Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Buddy Holly's Pistol
Written by Robert A. Waters

Shortly after midnight, on February 3, 1959, a small plane crashed into a frozen Iowa field, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.  Roger Peterson, the young pilot, also died.

For nearly two weeks, the popular rock and roll musicians had endured sub-freezing temperatures while on a tour called the Winter Dance Party.  They rode from town to town in rickety buses that kept breaking down because the heaters froze up.  Holly’s drummer, Carl Brunch, got frostbite and had to be hospitalized.  Because of the miserable traveling conditions, Holly decided to rent a plane to take him and his band from Mason City, Iowa to their next stop, Moorhead, Minnesota.  He figured they could rest up for a few hours in a warm hotel and do their laundry.  Valens and Richardson, both battling flu-like symptoms, finagled seats from Holly’s band members.

The airplane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, barely had enough space for the three passengers and the pilot.  When it struck the ground at 170 miles per hour, Holly, Valens, and Richardson were thrown out.  Their bodies were frozen solid when found the next day.  Peterson still sat inside the mangled cockpit, dead.

A report by the Civil Aeronautics Board reported that “the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely on instruments when he was not properly certificated or qualified to do s0.”

The cause of the crash seemed straightforward, but it wasn’t long until whispered allegations began to question the findings.  It didn’t help that the press initially got many of the facts wrong—for instance, newspapers reported “that the plane had been consumed by fire and all four bodies badly burned.”  In fact, there was no fire.

Even though this group of rock and rollers was likely the tamest of all rockers in the history of rock, claims to the contrary soon circulated.  Peterson’s friends asserted that heavy drinking and drugging by the musicians may have caused the crash.  This rumor gained a life of its own, and still circulates today.  No evidence exists that there was any drug use, and drinking was minimal.  Bob Hale, emcee of the Winter Dance Party, asserted that “there wasn’t an inkling of booze or drugs…I was with them from the moment they got off the bus to the moment they got in the car [to go to the airport].  There was no booze or alcohol, nothing like that.”

Another theory asserts that a fight between the musicians distracted Peterson, causing him to lose control of the plane.  But people who spent time with the group dismissed that conjecture.  Hale stated that “these were good friends.  These guys were back-slapping buddies.  There wasn’t a bit of tension, jealousy, or bitchiness about any of these guys.”

Then, two months later, a farmer found Buddy Holly’s gun near the wreck site and the rumor-mill exploded in earnest.

The pistol, “a small six-shot German-made revolver,” had four unfired rounds in the cylinder.  According to researcher and author Larry Lehmer, the other two cylinders were empty.  Many local residents immediately jumped to the conclusion that Holly had shot the pilot, thereby causing the crash.  Or maybe he shot the Bopper, causing Peterson to take his eye off the control panel and wreck the plane.  Or maybe someone else got the gun and fired a shot.  It went on and on.

Even though the Mason City Globe-Gazette reported that “a check of the coroner’s official reports Friday showed that the pilot and passengers died from wounds received in the plane wreck,” the allegation had been planted.  The pathologist who did the autopsy repeatedly stated that there were no bullet wounds to any of the passengers or pilot.

Jerry Allison, one of the original Crickets, stated that he’d given the gun to Holly in 1958.  “It was a little old .22-like target pistol,” Allison said.  He stated that Holly had once used it to defend himself and his band.  A group of “hoodlums” had blocked the driveway of the venue where the band was playing and wouldn’t move.  Feeling threatened, Holly pulled the pistol and aimed it at one of their tormentors.  The thugs quickly left.

Holly, who sometimes collected the money from gigs, carried the gun for protection.  (Being from Texas, he had hunted when he was younger, and was familiar with guns.)  While on the Winter Dance Party tour, he kept the gun in a false bottom of his shaving kit.  At the crash site, investigators found the case near Holly, its false bottom torn out.

Through the years, the stars of the three singers rose.  Many bands, including the Beatles, the Stones, and others were heavily influenced by Buddy Holly.  The records of Ritchie Havens and the Big Bopper continued to get airplay on oldies stations and influenced younger audiences.  Then Don McClean’s song, “American Pie,” immortalized the three.

In 2007, Jay Richardson, the Big Bopper’s son, decided to exhume his father’s body.  Bill Bass, founder of the Body Farm in Tennessee, performed the second autopsy.

Journalist Ron Franscell wrote that “there was no bullet, the X-rays showed, but few had expected this would turn into a crime-scene investigation anyway.  And the Bopper didn’t survive the impact even for a moment, Bass determined.  He suffered at least three death-dealing injuries that would have killed him before he took another breath: A crushed skull, a broken neck and a grotesquely mashed rib cage. His other injuries were equally grievous, including a crumbled pelvis, a broken spine, a broken foot and ankle, and two compound fractures in each leg.”

Even the most volatile conspiracist was forced to admit that Buddy Holly’s gun played no role in the plane crash.

Or were they?

I highly recommend the following book to anyone interested in the last days of the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” of rock and roll: THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the “Big Bopper,” and Ritchie Valens by Larry Lehmer.

The following newspaper article was also helpful: “A pop star exhumed 50 years after tragic death” by Ron Franscell.  Published in The Beaumont Enterprise, March 11, 2007.

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