Sometimes the good die young. Far younger than we’d like.
It hurts more when we know how much they give and when we know their deaths are avoidable.
The music industry is no stranger to stars gone too soon. The 1950s gets a few young musicians who die before 30 but leave a legacy during their tragically short lives.
Join Facts Verse to learn more about the The Youngest Rock N Roll Deaths of the 1950s.
Richard Steven Valenzuela is just 17 when he dies, but he already makes a name for himself as Ritchie Valens.
Ritchie Valens was a self-taught musician. Starting at the age of 5, he learns guitar and trumpet, later picking up vocals and drums.
At school, he becomes famous as ‘the Little Richard of San Fernando’. It piques the interest of record label owner Bob Keane. Keane signed the musician to his label, telling him to go by Ritchie Valens to stand out from all the other Richard and to widen his appeal beyond his Hispanic surname.
Valens was attending Pacoima Junior High when two planes collided mid-air above the school that day. Parts of the aircraft plummeted onto the playground. Two students die instantly from the wreckage from the sky and one died two days later in a hospital. Although the 15-year-old Valens was not at school that day, nightmares from the incident gave the boy a powerful fear of flying.
Just 8 months into his music career, the young Ritchie already had his first smash hit, ‘La Bamba’, which he had adapted from an old Mexican folk song.
While Valens grows up listening to traditional Mexican music like mariachi and flamenco guitar, English is the main language in the Valenzuela household. Ritchie spoke almost no Spanish and learned the lyrics for ‘La Bamba’ phonetically.
Valens’ second hit is ‘Donna’ for high-school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig. Donna’s parents had disapproved of her dating a Hispanic boy, but she didn’t care.
She loved her little Ritchie with all her heart and he loved her.
After Valens’ meteoric success, the relationship between the two of them began to become strained, with the in-demand musician spending most of his time touring and performing. They agreed to spend as much time together as possible when Valens wasn’t on the road.
The two stayed together until Valens’ untimely death.
On the 3rd of February 1959, Valens took a flight to Dakota, along with other famous musicians of the 1950s on this list. Valens was only on the plane because he’d won a coin toss. ‘That’s the first time she wins anything in my life,’ he says.
For reasons that are still unknown to this day, the plane crashed soon after takeoff. There were no survivors.
For that reason, 3rd February 1959 is famous as ‘The Day the Music Died.’ Join Facts Verse to learn more about the The Youngest Rock N Roll Deaths of the 1950s.
Charles Hardin Holley was born into a musical family at the height of the Great Depression.
Nicknamed Buddy since youth, he and his three older siblings learned to play guitar and sing.
Holly’s first TV appearance comes in 1952 when he is 16. Three years later he opened for Elvis Presley. That’s when Buddy knew he wanted to become a full-time musician.
He would open for Presley a total of three times in 1955, his band’s style going from country and western to rock n roll through and through.
Frustrated with a lack of creative control at his first label, Holly went on to record ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ with producer Norman Petty in New Mexico. This is Holly’s first major hit, topping the US and UK singles chart, and discovers his band, ‘The Crickets’.
During this time, Holly dumps into high school sweetheart Echo McGuire, who left him for another student. But in 1958 while visiting the offices of a music publisher, he met Maria Elena Santiago. He went on to ask her out during their first meeting and propose to her on their first date.
Holly’s career went from strength to strength with tours of Australia and the UK following a second appearance on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show.
At the beginning of 1959, Holly formed a new band, including Waylon Jennings on bass, before his rise to country music stardom.
While touring the U.S. Holly chartered a plane to take him, his band, and some other musicians from their last show in Clear Lake, Iowa to their next performance in Moorhead Minnesota.
The plane crashed soon after takeoff, killing everyone on board including Holly and guitarist and songwriter Ritchie Valens. Buddy Holly was just 22 at the time.
Santiago, who was pregnant with her and Holly’s first child, suffered a miscarriage when she discovered the news. She blamed herself. She had accompanied Holly on all his tours since they got together, but not this one. She’d been feeling unwell. She’d wanted Buddy to stay, but he’d already had the tour scheduled. She felt that if she’d been there, she could have stopped Buddy from getting on the plane that day.
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John Marshall Alexander Jr. was born in 1929 in Tennessee as the son of a preacher. But young Johnny didn’t have much respect for the rules, dropping out of high school to join the navy.
Johnny is AWOL for most of his duty and quits, becoming a pianist back in Memphis.
He became one of a group of locally known musicians called the ‘Beale Streaters,’ which included soon-to-be legendary blues guitarist B.B. King.
During this time, Johnny Ace met high schooler Lois Jean Palmer in 1949. He did not tell his parents about the relationship until she became pregnant, prompting the pair to marry in 1950.
In 1951, Ace and some of the other Beale Streeters got their big break, a chance to record with Ike Turner. After signing to his own record deal, Ace wasted no time, releasing 8 straight hits over a two-year stretch, often touring with Big Mama Thornton.
Ace had moved to his new family to live with his parents, but they barred him from staying since he played blues music. As a result, Ace spent most of his time away from home and his endless skirt-chasing gave him little time to devote to his wife and two children. By 1953, he had abandoned them altogether.
On Christmas Day 1954, Johnny Ace was performing in Houston Texas. He was taking a break between sets, playing with his .32 caliber revolver, as he often did when bored.
Someone told Johnny to be careful, but he was confident that he knew which chambers of the gun were loaded and which weren’t.
Holding the barrel to his head, Johnny smiled and pulled the trigger. There was no time for Johnny’s face to register his surprise when the gun went off.
In February, his latest single, Pledging My Love topped the Billboard charts for 5 weeks straight. Johnny Ace died at the height of his career, toppled by his own pride. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the The Youngest Rock N Roll Deaths of the 1950s.
Jiles Perry Richardson Jr. was the third casualty of the plane crash on February 3rd 1959, ‘The Day the Music Died.’
Richardson had an ordinary upbringing, playing highschool football and studying pre-law at college. It was while studying that Richardson fell in love with radio, working part time for a station in Texas.
He quit college after being offered full time work there.
Richardson married and had a child soon before being promoted to supervisor of announcers. He was then drafted into the military and returned to the same radio station two years later, taking over the “Dishwashers’ Serenade” slot, which lasted from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Richardson was then offered a show by the station. Seeing that the college students were doing a new dance called ‘the Bop’, Richardson called himself “the Big Bopper”. His new show ran from 3pm to 6pm and he soon became the small station’s program director.
In May 1957, the Big Bopper broke the record for the longest continuous live broadcast. Richardson was on air for over 5 days, breaking the previous record by just 8 minutes. He played 1,821 records during the show and took showers during the 5 minute newsreels.
The Big Bopper is also credited with the first music video, recording himself in 1958.
Richardson now began recording music he wrote himself, using the name ‘Big Bopper’ to release raunchy, light-hearted songs which often featured the Big Bopper character.
Following the success of his record “Chantilly Lace” the Big Bopper was taking some time off while planning the launch of his own recording studio and radio station at his home in Texas. He went on to tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and others as part of the ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour.
It was because of the horrendous bus journey during the tour that Buddy Holly decided to charter a plane for part of it. While the Big Bopper was not originally supposed to be on the plane, he complained about how cold the bus had been and how uncomfortable for someone of his size. Holly’s bassist gave up his seat for the larger man.
Holly was put out after hearing that one band mate gave up his seat to Valens in a coin-toss and the other to the Big Bopper voluntarily.
‘Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up again,’ Holly joked.
‘Well I hope your ol’ plane crashes,’ his bandmate replied.
The plane would crash only after a few minutes of being airborne. Reports after the fact revealed that the pilot was flying without proper visibility and may have believed that he was going up when he was, in fact, going down.
Longstanding rumors held that the crash had happened due to an accidental gunshot and that Big Bopper was actually alive after the plane initially hit the ground.
Both rumors were put to bed after the Big Bopper’s body was exhumed in 2007 and an autopsy carried out.
The Big Bopper died instantly during the crash, along with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the pilot.
It’s no wonder that the 3rd of February 1959 would come to be called ‘The Day the Music Died,’ in DonMclean’s 1971 hit, American Pie.
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