Music History #6: "American Pie"
Written and performed by Don McLean (1971)
“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:
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.
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.