The music died yesterday.
When I started reading science fiction back in 1950, we were in what I called a “music blight.” The bouncy swing tunes of the war years had gone overripe. Schmaltzy ballads and crooning filled the airwaves. For a while, I didn’t even bother to turn the radio on, so sure was I that nothing of note would be playing.
Then, around 1953, I discovered “Black” stations (as opposed to “White” stations). There was the energy and passion I had been looking for: Negro performers fusing blues and bluegrass and jazz into something that didn’t even yet have a name.
But Negro stations aren’t that common, and the White stations are stronger out here. Then, around ’55, rock ‘n’ roll jumped the color tracks and careened into the mainstream. Bill Haley was the pioneer, and of course Elvis. Negro luminaries like Chuck Berry followed. “Oh Mine Papa” was banished to make way for “Maybellene.” It was a renaissance of music, not a little aided by the influx of sounds from south and southeast of the border (Latin, Cubano, Calypso). Gradually my radio came to be on all the time.
Rockabilly was one of the first and still one of the strongest branches of rock ‘n’ roll. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison… these are all household names. But perhaps the greatest rockabilly performer of them all was Buddy Holly.
Holly was versatile, mixing in folkish refrains a la The Everly Brothers with his toe-tapping rockabilly tunes. “Oh Boy,” “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “It’s so Easy,” “Every Day” The list goes on for miles, and he’d just gotten started. Just 22 and newly married, he was set to write the musical landscape of the 1960s.
And now he’s gone.
Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela) exploding onto the scene last year with his sizzling rendition of the Mexican traditional song, “La Bamba,” and his ballad, “Donna,” has sold a million copies. He was just 17, a high-school drop-out, and had just starred in his first movie. Valens could have brought a latin touch to rock n’ roll just as Presley and Haley had popularized Negro music.
But now he’s gone.
24-year-old J. P. Richardson was better known as The Big Bopper. His novelty rock n’ roll song, “Chantilly Lace,” was the third-most played record last year. A disc jockey by trade, he’d taken a break to make it big and tour with Holly and Valens.
All three of them had just entertained a thousand fans at the Surf ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. They then got on a chartered Beechcraft Bonanza bound for Fargo, North Dakota for gig last night. They never made it. Shortly after take off, the plane crashed killing all aboard (including the 22-year old pilot, Roger Peterson).
Today, my heart is so sick, I can barely type. I know I’m sharing this emotion with millions of people around the nation, around the world. I cannot even fathom the blow that has been dealt to music. This is one of those unforeseeable events that changes the course of history and will always have us pondering “what if?” and “if only.”
I apologize for the break in schedule. I just felt it important that I lower the flag of this column to half-mast in honor of the passing of these three musicians.
Rest assured that my show will go on. Put “That’ll be the Day” on the Victrola, have a good cry, and hang in there. I’ll be back day-after-tomorrow.
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