WHAT IF Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens & The Big Bopper Lived?

by Kidman J. Williams

The Day the Music Lived – What if Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens & The Big Bopper Lived?

On February 3rd 1959 Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) got on a single engine plane during a horrific snow storm in Clear Lake, Iowa. Their plane departed just after midnight and went down just five miles after takeoff, meeting their destiny just outside of Clear Lake, Iowa in a frozen farm field.

It is common knowledge at this point that Waylon Jennings, and Tommy Alsup gave up their seats to Valens and The Bopper. We also know what became of them.

We all speculate from time to time about celebrities when they leave this world too early. I remember many times hanging out with my friends, beer in hand, and wondering ‘what if Hendrix/Morrison/Joplin etc would have lived?’ The list goes on and on. Lot of rockstars didn’t have a long shelf life.

These three virtuosos are a real wonder. It isn’t just because of my own obsession with their music (Ritchie Valens was the first album I bought at 10 years old.) They were so young and early in their careers and they had such an impact on the world that we still see today. They also did it in such a short amount of time. Their deaths alone almost killed rock music for all later generations.

Buddy Holly was one of the first rockers to make multi-tracking and overdubbing a staple in his music. As a producer he was innovative. These techniques that are now just standards, but they weren’t in the late 50’s. Ritchie was breaking cultural barriers, and The Big Bopper was such a huge personality that nobody could dislike.

After their deaths, rock music went into a lull. Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard quit to follow The Bible, and it left music open for a bunch of pretty boys with no grit or guts.

This is the day the music didn’t die.

Ritchie Valens: May 1941 – February 2022

Ritchie Valens 1959

Richard Steven Valenzuela, better known to the world as Ritchie Valens died of natural causes in his home today at the age of 80.

Ritchie Valens was only 17 years old when Bob Keane discovered and signed him onto his Del-Fi label. He penned great hits in the late 50’s with songs like, “Come on Let’s Go,” “Donna,” and the multicultural hit, “La Bamba.” Despite Valens having to hide his own heritage in the beginning of his career, Valens and “La Bamba” would go on to open the doors for many Spanish-American artists. Not only breaking into the mainstream music scene, but to also be accepted as equals among the culture.

He was only 21 years old and had racked up a slew of hits. He was taking some much-earned time off when he finally married the love of his life, Donna Ludwig in the Fall of 1962.

Valens would release a couple hits between ’62 and ’65. His career was really on a downswing until he met Carlos Santana. He would join forces and form one of the most influential bands of the psychedelic era in 1966. The band was simply named Santana.

Santana’s Woodstock performance in the summer of 1969 was one of legend. They were playing all the band’s biggest hits while mixing some of Valens old time favorites into the set list. In some historian’s opinions, Santana and Valens stole the whole show with their high energy mix of rock and Latin music.

Valens in Santana: second from the right

The early 70’s proved to be breakout years for the band. Valens would end up leaving the band in 1975 to focus on his devoted wife Donna and their three children.

Throughout the remainder of the 70’s Valens would do smaller gigs and in October of 1977 he released a solo album that sparked a hit song dedicated to Elvis Presley. It peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts.

By 1982 Valens had kind of slipped into family life until the door of opportunity opened once again. The Stray Cats brought a revival of the mid and late 50’s rock music. Once again there was a desire and love for the early rock. At the height of the Stray Cats’ popularity, they asked Valens to join their tour.

At 40 years old Valens joined them in their takeover and introduced a whole new generation to what Rock ‘n’ Roll really was all about. He would tour with them in 1982 and in 1983.

The Stray Cats would breakup in 1984 and with them the revival would slip into the underground musical scene with artists like Reverend Horton Heat and the Polecats. The early influence could also be heard in Punk bands like The Ramones and the Misfits.

Valens never stopped playing shows throughout the 80’s and 90’s. He wasn’t able to achieve the music success that he once had… until 1999.

In 1998, his old partner Santana would come knocking on his door again with an idea to do a new album with new music featuring the biggest names in the business at that time. Valens, at 58 years old would release Supernatural. The album would not only be the return of Valens/Santana, but it would feature current hitmakers like Rob Thomas (Matchbox 20), Everlast, and Lauryn Hill; along with many more.

The album would be a redefining moment for both men. It also sparked an almost yearlong tour (Feb. 1999 – October 2000) and a great idea for Valens.

After the tour Valens would help his old friend, Bob Keane (owner of Del-Fi Records) by taking an ownership stake in the company and signing great new rock and Latin music acts. Keane left Del-Fi in 2003 leaving Valens as the sole owner of the legendary label.

In 2009 Keane died. Valens had a hard time with Keane’s death and would sell the company to Warner Music Group, he wanted to enjoy his golden years. At 68 Valens was looking forward to just being a grandfather and a husband.

At age 80, Ritchie Valens was comfortable, happy, and still in love after over 60 years of being with the one true love of his life. He leaves his beloved Donna, three children, and seven grandchildren.

Valens: age 79

The Big Bopper: Oct. 1930 – Dec. 2003

Jiles Perry Richardson, better known professionally as The Big Bopper passed away at 72 years old. The Bopper left behind his wife Adrianne Joy Richardson, daughter Debra Joy, and son J.P., and his three grandchildren (Jay Jr, Thomas, and Ashlyn).

The Bopper began his music career spinning records instead of making the records. He worked for KTRM in Beaumont, TX.

The Bopper always dabbled with writing songs. He wasn’t the greatest musician, but his sense of humor and knack for hysterical lyrics partnered with his overall larger than life personality propelled him to super stardom with the song “Chantilly Lace.”

His star was flying high in 1959 when he embarked on the “tour from Hell.” He went on the Winter Dance Party Tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts. He would often talk about how horrible the tours’ conditions were and joke about losing his pinky toe to frostbite going from their show in Chicago on February 8 to Waterloo, Iowa after the bus broke down again. But he also said that he met friends for life.

In April of 1959 The Bopper and his beloved wife Adrianne welcomed their second child Jay Perry Richardson.

After the birth of their second child The Bopper would continue to write hit songs for many other artists. He would only put out one album between ’59 and ’64 and he kept on an easy touring schedule. He never liked being away from his family for very long. They were his whole world.

By the time 1964 hit with the British Invasion it seemed that The Bopper’s style of novelty rock was out of date, but his star power was not. This is when the television executives began to call.

In late ’64 NBC aired the first episode of “The Big Bopper’s Big Show.” The show would run from ’64 – ’76. In 1968 The Bopper became the highest paid show host in television history.

The late 70’s came and so did another opportunity for The Bopper. His friend Waylon Jennings was now a certified country legend. He showed him a couple of songs that were getting popular in the country genre. They were akin to his novelty rocker music. The Bopper with help from Jennings and superstar record producer, friend, and record label owner Buddy Holly, The Bopper would put out his first album since 1961.

The country album entitled I’m Back Babies, was released in 1978. The Bopper would go on to enjoy success in the Country genre. His album would go on to sell over two million records. The album would spark a grueling two-year tour and he would share the marque with other legends like Jerry Reed, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings.

He loved to entertain, he just never enjoyed being away from his family. After the tour he would stop all together. At 50 years old, The Bopper would retire from music.

The Bopper’s career would come full circle when at 58 years old he went back to radio. He had his syndicated oldies show that was in over 100 different markets. The Bopper would play the great early hits of Rock ‘n’ Roll and do hilarious comedy skits between music and commercials making him one of the most sought-after syndications in North America.

By 2002 The Bopper’s health would take a turn. After a long hard fight, The Big Bopper would succumb to his illness. His wife, Adrianne Joy Richardson would join her soulmate less than a month later.

The Bopper: age 69

Buddy Holly: Sept. 1936 – Jan. 2021

Buddy Holly 1957

Charles Hardin Holley, better known to the world as Buddy Holly dead at the age of 84 years old. He leaves behind his beautiful wife Maria Elena Holly, their two children, Charles Hardin Holley Jr, Pauline Isabella Holley (named after his mother), and his five beautiful grandchildren.

Little Buddy grew up in a musical family during the Great Depression in Lubbock, Texas. Buddy learned how to play the piano and fiddle at an early age. Later he learned how to play the guitar and sing with the influence of his two older brothers Larry and Travis Holley.

In 1949 a young Buddy would record “My Two Timin’ Woman.” It was a rough recording, it was country, but you could hear the beginnings of what would make Buddy the legend he was destined to become.

After Holly graduated from school, he formed a band that would play regularly on a local Lubbock radio station. He was still playing country/western music at the time. Playing on the radio made Holly and his band their go to to open for major national acts that came through town. This was an important step for Holly to become the rock legend we all know and adored.

In 1955 Holly and his band were called upon to open for the late great Elvis Presley. It didn’t take long for the record labels to take notice of the new rock sound that Holly was writing and performing.

In 1956 Buddy Holly and the Three Tunes started to record in Nashville on Decca. It was not a great pairing. Holly would record the first version of “That’ll Be the Day.” It was quite different from the version we all know and love by the Crickets.

Buddy would leave Nashville forming The Crickets in Lubbock. Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison (drums). Shortly after that they would add Joe B. Mauldin on bass.

In 1957 Buddy Holly and the Crickets would record their legendary songs, “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” etc. in Clovis with producer, Norman Petty. This would be a certified ticket to superstardom for the group.

It wasn’t long before the trio would become one of the most influential and popular bands of the time.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets were also the first white group to play the Apollo Theater. Holly used to talk about it in interviews later in life saying that the first two days they played the Apollo they were booed heavily. On the third day they played “Bo Diddley” and from there on they were a hit winning over the crowd with their brand of Rock ‘n’ Roll music.

In 1958 Holly made the decision to move out to New York where he could be more involved with the business end of music. He broke off from producer Norman Petty and left. The Crickets made the hard decision to stay in Lubbock.

He initially met his soulmate, Maria Elena Holly in 1958 in New York at Peer Music. It just so happened that she was a stand in for a receptionist who was out sick. Buddy flirted; he knew instantly. He asked Maria out to lunch with The Crickets and himself. It was over that lunch that he asked her to dinner.

Maria wouldn’t go unless he convinced her aunt who also worked at Peer to allow it. Buddy managed to convince her and they were married within a few short months.

Holly started to record with his name single billed and hired musicians Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch. He also hired future legend Waylon Jennings to play bass for the 1959 Winter Dance Party tour which included Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, and his close friend Dion of Dion and the Belmonts.

There are a lot of instances where headliners just play and get paid and go home. This was an instance where all the headliners became good friends throughout their lives.

Not long after the Winter Dance Party, Buddy and Maria welcomed their first child, Charles Jr.

Buddy’s finances after the breakup with The Crickets were in trouble, but the Winter Dance Party straightened all of that out for him and he produced his first number one album in late 1960. The album Teardrops from Heaven would produce the hit single, “Someone Else,” a song about his friend Eddie Cochran who died in a horrible car wreck in England on April 17, 1960. The album would also garner Buddy three more hit singles and his first #1 hit record on the Billboard charts.

Buddy never liked the road life, but he knew he had to promote the album. He came up with the idea to do one last huge tour. This was a cash grab for Buddy to open the doors of his own record label. It was going to be a two-year tour that would end overseas in Europe.

Needing capital, Buddy put in motion the legendary tour he named, A Tour of the Stars. This was a monumental tour. Elvis Presley was a huge key in its success. Presley was serving in the army and was released in March of 1960. In April Elvis released his first studio album since being out of the Army entitled, Elvis is Back!

Originally the tour was going to feature himself, Ricky Nelson, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. Presley was in. Nelson turned down the offer and Little Richard refused because of his religious convictions at the time.

Buddy was still fumbling trying to fill the open slots on the tour. Roy Orbison under the influence of Elvis decided to join the tour. James Brown would sign on to the US length of the tour while Muddy Waters who had a huge following in England would join their first date in London and finish the European length of the tour.

The tour was a huge success and by the end of the tour in late 1962 Buddy was exhausted and was suffering from depression. He also felt a huge loss of energy. He went to doctors and got the proper help.

By April of 1963 Buddy would open the doors of his new record label he affectionately named, Searchers Records after the John Wayne Movie that inspired the song that started it all, “That’ll Be the Day.”

The first year would prove to be a busy time for Buddy. He had troubles finding new artists and would keep the doors open by taking producing jobs from other labels. It seemed like Searchers Records wasn’t going to be around in the next two years.

Buddy had a change of luck with the British Invasion. Many of the English bands would cite Buddy as a major influence on their music and many of the bands were jumping at a chance to work with the legendary musician and producer.

After producing a couple hits for The Beatles, artists were begging to sign with his label. He would sign some major English bands like The Animals, The Kinks, The Zombies, and many more.

The mid-sixties would usher in a new kind of musician, more social and politically aware musicians were coming up and with it came a more liberal mindset. This hippie ideal would clash with his more conservative beliefs, but he found the music exciting, new, and energized.

He would produce great bands throughout the middle to late 60’s, but his label was suffering. He just had trouble finding the pulse. The artists he signed through this time just couldn’t crack the mainstream. Buddy felt that popular culture may have passed him by. In order to save his label from bankruptcy he would partner with RCA and using them as a distributor.

Buddy Holly 1970

By 1972 Buddy would take Searchers Records into a new direction. His label started signing country acts, starting with his longtime friend Waylon Jennings. They would put out Jennings’ Lonesome, On’ry and Mean in 1973 and would embark on the path that led to the Outlaw Movement.

The same year he turned the label around, Maria would give birth to their second child Pauline Isabella on April 27, 1973.

Searchers Records would thrive all through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s producing some of the greatest records in country music history, including The Outlaws record which was the first country album to sell one million copies.

In February of 2002 Buddy would lose one of his best friends Waylon Jennings. He would try to recover from the loss, but he just had a real hard time getting over it. At 66 years old he let his son take over the operations of Searchers Records while he and his wife Maria decided to move from New York and head back to his roots in Lubbock, Texas. They bought a beautiful home on ten acres.

They would stay there loving one another in their golden years. At 84 years old and 61 years of marriage Buddy would pass away in his sleep with his family surrounding him.

Buddy Holly age 82