Tuesday, February 3, 2009

50 years ago today was the day the music (nearly) died

On this very day in 1959, three great rock 'n roll legends had their lives taken away in a plane crash. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were doing a teenybopper winter tour in the North when this happened. I'm sure all of us are familiar with the lyrics and pop cultural references in Don McLean's song "American Pie", which was inspired by this one event. What I mean is this: during the mid-1950s, the rock and roll revolution took America (and the world) by storm. Right-wingers hated the new 'devils music' while the teens loved it. It was a mixture of rhythm and blues and country. It was the sound that became arguably America's greatest export. It was the sound that made blacks and whites come together.

However, by 1959, things slowly changed. Besides the fateful plane crash of Holly and Valens, other artists felt the shift. Elvis Presley was drafted in the Army that same year, Bill Haley gets dropped from Decca Records (the label that helped him promote 'Rock Around the Clock'), and the media started 'turning on' rock legends. A year before, Jerry Lee Lewis's rock career ended after he married his 13-year old cousin. Pop music became pop music again, with Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and Bobby Vinton topping the charts. It wasn't until 1964 when the Beatles came from across the Atlantic to re-introduce rock and roll. What influenced the Beatles' name and sound was Buddy Holly.

There's so many different ways Buddy Holly helped shape music. He's also arguably one of the most covered artists of all time. From the Rolling Stones to John Mellencamp to even Iggy Pop, his songs set the tone for others. Artists even turned his little-known songs into hits, especially Linda Ronstadt. He may not rank as high as Elvis Presley or Ray Charles, but I believe he did set the tone for all rock bands. Before him, there were orchestras and band members that did not get good representation. I also believe Buddy Holly inspired so many to pick up a guitar and form a band, as he did just that at age 19. And lastly, so many musicians from past to present look at him as inspiration, no matter what generation. As for Ritchie Valens (who was just 17 years old) and Big Bopper, they were 2 men who were beginning their careers (although they had 2 hits under their belt already). If you ever watch the movie La Bamba, you'll learn a lot about Ritchie Valens. Despite of his big hit "La Bamba", he never knew how to speak Spanish. In fact, the line that gets repeated over and over in the song translates to "I am not a sailor".

What's very interesting about this is all the legends surrounding this story.

Yes, it is true that Waylon Jennings (who would go on to a very successful Country music career) gave up his seat to one of the musicians. It is also true that he once said "I hope your plane crashes" after Buddy Holly jokingly said "I hope your bus freezes up". Of course, it started out as a joke, but that quote haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.

It is also true that then-unknown Bobby Vee filled in on the tour after the plane crash. Vee would go on and put out a string of hits during the 1960s.

What's false is that the name of the plane was NOT named American Pie. Apparently, people assumed it that way. This piece of trivia was found in several emails that talk about 'random facts'. But what's very puzzling is why they decided to board the plane. This evolved to several different stories and legends. It was a blustery night, so Buddy Holly decided to take a plane to the next town. The bus was freezing, and he wanted to get sleep on the plane. So, it would have made sense to save more time by riding a plane. The other two musicians decided to join him for those reasons. This is the story that I first read.

There's another version where in the movie The Buddy Holly Story, they decide to board the plane after they draw straws (Buddy wins). I never saw the movie, but my speech teacher did and corrected me on this one.

So, its time to rock out to some cool rock and roll from the 50s!

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