The Day the Music Died

On Feburary 2, 1959, rock and roll legend Richie Valens was killed in a plane crash in Iowa. Also on board were Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. The day later became known as The Day the Music Died. But how did Valens end up on this plane?

Richard Steven Valenzuela was born outside of Los Angeles in 1941. He showed a talent for music at an early age, teaching himself how to play a number of instruments. Valens played guitar and sang with a local high school band until he was discovered in 1958. He signed a record deal and soon dropped out of high school to pursue his music career.

In the winter of 1959, Richie was traveling the Midwest on a rock and roll tour called “The Winter Dance Party.” Also on the tour were Buddy Holly, with his backup band including Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings and Carl Bunch and The Big Bopper.

The tour conditions were miserable. The performers were shuttled from venue to venue on school buses that lacked heat in the bitterly cold Midwest weather. A number of the performers caught colds and one was even hospitalized for frostbite. The performers actually started fires in trash cans on the bus just to keep warm. With a packed schedule, the performers where often on the road all night in below zero conditions. Finally, Buddy Holly had enough. He asked his manager if a plane could be chartered to the next show in Fargo, North Dakota. Originally, Buddy had chartered the plane for himself, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. The Big Bopper talked Jennings out of his seat, and Valens flipped a coin with Allsup for the final seat. Richie won the toss.

Ironically, Valens had a fear of flying. When he was younger, a freak accident occurred over his school playground in which two planes collided, killing and injuring a number of Richie’s friends.

The plane crashed five miles outside of the airport. The devastated public demanded to know why the plane crash. Many people couldn’t believe that mere pilot error caused the death of three rock superstars. However, the young pilot, Roger Peterson, had recently failed his instrument test that would have permitted him to fly on instruments alone, instead of sight. Other pilots also recalled that Peterson also became confused easily and would have been a dangerous flight for Peterson. So why would Peterson make the flight? One theory was that Peterson was overcome with admiration for his superstar passengers.

However, people still couldn’t explain why the plane went down. The crew cleaning up after the crash found the site littered with candy bars. Rumors abounded that one of the stars had run out of drugs and feigning for a fix. However, others believe that the candy bars were just for a singer’s sweet tooth. Another later discovery rocked the community. In the spring, the farmer over whose field the plane had crashed found a gun when all the snow had melted. After checking the gun’s registration, it was discovered that he gun was registered for Buddy Holly. That created more rumors that someone had gotten shot on the plane, namely the pilot. Another theory claimed that a fight broke out between the performers and one shot another.

To get to the bottom of the cause of the crash experts from the Civil Aeronautics Board came to the crash site to launch an investigation. They interviewed everyone involved and did extensive analysis of the crash site. Before the report is released, Richie’s distraught mother decided to pursue legal action and filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the owner of the aircraft, Jerry Dwyer. This caused major anxiety for Dwyer, especially since Dwyer was operating his air transport business without being incorporated, meaning his personal assets could be taken to satisfy any potential judgment. (Note: this is a big lesson as to why everyone doing business should form an LLC or corporation!)

A few days before the Aeronautics Board investigation report came out, Dwyer’s insurance company settled with Richie’s mother for $75,000 – $25,000 each for Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. When the Aeronautics Board investigation report came out, it attributed the cause of the crash to pilot error.

With one legal battle behind them, Richie’s family soon faced another. Richie didn’t have a Will. Although many people seem confused about this, under the laws of most states a person needs to be 18 or older to execute a Will or sign any other legal documents. Despite this, as the heirs of Richie’s estate, they should have had the intellectual property rights in Richie’s music. The record executive that discovered Richie, Bob Keane claimed that he should retain the vast majority of the music rights. Many claim that Richie didn’t read the agreement he signed with Keane that stated how the royalties from his music were to be handled. Arguably, since Richie entered into the contract as a minor the contract should have been void. However, Richie’s mother may have signed a contract dealing with Richie’s music rights when he first got started. Although totally unprepared to enter the world of contracts and music rights, she claims that “one day Herb (Keane’s partner) called me and said to sign a contract just in case anything might happen to Ritchie; otherwise, I wouldn’t get anything. So I did. I got an insurance policy on his life.”

As a result, Keane controlled Richie’s music for years. Richie’s mother would get small amount of money here and there, but Keane retained nearly everything – including a classic car allegedly owned by Valens. At the end of 1987, all music publishing rights for Valens’ compositions were to go to Richie’s mother. However, the recordings made by Richie are owned by Keane “in perpetuity”.