Old Enough To Remember

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

It was 55 years ago today that the private plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, aka The Big Bopper, crashed on a midwestern farm, killing everybody aboard. It was also 47 years ago today that eccentric British songwriter/producer Joe Meek (“Telstar”) killed his landlady before killing himself. Meek, like so many other Brits, was a devout Holly fan, and it’s been more than theoretical that the calendar date was on his mind when he struck his final blows. Aside from me being only 8 when the first tragedy occurred, I remember it fairly well, even though I had only one record from any of the above trio. I liked their records, but the only one I liked enough to save my allowance for was Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.” In contrast “Telstar,” from 1962, remains to this day one of my favorite records of all time, but because we didn’t have the media saturation we do now, and because Meek was little known in the US beyond that #1 hit, I didn’t find out about his demise until maybe a decade after.
What I’d like to talk about that’s been discussed many times is what might have happened had the plane stayed in the air that day. Where I would start is to say that it’s very likely the US (and UK) charts would have been deprived/spared of the early 60’s pop idol Bobby Vee. Since there was a huge gap in that Moorhead, Minnesota concert that the Big Three failed to attend, Robert Velline (already using his stage name back then) and his band were inserted into the line-up, and probably were asked to do an extended set. They did well enough that word of mouth extended to Liberty Records staff producer Snuff Garrett, who signed Vee and his band shortly after, then dumped them and kept Vee as a solo. Vee’s string of hits with Garrett in the “Years of The Bobbys” lasted until the English invasion.
Beyond the success of Bobby Vee, things are left more to opinion. I’ve always felt that The Big Bopper would have made the most money. While his days as a rock star were clearly numbered, as he was older than the other two, he had age and experience on his side. He was just as busy in the songwriting department as his co-passengers, but had the business side better worked out, enough so that compositions of his, most notably the #1 song “Running Bear,” were hits long after he died, plus he secured publishing rights at a time when few singer/songwriters did. He no doubt would have gotten into the management, and probably his own record label.
Buddy Holly probably would have done all right, too, provided he could have freed himself from his manager Norman Petty, who was being stingy enough with Holly’s royalties that there was a financial need to take that final tour. This was something not mentioned in “The Buddy Holly Story,” but Petty was still alive when that 1978 movie was made, so Hollywood probably felt obliged to gloss over it. His legacy in Britain was greater than in the US, enough so that his records made the UK top ten as late as 1963. His songs were already being covered while he was still alive, so a legend was certainly being born. But his death was what really cemented it. Would The Beatles (from The Crickets, Holly’s back-up band) and The Hollies, both acknowledging they took their band names in tribute to him, have done so if he’d still been alive? I, for one, think they’d have looked for different names, as Holly would have been a ubiquitous enough presence in Britain that to name themselves after him would have seemed a bit sycophantic. The entire course of history could have been changed.
As for Valens, he’d have probably been around a while, but most of his legacy would have been confined to his native Los Angeles for being the first successful Chicano rock star, and he’d have played off that for a while. There was speculation from one writer that he’d have made a successful comeback in the late 70’s or 80’s doing an album with Carlos Santana, which makes a great amount of sense. Being only 17 when he was killed, it’s amazing that he did as much as he did in that lifetime, but his chance to grow as an artist was never really offered. Literally, his story is “up in the air.”
Their deaths headed an artistic downward plunge (poor choice of words I know) that many critics have scoffed about over the years. Some at the time believed Rock & Roll was already dying, and by 1960, the only productive original rockers still around and not in prison (Chuck Berry), disgraced by scandal (Jerry Lee Lewis), in the Army (Elvis), born again (Little Richard), or dead (the above plus Eddie Cochran) were The Everly Brothers and Fats Domino, probably the least oppressive of all of them. In their place were many manufactured or ersatz rockers (created by the Simon Cowells of the day), but the music wasn’t all bad, even though I remember 9-year-old me not liking a lot of it. Still, that pre-English era allowed for other classic music to emerge, particularly Motown and the Phil Spector productions.
Ultimately, I look at things like the February 3, 1959 plane crash as one of those unexplainable things that needed to happen if the culture was to develop as it did. It’s a shame that Holly, Valens, and Richardson didn’t have long to savor their success, but what they left behind probably became larger in death because their careers didn’t have the chance to experience the eventual decline that nearly every successful show biz career has. “American Pie” wouldn’t have existed, nor its catch phrase “The Day The Music Died.” That’s a good OR bad thing, depending on your perspective.

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