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Music History #6: "American Pie"

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"American Pie”
Written and performed by Don McLean (1971)

The Music

“I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside the day the music died”

The phrase “The day the music died” is familiar to us today as shorthand for the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson. But when Don McLean coined it in his epic pop song, it was new. So was the idea of nostalgia for the musical past as subject matter for a song.

“Buddy Holly didn’t matter to anyone when I wrote the song,” McLean told me in 1995. “He was long dead and forgotten.” McLean saw Holly’s death as a means to frame his ideas about what had happened to America during the 1960s. Rather than spelling it out clearly, McLean laced his lyric with cryptic, evocative imagery. “I was trying to create a rock ‘n’ roll dream sequence,” he said. “But it was more than rock ‘n’ roll. I was trying to create this American song which connected the parts of America that mattered to me, starting with Buddy Holly.”

“American Pie” was a #1 hit for four weeks during early 1972. At eight and a half minutes, it also ranks as one of the longest singles of the rock era (second to Guns ‘N Roses “November Rain”). It has since been covered by everyone from Weird Al Yankovic to Madonna.

Here’s McLean performing it live in 1972:

http://youtu.be/5QUYvRaQ4XM

The History

Buddy Holly didn’t want to be part of the Winter Dance Party. The prospect of a 24-day package tour of one-nighters through the Midwest wasn’t exactly his idea of a great career move. Especially in January. But he needed the money.

Though Holly had scored seven Top 40 hits since his major label debut eighteen months earlier, like many early rock ‘n’ rollers, he had also made some bad business decisions. Namely, allowing producer Norman Petty to have control over both his publishing and management. After a disagreement about musical direction, Petty had withheld Holly’s royalties (they were paid into an account that only Petty had access to). Petty had also convinced Holly’s backing band The Crickets – drummer Jerry Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin – to split with their leader. Holly’s first single without Petty and The Crickets faltered.

On top of all this, Holly’s new wife Maria Elena was a few weeks pregnant with their first child. If the Winter Dance Party wasn’t the bright future he was hoping for, at least it was a paying gig, and a stopgap while his lawyer sorted out the mess with Petty.

Holly was the tour’s headliner. Sharing the bill were J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens and Dion & The Belmonts. The tour began on January 23rd in Milwaukee.

Cold Comfort
The winter of 1959 was a brutal one. Record-setting sub-zero temperatures, snow and ice paralyzed the Midwest. The hastily-organized itinerary had the musicians zigzagging three states, with up to 400 miles between dates. They traveled in a succession of broken-down, drafty buses, with heaters that kept freezing up.

Remember, these were nationally-known stars. Knowing how bands travel today, in plush tour buses with full kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping bunks, the conditions that Holly and company endured are almost unthinkable.

By the end of the first week, morale was low and tempers were growing short. The Big Bopper came down with a bad chest cold, and Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalized with frostbitten feet (the new Crickets also included guitarist Tommy Allsup and, on bass, future country star Waylon Jennings). As they navigated the icy roads, the tired musicians often huddled together under blankets, drinking whiskey to stay warm. They’d catch a few hours of sleep at the local hotels, play their show, then it was back on the bus, into the frozen darkness.

Despite the weather, the shows went pretty well. Local radio stations helped out with ticket and record giveaways. And at a succession of ballrooms, the bands played their hits for enthusiastic teenage rock ‘n’ roll fans. The average crowd size was 1,200.

But the brief glory on stage didn’t make up for all the bone-chilling travel. When they’d reached Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly had decided to charter a small plane for himself and his band to fly ahead to their next show in Minnesota.

Flipping A Coin
Holly had grown weary of the bus rides, and wanted a chance to do laundry and get a good eight hours of sleep at a hotel. When the other performers found out, they tried to angle their way on the plane.

Ritchie Valens badgered Tommy Allsup for his seat. Finally, they flipped a coin. Valens won.

Waylon Jennings willingly gave up his seat to Richardson, whose cold had worsened. When Holly found out, he teased his friend.

“So you’re not going on that plane with me tonight, huh?”

When Jennings said no, Holly replied, “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up again.”

Jennings said, “Well, hell, I hope your old plane crashes.”

For the rest of his life, Jennings would be haunted by the exchange, and by the moment he surrendered his seat to Richardson.

The Day The Music Died
After the show in Clear Lake, Holly, Richardson and Valens were driven to Mason City Airport, where their chartered aircraft was waiting. It was a Beechcraft Bonanza, a four-seater. The pilot was Roger Peterson. The 21-year old had had his private plane license for four years and had just qualified for a commercial pilot’s license. He’d flown in wintry weather before.

At about 12:50 am on February 3rd, the small plane took off from Mason City Airport. The wind roared around it. The swirling snow made visibility near impossible. A few minutes into the flight, the plane dipped. The wing hit the ground and was torn from the fuselage. The plane flipped over and crashed in a corn field. All four passengers were killed.

Buddy Holly was 22. Ritchie Valens was 17. J.P. Richardson was 28.

A song memorializing the crash, “Three Stars,” was released shortly after, first by Ruby Wright, then Eddie Cochran, another early rock ‘n’ roller who died tragically young in a car crash.

Meanwhile, in New Rochelle, New York, a thirteen-year old paperboy named Don McLean stared at the headline about Buddy Holly, his favorite singer, and the seed was planted for a future classic song.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Pop Culture
How a Throwback Rockabilly Jam Made Its Way Onto '90s Mainstream Charts
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Epic Records

The '90s airwaves were full of catchy, confusing pop hits. What exactly is a "chica cherry cola"? Did anyone ever figure out the correct syncopation of "MMMBop"? Why was Deee-Lite grooving to Dr. Seuss books? And who were all those Rays that Jimmy was singing about?

It's been nearly two decades, yet 1998's "Are You Jimmy Ray?"—the one and only hit by gloriously coiffed British pop rocker Jimmy Ray—stands out as one of the more perplexing hits of the era. For starters, whose idea was it to mix twangy '50s rockabilly with the sunny '90s alt-rock style of Smash Mouth? The combo clearly worked, as Ray's retro-modern anomaly reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning him a slot opening for the Backstreet Boys on a 1998 U.S. tour.

And then there are the questions built into the song itself. "Are you Johnnie Ray? Are you Slim Ray? Are you Link Wray? Are you Fay Wray?" Jimmy Ray sings in the chorus, apparently echoing things he has been asked on a regular basis. The only answer he provides, of course, is another question: "Who wants to know?" Factor in the music video, wherein Ray and a bunch of hip-hop dancers cavort around outside a trailer home, and this mystery seems like something David Lynch and Carson Daly might've somehow cooked up together.

Fortunately, Jimmy Ray is on LinkedIn, and last fall, the 46-year-old London native wrote a candid and insightful article explaining how he—a guy who sounded like Sugar Ray auditioning for Sun Records—scored such a massive pop hit.

"I have been asked questions about it that surprised me," Ray says of his signature song. "Surprising considering the music press received the song as nothing more than a boneheaded piece of self-promotion."

"Are You Jimmy Ray?" might have been self-promotion, but it wasn't boneheaded. A longtime fan of '50s rock, Ray had actually gotten his start in a '90s techno group called A/V. After they split up, he landed a management deal with Simon Fuller, the guy who created the Spice Girls. Someone at Ray’s label suggested he collaborate with Conall Fitzpatrick, the pop songsmith behind the British duo Shampoo's 1994 hit "Trouble." Fitzpatrick obviously had a flair for booming drums and repetitive catchphrases, and before the two even sat down for their first writing session, he had come up with the "Are You Jimmy Ray?" hook.

Ray wonders whether Fitzpatrick might have been "subconsciously influenced" by the cryptic "Who is Christian Goldman?" graffiti seen all over London at the time. Fitzpatrick claims he got the idea from the 1988 film Midnight Run; in one scene, Charles Grodin's character asks a bartender, "Who's in charge here?" to which the fellow replies, "Who wants to know?" As for all those "Rays"—pre-Elvis teen idol Johnnie Ray, "father of the power chord" Link Wray, King Kong actress Fay Wray, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray—they were also Fitzpatrick's idea. But Jimmy Ray knew what Fitzpatrick was going for.

"Retro heroes and heroines who symbolized my own cultural interests from music, film, and … motoring haha!" Jimmy writes in summary. "I couldn't even drive a car at this time."

Portraits of Johnnie Ray, Fay Wray, and Link Wray.
Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Eric Frommer, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY–SA 2.0

Fitzpatrick knew the kind of stuff Jimmy dug, but the two weren't 100 percent on the same page. Working with Fitzpatrick's gear, in Fitzpatrick's studio, Ray felt like his debut album was slipping out of his control. "Before then, I had always been in the pilot's seat making my music, so let's just say there was a teeny-weeny bit of tension right from the off," Ray wrote.

For instance, he had to fight to replace the original fake-sounding synth-bass with "a different, more realistic synth bass." He alludes in the LinkedIn piece to other battles, but ultimately, he might not have pushed too hard. After all, he didn't think "Are You Jimmy Ray?" was going to be a single.

Alas, the execs at Epic Records knew they had a hit on their hands, and just like that, Jimmy Ray was all over the airwaves with a song that "wasn't really my idea." While Ray insisted that he respects and admires Fitzpatrick for creatively handling the pressure of having to produce a hit record for a major label, the tone of the LinkedIn piece suggests that Ray might've gone a different route if he'd been in the driver's seat.

Ray actually may get that do-over, as the singer is prepping a new album on his own La Rocka Records tentatively titled Live to Fight Another Day, which is set for an October release. He has posted some demos online, including one Morrissey-esque cover of Elvis Presley's "Devil In Disguise." It’s a cool track that sounds as though he's moved beyond the "pop-a-billy hip-hop" that put him on the charts back in the day. And with other '90s acts making the most of nostalgia ticket sales (after all, Jimmy Ray's old pals the Backstreet Boys have a world tour planned for their 25th anniversary next year), it seems like the right time to revive the old question of just who this Jimmy Ray fellow is.

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