Last week, was the 65th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death. When you look at Buddy Holly’s discography, it’s hard not to be astounded. If you asked me to select a perfect rock n’ roll song, I’d happily point to his song “That’ll Be the Day”. If you asked me to select a perfect melody, I’d happily point to his song “Everyday”. If you ask me to select a perfect vocal, I’d happily point to his song “True Love Ways”. I could go on and on about Buddy Holly. But what’s crazy is that he created all of this perfection before he turned 23.
Buddy Holly died tragically in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 that also took the lives of two other burgeoning stars, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens, along with the pilot, Roger Peterson. The group was on a short midwestern tour called the Winter Dance Party. When you look at how this tour was organized, you’ll see why they quickly ran into issues.
The tour sought to play 24 shows in 24 days. That alone would make it taxing on the artists. But it’s almost like the promoters organized the tour in such a way to make it as chaotic as possible. For example, the tour was supposed to play in Dubuque, Iowa on February 10, Louisville, Kentucky on February 11, and Canton, Ohio on February 12. That’s over 800 miles in three days. When you consider that this was before the completion of the interstate highway system, that every musician shared a single bus, and that there was no road crew, so the artists had to load and unload their equipment each night, you’ll see how this tour was not set up for success. And it didn’t stop there.
The tour bus was ill-equipped, frequently breaking down in the freezing cold. After a few days on the road, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens were experiencing flu-like symptoms and Holly’s drummer Carl Brunch was hospitalized with frostbite. Everyone was fed up. Holly decided that they would charter a plane to the next show. This was the plane that would crash near Clear Lake, Iowa and kill everyone onboard.
The deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Richie Valens, and Roger Peterson were an undoubted tragedy. But there are details about the story — details about who else could have died — that always remind me of the seeming randomness of the universe.
Dion DiMucci and his backing group The Belmonts were also part of the Winter Dance Party. Had Dion been on the flight, he would have died a minor musician from the 1950s, not the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer that gave us such classics as “The Wanderer”, “Runaround Sue”, and “Abraham, Martin and John”.
The band that Holly assembled for the tour also included Waylon Jennings on bass. Had Jennings been on the plane, he would have died a nameless bassist rather than a country music legend who scored 51 top ten hits on Billboard’s country charts.
To fully grasp, how talented Buddy Holly was at such a young age, I grabbed the 100 best-selling artists of all-time according to the RIAA and took a look at how they would have been remembered had they died at the same age as Holly. 59% of those artists would have died before they released their debut album. 92% would have died before they released their best-selling album. Here are how some specific careers would have fared had these artists died at Holly’s age.
John Lennon: One quarter of the 20th century’s most successful band, John Lennon would only be remembered for Please Please Me, The Beatles’ debut album. Furthermore, that album would have been released nine days after his death.
Drake: The prolific Canadian rapper would have only released two mixtapes — Room for Improvement and Comeback Season — neither of which charted. In other words, Drake’s legacy would mostly be relegated to his time on the teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation.
George Strait: The country legend would be remembered for nothing. At Buddy Holly’s age, he was still seven years from releasing his debut album.
Michael Jackson: If the proverbial King of Pop died at 22, he would be remembered as a talented child star who released one fantastic album as an adult, Off the Wall. He would never have gotten to make Thriller or Bad.
Beyoncé: Though she would have released all of her work with Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé’s solo career would be reduced to her fierce debut Dangerously in Love. Her husband Jay-Z’s career would be reduced to effectively nothing. His debut album came out when he was 27.
These specific examples illustrate what a young, talented artist Buddy Holly was when he died. But I don’t like thinking about his life in this way. It makes it seem like Buddy Holly’s life only mattered because he put out fantastic music. Of course, I wish Buddy Holly had survived so we could hear all of the great songs he would have released over the decades. But I also wish he survived, so we could hear all of the bad songs he would have released.
Any artist who has the pleasure of having a multi-decade career has misses. I wish Buddy Holly had more of an opportunity to swing and miss with his music. Because that would mean he had lived. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe that the tragedy of Buddy Holly’s death has little to do with the fact that he was a talented artist. The tragedy is just that he and three others died when they didn’t have to. People, it’s important to remember, are worth more than their hit songs.
Chris Dalla Riva is a musician who spends his days working at Audiomack, a popular music streaming service. He writes a weekly newsletter about popular music and data called Can’t Get Much Higher. His writing and research has also been featured by The Economist, NPR, and Business Insider.