-By Warner Todd Huston
It has been 60 years since the plane carrying rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Jiles Perry “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed into an Iowa cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959. It has been memorialized as “The day the music died,” but the story has been a life-long event that haunted the world of the Big Bopper’s son, a boy who never met his famous father. But that total estrangement ended 50 years after the crash when that meeting finally took place in a strange but beautiful way.
The boy who was born two months after his famous father died in a tragic plane crash on the “Day The Music Died,” saw his father’s face for the first time, fifty years after the fatal day that stole the elder from our world.
How is this, you ask? This all may seem like one of those riddles or some exercise in logic but, no, I assure you it’s quite a true story. And the truth of the matter makes for a fascinating, if unlikely, story.
Jay Perry Richardson was born the same year his father died in a plane accident that was mourned around the world. In fact, Jay was still peacefully floating in his mother’s womb when that fatal day in 1959 came to take the life of his vital and well-known father. Young Jay never laughed with his father, never touched his dad’s face, never learned to ride a bike by his dad’s side and were it not for the heavily thumbed and faded photographs his family all so cherished, young Jay wouldn’t even know what his father looked like.
Unless… unless he looked in the mirror. Yes, that face he wore, he has been told, is the spitting image of his father’s. The thought likely always warmed Jay’s heart.
He may not have known his father in person, but Jay was always fascinated by his father’s legacy and felt close to him despite the distance between them. Jay spent those fifty years of his life studying his father, talking to the many admirers who knew him, writing of him, and traveling the country to keep his father’s memory alive. Even emulating what he knew of the man whose hand he never held, a man with whom he was never able to toss around a football, a man who missed being able to beam with pride at the many successes of a boy he would never know.
Even as the boy who carries his father’s name and face did or not, many people did know Jay’s father. And they loved him. You see, back in his day Jay’s father was a great entertainer in the early days of broadcasting and one of the many innovators who helped popularize Rock-N-Roll. He was a songwriter, a promoter, and entertainer, a man with a big heart and an energetic style. He was only 28 years old when he died, but already he was amassing what he had hoped would become a great music empire.
Jay’s father had written Rock and Country tunes and there was always the radio. Jay’s father loved his work as a radio Dee-Jay. He was well loved for that work, too, as everyone knew his rambunctious voice near his home in Texas. The elder Richardson was even one of the first, perhaps even the first, to imagine the concept of the music video. He even used the term himself in what may be its earliest known usage.
But then came that fatal day in 1959 that all too soon cut short what might have become the career of an innovator we’d all know by name today. Sadly, his name now is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue, though his nickname might be more familiar to music buffs everywhere.
That was over half a century ago. Since then, young Jay, son of this tragic figure, spent his life only dreaming of catching a mere glimpse of the man he so yearned to know. To Jay, it may have seemed like his father was more a dream than a real person. But Jay learned his father’s music, discovered a treasure trove of tunes written but never finished, and then played them for enthusiastic fans. And Jay soldiered on lo these 50 some years trying to keep the memory of his father alive.
And it has been a fruitful effort, though perhaps not as successful as young Jay would want. Still, the folks of Beaumont, Texas were appreciative of the father’s legacy and the son’s work. Back in 2009 they even asked son Jay if they might raise a monument in his father’s honor to further celebrate his memory?
However, there was a problem. The cemetery where his father and mother were interred told the family they had rules against large monuments. Jay decided to exhume his father to rebury him somewhere else so the monument might be built.
But there was one other thing that might be done during this exhumation. It seems that in the five decades since the elder’s death, some crazy conspiracy theories had been spun about how the man really died. So, Jay also hired a forensics expert to reassert the cause of death to dispel all those crazy rumors swirling about his father’s death for so many years.
So, in due course the casket was raised and then the time came to open the aging box… and Jay was there. He was a bit afraid of how he might react. Would he be disgusted, afraid, happy, sad? He was told to prepare for little else but clumps of moldy clothing and dry bones. So, not knowing how he’d react, Jay girded himself for the opening of the casket. But as that creaky lid was pried open there lay Jay’s father looking much as he did in life, almost perfectly preserved through the embalmer’s art.
On nearly the fiftieth anniversary of his father’s death, here was Jay Richardson finally getting to see his father. Amazingly, for the first time in his 50 years of life, the admiring son got to gaze upon the actual face of his famous father. Imagine this amazing opportunity? A man who spent his entire life chasing a father he was never able to even look at one time was at long last able to catch a glimpse of the face of the man he so longed to know. It was a singular wish finally fulfilled by a series of crazy circumstances and nothing else. Just luck. And Jay was gratified.
Now, we all remember the line written about the fatal plane crash that took from us Jay’s father along with two of his musician friends: “I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride. Something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”
After a 50 year wait, the boy finally met his father, Jiles Perry Richardson, nicknamed “The Big Bopper,” killed on that fateful day, February 3, 1959 as the plane in which he was a passenger fell to the earth in a binding snowstorm taking with it the lives of rock-n-roll legends Jiles “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.
It was just a plane crash, simply put. Jay’s father, “The Big Bopper,” was killed instantly on impact, as the official story 50 years ago presumed. It may have been but a plane crash, but it indeed was the day the music died.
Rest in Peace:
Jiles Perry “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Jr. (October 24, 1930 – February 3, 1959)
Charles Hardin Holley, known professionally as Buddy Holly (September 7, 1936 – February 3, 1959)
Richard Steven Valenzuela, known professionally as Ritchie Valens (May 13, 1941 – February 3, 1959)
For a deeper history on the accident and the folks lost that day, see Jeff Dunetz’ post on The Day The Music Died.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.