Fifty years ago, the “music died” in an Iowa cornfield. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed when their plane went down outside Clear Lake, Iowa. In those early kinescope days of rock ‘n’ roll, each was a pioneer. Ritchie Valens broke ethnic barriers, adapting a Mexican standard and making it a hit on the white-dominated pop charts. The Big Bopper coined the term “music video” to describe his filmed take of Chantilly Lace. While the singers were silenced that night in 1959, in death they were also trailblazers.
They were the first in a long line of tragic heroes stretching from Eddie Cochran to Kurt Cobain. In death, we remember the brilliant sparks of creativity wrought from the work they managed to accomplish in their all-too-short time on Earth. The concept of unfinished business is a romantic one. Its potential is only limited by the imagination of their fans. Buddy Holly is seen as the father of what musicians put into place in the decades that followed. What-if scenarios combine his talents with those he inspired: Brian Wilson, Keith Richards, Lennon and McCartney. No one ever seems to think he might have failed later in life, his next records might have flopped or those he inspired might have ended his career as surely the sixties legends overshadowed almost all of the surviving pioneers from the fifties.
The music industry is not kind to pop stars who age. Their voices cannot reach the notes they once did. Their prolific songwriting dwindles to a thin trickle. Impassioned lyrics turn brittle and trite. There is little interest in new releases by classic artists. They are upstaged by their own earlier iterations. We have seen the best minds of those generations – not go mad as Allen Ginsburg dreamed, but rather following the footsteps of General Douglas MacArthur when he said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” But for Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens, they will always be as we remember them, permanently playing in hi-fi and televised in glorious black and white.
— Charles Hardin Holley (1936 – 1959)