In winter 1958-59 pioneering Rock-n-Roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, JP Richardson ("Big Bopper"), Waylon Jennings, Tommy Alsup and Carl Bunch, as well as Dion & the Belmonts were part of the "Winter Dance Party" tour. In their travels across the Midwest, they encountered brutal conditions in January 1959 with iced over, snow- drifted roadways, wind-driven snow events & brutal cold which led to bus issues, illness from flu to colds & for a while & complete breakdown of the buses' heat. This resulted in at least one musician developing frostbite.
Land travel became so extremely perilous & frustrating in Iowa on February 2, the pivotal decision was made to charter a plane to fly to their next venue from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota February 3, 1959. "Bopper" traded places with Waylon Jennings to ride the plane due to bout of the flu, while Ritchie Valens won the plane ride from Alsup on a coin toss. It is that plane that would crash & kill all three & the pilot on-board when flying on a snowy, windy, cold night just after 12 a.m. on the 3rd shortly after take-off.
So what was the "straw that broke the camel's back" to make them suddenly charter the night of February 2?
First, let's provide an overall synopsis.............
This was part of a long, cold, brutal, windy, snowy winter in our region & the Midwest not unlike the the winters of the early 1960s & late 1970s to early 80s.
When people talk of the rough winters "when they were a kid" they are likely referring to a set of consistently rough, LONG winters in our area:
1958-59; 1959-60; 1960-61; 1962-63; 1963-64..............OR 1976-77; 1977-78; 1978-79; 1981-82........
Any relief in this winter was rather brief & was met with bad results. In fact a brief warm-up occurred with 3-4.5" of rain fell atop melting snowpack & still-frozen ground in our area in February. This lead to significant flooding & evacuations in the viewing area February 10-11 (damaging ice storm in northern Illinois, however) as we warmed from 8 February 7 to 52 on the 10th at Greater Lafayette. Ice jams on rivers with the downpours & the sudden thaw with snow melt run-off led to the flooding of 700 homes at Peru alone as temporary levee broke. 100 homes were flooded & store "wrecked" by ice at Georgetown (Cass County) while crushing ice on Lake Shafer, Lake Freeman & along the Tippecanoe & Wabash River caused extensive destruction to homes & river cabins. Livestock also drowned & one person was killed when they tried to drive through flood waters.
We were back below 0 in Greater Lafayette & the viewing area as a whole by February 20. The high was only 40 on April 11 & 41 on April 21 as the cold hung on. However, it was extreme! Summer came in early May with 85-90 for 5 consecutive days! Seems to be the case in these long winters & cold springs with sudden summer!
Most of the Lower 48 was colder than normal except for just a few areas in the Great Basin & Snake River Valley of the West in the 1958-59 & 1959-60 winters.
Singling out January 1959, it was colder than normal, especially over the Plains, Great Lakes & central Corn Belt. Only the Great Basin & Snake River Valley area was warmer than normal.
Above normal precipitation in both winters from Nebraska to Ohio & New York showed the above normal snowfall. Meanwhile, the Southeast was drier than normal (except east of Alabama).
In the previous days prior to the plane crash, an expansive Arctic high over fresh, deep snow pack led to lows well below 0 over a massive area of the Plains & Midwest to New England.
Just prior to the flight, another re-enforcing shot of Arctic air was roaring southward with a vigorous Alberta Clipper, picking up the fresh snow pack, blowing it around & creating dangerous ground blizzard conditions Iowa to Minnesota & the Dakotas.
Not only that, new snow was falling with the clipper & then warm-advection snow was expanding over Iowa, furthermore reducing visibility. It all equaled poor, poor conditions for road or air travel.
The plane crashed into a corn field at Clear Lake, Iowa due to poor visibility & lack of pilot experience shortly after take-off.
You can see the re-enforcing punch of the Arctic air racing southward like a fist into Iowa.
It is hard to imagine how the music world would have benefitted from these remarkable artists & how prolific they would have been in their careers. They were truly pioneers & paved the way for future musicians influencing other artists for decades to come. As Don McLean sang in his 1971 hit, it truly was "the day music died" with the loss of these three remarkable talents.