It was rock & roll's first great tragedy. At 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1959, a four-seater plane took off from Iowa's Mason City airport in a light snow heading to Fargo, N.D.: It crashed in a cornfield minutes later, instantly killing its three famous passengers, Buddy Holly, 22, Richie Valens, 17, and the Big Bopper (real name: J.P. Richardson), 28.
The three stars had performed hours earlier at the Surf Ballroom in nearby Clear Lake before a sellout crowd, as part of a multistate ''Winter Dance Party'' tour. Geeky, bespectacled Holly, from Lubbock, Tex., was fast emerging as a contender to Elvis' throne with such top 10 hits as ''That'll Be the Day'' and ''Peggy Sue.'' Valens' ode to his high school sweetheart, ''Donna,'' was moving up the charts, and the Big Bopper had scored with ''Chantilly Lace.'' But the grind had become exhausting, and Holly had booked the plane for himself and band members Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, hoping to get a respite from their temperamental chartered bus. At the last minute, Allsup and Jennings gave up their seats to Valens and Richardson.
News of the crash hit hard. Bill Griggs, then a 17-year-old and later founder of the Buddy Holly Memorial Society in Lubbock, recalls thinking, ''That's one of our heroes who died. That's not supposed to happen when you're a teenager.'' Schoolyards and lunchrooms across the nation were filled with stunned, hushed fans. Holly's ''It Doesn't Matter Anymore'' became a posthumous hit in March, while Valens' ''Donna'' went on to sell more than a million copies.
It didn't end there. Some British Invasion groups copped Holly's guitar style and hiccuping, rockabilly vocals; Paul McCartney admired him so much he later acquired the publishing rights to his music. Don McLean's 1971 hit, ''American Pie,'' called his death ''the day the music died.'' Hollywood canonized him in 1978's The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey in an Oscar-nominated performance. (Richie Valens later had his own biopic, 1987's La Bamba, starring Lou Diamond Phillips.) In 1986, Holly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Still, there is the lingering question, ''What if?'' Holly planned to build a large recording complex in Lubbock. And though he had seemed to be moving toward pop, he also had hoped to do a gospel album with Mahalia Jackson. Says Griggs, ''That plane crash took a lot from us.'' But a lot was also left behind: Buddy Holly's records have now sold an estimated 40 million copies.
Feb. 3, 1959
On the big screen, Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth sat at Separate Tables, while bibliophiles were rushin' to read Doctor Zhivago. Lloyd Price's ''Stagger Lee'' was a new twist on an old song, and Gunsmoke was TV's tops.