The Day The Music Died
A small red-and-white Beech-Craft Bonanza took off from Clear Lake into a light snow falling on the frigid, pitch black night of February 3, its taillight glowing red as it began to climb in the direction of Fargo, N.D., and then disappeared into rock 'n' roll history.
When that plane crashed, it claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, pioneers of the young musical sound, in a tragedy that Don McLain memorialized in his classic musical parable as "the Day the Music Died."
Fifty years have passed, and on the anniversary of the incident, Holly's music is still known and the loss of the stars still lamented in the national consciousness.
Much less know, however, is the loss of another young life, that of Alta native Roger Peterson, the 21-year-old pilot who was asked to fly the Winter Dance Party performers from the Surf Ballroom in uncertain conditions to the destination for their next show.
"He was a young man who built his life around flying," the Civil Aeronautics Board reflected in its official report following the crash. He had begun flying at age 16, had his license just after graduating high school, and by 21, had over 700 hours of flight experience, and a year as a charter flight pilot and flight instructor under his belt.
The eldest of four children, Peterson had married his high school sweetheart, Deanne Lenz, the September before. They had just established a home in Clear Lake. A passionate and respected young pilot, his career seemed assured.
The airport received no radio transmission after the plane took off. It was found in a remote field the next day, after the young pilot's boss took out another plane to trace the route. Peterson was found still in the cockpit of the ruined plane, with the bodies of the three singers strewn in the 500-foot long path of debris. Experts theorized that high winds and bad visability, along with a set of instruments that were somewhat unfamiliar, may have caused the pilot to believe he was banking up into the snowy sky, when he was actually banking down at high speed. He was not given the bad weather alerts that he should have had, and which should have prevented the flight from taking off, officials said.
For the rest of their lives, Roger Arthur Peterson's parents, Arthur and Pearl, who continued to live in Alta, hoped that their son would be remembered in the same breath with the more famous personalities lost in the crash. They received letters of condolence from the families of Holly and Valens. While long lines of adoring fans attended Holly's memorial, a quiet Iowa funeral was held for the pilot, and a small marker in a Storm Lake cemetary denotes his grave site, etched with a tiny plane.
Peterson indeed has been remembered - an international group of Holly fans in the 1990s started to present a music scholarship to local students in the pilot's name, as they had in the home areas of the rock 'n' roll pioneers. A six-foot monument was erected at the Surf Ballroom in 1988 - remembering all four men lost. Peterson's parents and widow there met the survivors of all three of the lost performers, gathered for the first time. A memorial tree to Peterson was planted at the crash site. His role in the tragedy is also recalled in movies and biographies of each of the performers. A 50th anniversary concert will be held in the men's memory at Lamar State College near Holly's home in Texas. And one online memorial site to Peterson has over 300 comments from people all over the world, which are still coming in at a steady pace.
"May you now have your wings in heaven," one person wrote recently.
On what would have been his 71st birthday, last May, another wrote, "Happy Birthday! May you always be soaring above the clouds!"
"You are most likely the one person's name that day that no one remembers, but you did your best," another wrote.
"When people think of 'the day the music died', they forget that you were flying the plane. Know that you are truly remembered, and I hope that you are flying with the angels!" added another in 2008.
The stars - their real names were Charles Hardin Holley, Jiles Perry Richardson, and Richard Valenzuela - had appeared at the ballroom in Clear Lake that night. Bus trouble had plagued the group, with one band member already suffering frostbite, leaving Holly and Valens to take turns trying to fill in on the drums. Holly decided to travel ahead by plane to the nearest airport to their Moorhead show, instead of shivering through another night on the bus. The manager of the Surf Ballroom called Dwyer Flying Service, Mason City, which often employed Peterson as a pilot.
Although some accounts say Peterson had second thoughts about the flight in deteriorating weather conditions, the plane took off at 1 a.m., operating normally. An autopilot device had just been installed, but was not hooked up in time for the unanticipated flight.
The incident resulted in legend and controversy. A gun was found at the crash site, and rumor long persisted that a shot had been fired by Holly inside the cabin that may have killed or disabled Peterson, and that Richardson had survived the crash and died while crawling to try to find help. No evidence was ever found proving anything other than a piloting accident, and in 2007, Richardson's body was exumed and studied to confirm that there was no sign of foul play and that he had died on impact. Another rumor had it that the plane was named "American Pie," explaining McClain's iconic song. It wasn't; and was only known by its call letters.
One legendary truth is that a young Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on the flight. The future country music hall of famer had decided to go with Holly, but gave his seat up to Richardson, who was running a fever and had trouble fitting his stocky frame into the bus seats. When Holly learned that Jennings wasn't going to fly, he said, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your plane crashes." This friendly banter of friends would haunt Jennings for years. Valens, who hadn't flown before, pleaded for a chance and won a seat in a coin flip with a band member. A final seat remained unfilled - Dion DiMucci, who later found fame with Dion & The Belmonts, decided at the last moment to that he couldn't afford the $36 flight. He said that he had heard his parents as a child arguing about $36 needed for the monthly rent for their home, and felt guilty spending it on a convenience.
After the crash, it was decided that the show must go on in Moorhead. A 15-year-old local kid from across the state line in Fargo volunteered to sing. That was the launch of the career of Bobby Vee, who will be among the performers for the anniversary show at the Surf Ballroom in memory of the four men who were lost.