Freeze Frame: The quadruple plane crash tragedy that led Don McLean to sing about ‘the day the music died’

The day the music died… Almost everyone has heard this haunting lyric at least once before in their life. 

But do they all know the quadruple tragedy that inspired Don Mclean’s hit song American Pie?

The year was 1959 and three rock and roll musicians Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and ‘The Big Bopper’ J.P Richardson had boarded a light plane bound for Fargo in North Dakota.

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Piloted by Roger Peterson, the three music legends were set to continue Holly’s Winter Dance Party tour across America’s midwest.

Valens and Richardson had joined later in the tour, while the band Dion and the Belmonts were also part of the gig.

As fate would have it, Richardson wasn’t originally supposed to be on that plane.

Because he had the flu, he had swapped places with Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, while rocker Tommy Allsop lost his seat to Valens in a coin toss.

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Poster of Winter Dance Party 1959 rare

Countless reports since then have claimed that Jennings had some joking yet eerily prophetic words for Holly, who told him when he heard about the seat switch: “Well, I hope your ‘ol bus freezes up”.

“Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” Jenning is said to have told him in response.

While on-board, the hugely popular musicians were preparing for their next show set to take place the following day. Little did they know, they’d never make it.

It was a normal take-off from Mason City Municipal Airport in Iowa, at 12.55am on February 3,1959. Just five minutes later, though, the aircraft veered off track and crashed into a cornfield.

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The crash was blamed on poor weather conditions, which were said to be icy and wintry.

All four men on board died. Holly was aged 22, Valens was just 17, Richardson was 28 and the pilot, Peterson, was 21.

A haunting poster advertising the trio’s next Winter Dance Party – February 3rd – is a tragic reminder of the concert they never made it to.

The poster sold for a whopping, record-breaking $674,696 in 2022.

Holly’s new wife, Maria, was pregnant with the couple’s first child. She had a miscarriage after hearing the news of her husband’s death.

Maria, now aged 91, told the Australian Financial Review in 2019, 60 years after the crash, that she learned about it on TV.

McLean wrote about this second tragedy in his 1971 song: “I don’t remember if I cried/When I read about his widowed bride.”

The singer, who was a teenage paperboy in 1959, penned the song 11 years later after reflecting on how the tragedy marked the end of the happy, innocent decade of the 50s.  

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Don McLean pictured in 1971

He coined the term American Pie as he sang about America inching towards the “sour” 60s, which saw John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King murdered.

A common misconception was the plane the men died on was named American Pie, but no such record exists of the flight being named anything other than its registration number, N3794N.

“I always feel a tug inside me whenever I think about Buddy,” McLean told AP in 2022.

“I don’t like talking about the lyrics because I wanted to capture and say something that was almost unspeakable,” he also told The Guardian in 2020. “It’s indescribable.”

This year marks 65 years since Holly, Richardson, Vallens and their pilot Peterson died in the plane crash.

Still, decades on, karaoke bar patrons around the world will solemnly sing about the day the music died.

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