 1980s stage musical, which is currently being revived in London. Younger generations also have gotten to know him through Weezer’s song, “Buddy Holly,” and the accompanying Spike Jonze-directed, “Happy Days”-inspired video.
Valens, only 17 when he was killed, left an indelible mark on rock alone with “La Bamba,” and has influenced everyone from Carlos Santana to Los Lobos. A 1980s movie biography helped secure Valens' spot in music history. While not in the same league as Holly and Valens, the Big Bopper – aka J.P. Richardson – was a deejay, performer and country songwriter who is credited with producing one of the first music videos.
McLean’s classic “American Pie,” is about innocence lost – a theme that resonates as much now as it did when he recorded the song in 1971 amid turbulent times. But the story of the tragic plane crash also speaks to Holly's legacy in helping spark a 1960s pop music explosion, and to the recurring rock-and-roll theme of talent taken before its time.
Fifty years later, the music hasn’t died – and there’s no sign the legend will fade away. Check out Holly in this performance, just months before his death:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.