This Sunday, February 3 marks the anniversary of the day Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens perished in a plane crash. You probably know the general outline of “the day the music died.” In early 1959, Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts toured through the Midwest in what was called “The Winter Dance Party.” Also on the tour was Holly’s new back-up band, Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass, and Carl Bunch on drums. Some of the performers were tired of traveling through the cold in an old bus that kept breaking down and that had resulted in sending Bunch to the hospital with frostbite. So Buddy Holly chartered a small plane for one of the trips. After their February 2, 1959 performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, three of the stars — Holly, Richardson, and Valens — boarded a three-passenger plane that took off in the early morning hours of February 3 for Fargo, North Dakota but soon crashed in a snow storm. All three were killed along with the pilot Roger Peterson, as the young rock and roll music industry lost three of its brightest stars. Although the story is familiar, there is still an ongoing question. Besides Holly, how did Richardson and Valens end up on the plane instead of the other headliner, Dion, or instead of Holly’s band members?
Stories conflict about the events that night. Everyone agrees there was a coin toss, but survivors have debated who was the person or persons who barely missed getting on a plane ride to death. While Holly’s former band members tell one story, Dion recently wrote in the book The Wanderer Talks Truth (2011) that the events “have been completely eclipsed by urban legends, cinematic retellings, gossip, and outright grandstanding.” (p. 41). Who is telling the truth? Let’s consider the different versions of the story.
On a Behind the Music episode, “The Day the Music Died,” the producers presented that Buddy Holly planned for the airplane to the next stop on the tour for him and his two musicians, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. In the video, Waylon Jennings talks about giving up his seat on the plane to the ailing Big Bopper (around 9:50). He recounts how Holly had ribbed him about taking the bus and how Jennings responded, jokingly, “I hope your ole plane crashes,” a retort that haunted him for years. Guitarist Tommy Allsup then recounts how when he went inside to check to make sure they did not leave anything behind, he ran into Ritchie Valens, who asked if he could fly and take his seat. Allsup then claims he flipped a coin, and Valens won the seat on the ill-fated plane.
In other venues, Tommy Allsup has repeated his version of the story of the coin toss that he claims he lost to Ritchie Valens.
Bob Hale, the emcee at the Surf Ballroom in Iowa for the last Winter Dance Party show before the plane crash, has a similar recollection as Allsup. Hale remembers that Allsup suggested the coin flip, but Hale recalls that he was the one who flipped the coin for Allsup and Valens, who won by calling “heads.” Alsup argues that Hale was not present at the coin flip. [February 2013 Update: See comments below for Mr. Hale's comment on this post.]
Dion, however, has yet another version of the events leading to the plane ride. According to Dion’s website:
“Dion was, in fact, scheduled to fly in the fateful plane that went down. The headliners flipped a coin to see who was going to fly. The Big Bopper and Dion won the toss. Then he discovered that the flight would cost $36 — the exact amount of rent his parents paid monthly. He said, ‘I couldn’t bring myself to pay a full month’s rent on a short flight. So I said, ‘Ritchie, you go.’ He accepted and took my seat. Only the four of us knew who was getting on that plane when we left the dressing room that night. Of those four, I was the only one who survived beyond February 3, 1959.’”
In his book The Wanderer Talks Truth, Dion explains that through the years he watched others (presumably Allsup who he never names) exaggerate their role and only came forward to correct history when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame contacted him about conflicting stories. Currently, filmmakers had a documentary in the works, apparently due for release this year, about the tour that includes Dion’s memories.
Allsup has threatened to “whip [Dion's] ass for claiming he was in on the coin toss with Valens, and sometimes Allsup’s anger about the dispute unnecessarily digresses to attacking Dion’s musical talents. Readers of this blog know I am a Dion fan, so I hate to believe that he is lying. And to a large extent, it has been curious that as the fourth headliner he is often excluded in discussions of the fated tour. But one has to give weight to Ritchie Valens’s sister, Connie Valens Lemos, who sides with Tommy Allsup.
The two major films about two of the stars on the tour do not add any insight. The Buddy Holly Story (1978) avoided the issue altogether. That movie ends with Buddy Holly on stage in Clear Lake, Iowa on the fateful night, playing his hits and having fun on stage. At the end, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper join Holly on stage for the final song. As in most re-tellings, the story still excludes the fourth headliner, Dion.
The film about Ritchie Valens, La Bamba (1987), also excludes all mention of Dion. A scene of a marquee on the final tour does not show his name. The film takes some additional literary license with the events leading up to the flight. Regarding the coin toss, in the first mention of the planned flight, the Big Bopper tells Valens, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, that Holly reserved the plane for the headliners, consistent with Dion’s story. But later, the film shows the group standing next to the plane as Holly explains he is flipping a coin to decide whether Ritchie or “Tommy” gets to go. “Tommy” is also called “Allsup” in the scene, so the movie follows the Allsup-Valens coin toss story, except it moves the private toss between the two men to one conducted by Holly on the airfield. Allsup has criticized the movie’s fictionalized version of the coin flip.
What really happened? Is Allsup telling the truth and Dion has imagined himself inserted more into the story of “the day the music died”? It is easy to imagine some toll on Dion from decades of hearing about the music dying when he survived, not to mention that the tour headliner has been completely excluded from the legendary tale in many retellings. Or is Dion telling the truth, which would mean that Allsup and Waylon Jennings are wrong? And what about Hale’s version that he flipped the coin?
Between Allsup and Dion, there is no way to tell, but some factors weigh in favor of Allsup. Since Holly arranged for the flight, it seems like he might first ask his friends and band-mates Allsup and Jennings, especially considering the band had lost drummer Carl Bunch for awhile due to to frostbite. Allsup’s wallet was found among the wreckage because, according to him, before the coin toss he had planned to go on the flight. So he gave Holly his identification so Holly could pick up his mail waiting in Fargo. Still, even if Allsup had not planned to fly at some point, he could have given his wallet to Holly for the same reason. Another argument for Allsup is that he consistently has told the same story since the crash. Perhaps what most gives credibility to Allsup’s story is that most other people’s stories are more consistent with his. Bob Hale confirms that the coin flip involved Allsup and Valens, even though Allsup and Hale disagree about who actually flipped the coin. Jennings’ story also is more consistent with Allsup’s. Why would Jennings make up a story that makes him look bad with his joking taunt about the plane crashing? Still, under Dion’s version, Jennings and Holly still could have had the exchange even if Jennings had not been one of the original passengers.
On the other hand, there are a few reasons that support Dion’s version. Holly might have asked the headliners first, expecting they would most likely be willing to have the money for the expensive flight. According to Larrry Lehmer’s book, The Day the Music Died, Holly had asked Jennings to open for him in England but told Jennings that he was not going to tour in England with Allsup because he was going to get back together with his original Crickets. So maybe Allsup would not be the first person Holly would ask on the flight. Also, because Valens and Richardson were both sick, Holly might have asked them first, then included the other headliner, Dion. Jennings does remember that Dion was especially angry about the poor conditions of the bus that kept breaking down (Lehmer, p. 67), meaning that Holly might have thought that Dion would be the first to jump at the chance to fly. And Holly played drums for Dion for their last show, so they might have talked about the flight then. Finally, there are questionable reports that Holly, Valens, and Richardson flew in a plane on some legs of the tour before the fateful trip. (Lehmer, p. 224) If true, it seems Holly was flying with the headliners, not his band members, which would support an invitation to Dion. On the other hand, many dispute the stories about other flights and even Dion does not remember any other flights.
Larry Lehmer’s well-researched book is in the Allsup camp, recounting the version from Jennings and Allsup without mentioning the Dion controversy. Lehmer also quotes Carroll Anderson, the manager of the Surf lounge and the person who first contacted the pilot Roger Peterson, as saying that Holly said he wanted to get a flight for him and his band. (p. 95.)
Maybe some combination of the stories is true. Maybe there was a coin toss among all of the men and Allsup and Dion both “lost” out on seats of the plane. Or maybe there were two coin tosses — because under Allsup’s and Dion’s stories their coin tosses happened in different places at different times. Under this scenario, maybe Dion had a seat that he declined because of the cost — and then later there was a flip between Valens and Allsup. Buddy Holly’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, similarly has suggested some merging of the two stories (although it is reported that Allsup also has attacked the character of Ms. Holly too). Whatever happened, the survivors’ trauma of hearing the news of the crash probably affected memories.
If that is not enough controversy for the day, some people claim that the plane crash itself needs to be re-investigated or go as far to say that foul play was involved in the crash. But we will leave those “mysteries” for another day.
Of course, the only people who know how these passengers were selected are Tommy Allsup, Dion, and Ritchie Valens. It is likely both Allsup and Dion actually remember the story in different ways. So that leaves Ritchie Valens, but unfortunately he is no longer with us and buried in California. Richardson was buried in Beaumont, Texas, although his body was exhumed in 2007, underwent an autopsy, and reburied. Holly is buried in Lubbock, and the pilot Peterson is buried in Iowa. Ultimately, to paraphrase Don McLean’s “American Pie,” all of this arguing about the coin toss just may be keeping Satan laughing with delight. It may not matter who lost the coin toss that night, as those who won the toss and those who were on the plane were our great national loss.
What do you think happened with the coin toss? Leave your two cents in the comments.
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