By KYLE MUNSON • [email protected] • January 23, 2009
Fifty years ago, Graham Nash stood on a street corner in his hometown of Salford, England, with his best friend, Alan Clarke, and wept.
The source of their sadness was news from 4,000 miles away and across the Atlantic Ocean – a frozen field north of Clear Lake, where the airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson crashed on Feb. 3, 1959, killing the three rock stars from the Winter Dance Party tour as well as their local pilot, Roger Peterson.
“It was very traumatic for me,” said Nash, who was only 17 years old that day. He went on to form the Hollies with Clarke in 1962. They found themselves among a rising tide of ’60s rock musicians on both sides of the pond who owed a huge musical debt to the innovations of the Winter Dance Party artists.
Today it might be tempting to sum up the musical legacies of Holly, Valens and the Bopper in terms of Don McLean’s landmark 1971 tune “American Pie” (that forever dubbed the tragedy the Day the Music Died), the biopics (1978’s “The Buddy Holly Story” and 1987’s “La Bamba”) and the annual “oldies” rock tribute concerts at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, site of the trio’s final performance on Feb. 2, 1959.
But today’s musicians still continually claim Holly as a primary songwriting influence; celebrated indie singer-songwriter M. Ward, for instance, releases a new album Feb. 17 that includes a cover of Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” And younger music fans are discovering classic rock in greater numbers as the songs flow freely from iTunes and other online, digital sources.
Valens is revered for his guitar technique and as the prototypical Latino rocker who anticipated the careers of everybody from Santana to Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys.
The Bopper wrote country music hits for other artists and is credited with creating the first distinct music video.
“They are all different but of the same era – pioneers, artists that really did catch the ear of the world, not just America,” said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The Bopper has yet to join Holly and Valens as an official Rock Hall inductee, but the museum is co-producing a series of events Wednesday, Feb. 2 at the Surf to commemorate the enduring influence of all three artists.
Back in 1959 the Winter Dance Party served first and foremost as a teen dance that left the adult world unmoved – much in the same way that today’s Disney heartthrob chart-toppers, the Jonas Brothers, while not poised for artistic impact on par with Holly, play to a predominantly teen fanbase.
Now that the teens of 1950s rock have long since grown up and are retiring, the likes of Buddy and the Beatles have in a way become canonized as classics. And it’s no great stretch to imagine that Bruce Springsteen might even cover a Holly song during his halftime performance next weekend at the Super Bowl.