It was 51 years ago today that a plane crash took the life of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. Forever memorialized by Don McLean’s “American Pie” as “The Day The Music Died,” this was the first and biggest tragedy in the young life of rock ‘n’ roll music.
We’ll never know what would have happened with Valens. He was a promising newcomer, only 17 years old, with a fine voice. He wrote two great songs, “Donna” and “Come On, Let’s Go” and made “La Bamba” into a classic rock song. Whether he would have done anything else is a question that will never be answered. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but I think that has much more to do with his death and with the fact that he was the first Hispanic rock ‘n’ roller. Certainly his very slight output isn’t what got him through the door.
The Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson is an immortal for his classic novelty rock tune, “Chantilly Lace” and because he was on board the plane that snowy February night. His legacy in rock music is that of any one-hit wonder, but 51 years later, that one hit can still bring a smile to your face which is a whole lot more than most one-hit wonders can claim.
The great loss for music that night was Buddy Holly. It’s easy to forget now just how astounding Holly’s talent was. A white rocker who wrote his own songs and played lead guitar in his band was a sight to behold in 1959. The entire Crickets lineup of just guitars, bass, and drums set the template for the rock music of the Sixties. He was the first rocker to doubletrack his vocals (a trick later used by the Beatles before it became common). He was the first to put strings on a “rock” record. Country, ballads, charging rockers…Buddy Holly did it all and recorded and released a string of classic rock songs. Just look at the names and marvel at the talent: “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Rave On,” “Heartbeat,” “Not Fade Away,” “Words Of Love,” “Maybe Baby,” “Everyday,” “Well, All Right,” “It’s So Easy”…and those are just some of the ones he wrote or co-wrote. Add in some that he didn’t write but made his own like “Oh, Boy!” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” and you’re talking about enough classics to fill a lengthy career.
Buddy Holly’s career was 18 months long. What he did in that time is simply staggering.
Add in Elvis’s stint in the Army, Little Richard’s discovery of religion, Jerry Lee Lewis’s scandalous marriage…and rock ‘n’ roll as a music form limped into the Sixties on its last legs. The early Sixties saw much great music, but only some of it could really be called “rock ‘n’ roll.” When the Beatles arrived they revitalized the form but at the same time they drove the final nail into the coffin. Rock ‘n’ roll as a music to dance to at the hop was dead, reinvented as heavier, headier “rock” music. Music to listen to, not dance to.
Rock ‘n’ roll music, the early primitive howling animal that burst out of its cage and into the popular consciousness with the drum snap that started “Rock Around The Clock,” may not have died with Buddy Holly, but it suffered a mortal blow. The music of the Sixties would build on the work done by Holly, Presley, Berry, et al, and expand it into dozens of different directions, some great, some not so great. Soon the Fifties rock ‘n’ rollers would sound tame and quaint in comparison to the Jefferson Airplanes, the Doors, the Led Zeppelins, and the Nirvanas of the world, and that’s really too bad.
The Sixties may or may not be the Golden Age of Rock Music depending on your personal preference, but I don’t think there’s any denying that the Fifties remain the Golden Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll.