Remembering ‘The Day The Music Died’ & Other Musicians Who Have Died In Plane Crashes

Buddy Holly and the Crickets during an appearance on the BBC TV show 'Off The Record', March 25th 1958. Left to right: Bassist Joe B Mauldin (1940 - 2015), guitarist and singer Buddy Holly (1936 - 1959) and drummer Jerry Allison (1939 - 2022).
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

65 years agon, early on the morning of Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson perished in a plane crash in Iowa. That event has been memorialized as “The Day the Music Died.” But just imagine what it must have been like to see these blistering, magical players the night before, at their last performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, part of a Winter Dance Party Tour. In his painfully short career, Holly — one of rock’s biggest-ever influences — recorded an astonishing list of singles including “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!” “Not Fade Away,” “Maybe Baby,” “Rave On” and “It’s So Easy.” Valens was a rising star with “La Bamba” and Richardson’s “Chantilly Lace” had come out months prior. No single event is more associated with rock’s propensity for tragedy, but it was the loss of Holly — a pioneer of the two-guitar rock sound — that’s felt most deeply, as suggested by Don McLean’s hit about the event, “American Pie.”

Let’s look back at some of the other musicians that have perished in aviation fails.

Glenn Miller – December 15, 1944

circa 1940: American musician, Glenn Miller (1904 - 1944) wearing an American military uniform.

D. Hess/Fox Photos/Getty Images

The 40-year-old swing-era musician was a passenger on a single-engine UC-64-A Norseman that disappeared somewhere over the English Channel. He was on his way to make arrangements to bring his Army band over to entertain American troops. It remains a mystery what happened to the airplane. Some theories claim that they were bombed down on accident or icy weather caused the plane to crash into the ocean.

Patsy Cline – March 5, 1963

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1957: 1957, Tennessee, Nashville, Patsy Cline.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Country music icon Patsy Cline was only 30 years old when she died in a plane crash. She was on her way home to Nashville after performing in Kansas City. They experienced some bad weather and despite making a few stops, the plane ultimately succumbed to the elements and crashed about 75 miles west of Nashville. Cline, her manager Ramsey “Randy” Dorris Hughes, and musicians Harold Franklin “Hankshaw” Hawkins and Lloyd Estel “Cowboy” Copas all died.

Jim Reeves – July 31, 1964

Another country star and another crash due to violent weather. Jim Reeves was 40 when he died flying his own airplane in a very similar crash to the one Cline experienced near Nashville.

Otis Redding – December 10, 1967

MONTEREY POP, Otis Redding, 1968

Everett Collection

Otis Redding was only 26 when he, along with his band the Bar-Kays, died in a plane crash caused by the weather. They were heading out from Cleveland on their way to Madison, Wisconsin and the airplane plunged into Lake Monona, repeatedly after experiencing engine problems. One person survived, 20-year-old Ben Cauley.

Jim Croce – September 20, 1973

Croce was working on his third album and was just starting to achieve some major success when he decided to take a plane ride to avoid another long drive. The 30-year-old died in a crash in Natchitoches, Louisiana while on tour where the airplane hit a pecan tree, caused by pilot error.

Lynyrd Skynrd – October 20, 1977

CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 1976: Members of Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd (L-R Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins) pose by their trailer backstage at an outdoor concert in October, 1976 in California.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Several members of the country rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd died just three days after their album Street Survivors was released. The investigation showed that the crash was due to running out of fuel because the pilots did not check the fuel status before departing. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant (29), guitarist Steve Gaines (28), and backup singer Cassie Gaines (29) were killed in Gillsburg, Mississippi. The incident caused a re-release of the album cover because the original showed the band surrounded by flames.

Ricky Nelson – December 31, 1985

Rick Nelson With ShowBiz for Jan. 13, 1986

Singer and son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson died at the age of 45. The plane was trying to make an emergency landing in De Kalb, Texas because of an interior fire, reportedly caused by a defective heater. The pilot and copilot survived but the seven passengers all died.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – August 27, 1990

Blues Guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn

Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

35-year-old Stevie Ray Vaughan was working on his solo career after being David Bowie‘s guitarist. He died in a helicopter crash in East Troy, Wisconsin after performing at Alpine Valley with Eric Clapton and the helicopter crashed into a ski hill due to pilot error. It has been rumored that Clapton was also supposed to be on board.

Randy Rhoads – March 19, 1982

American guitarist Randy Rhoads recording Ozzy Osbourne's 'Blizzard of Ozz' album at Ridge Farm Studio, 1980.

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

Randy Rhoads was a guitarist and close friend of Ozzy Osbourne when he died in a plane crash in Florida. Piloted by Andrew Aycock the plane clipped its wing on the tour bus Ozzy was asleep in and it crashed right into a house next to the bus. If it had been a few inches lower it would have also taken out the Blizzard of Ozz singer and his wife Sharon.

John Denver – October 12, 1997

Portrait of American Country & Pop musician and actor John Denver (born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr, 1943 - 1997) as he poses, seated on the ground with an acoustic guitar, Beverly Hills, California, 1976.

Ellen Graham/Getty Images

Singer-songwriter John Denver died in a crash off the coast of California when he was flying an airplane that he recently purchased. He was an experienced pilot but the investigation showed that he made an accident while flying that led to the crash.

Pop Music Legends
Want More?

Pop Music Legends

August 2017

Dedicated to the sights, sounds and stories of the golden age of pop.

Buy This Issue