The plane went down in a farm field near Clear Lake, Iowa, 50 years ago today. And the course of rock and roll was changed inalterably.
The thing that's easy to forget now is how young Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J. P. "Big Bopper" Richardson were. Holly had already established a towering body of work and had not yet reached his 23rd birthday. Valens, who was riding high with three big singles, was only 17. Richardson was the gnarled veteran of the group, but was only 28. If they had born 50 years later and were coming up today, all would be eligible for American Idol, although I would wager that none of them could win because they don't fit the template.
While the losses of the talented Valens and Richardson are equally tragic, Holly is the guy everyone remembers, for good reason. If you listen to his records 50 years on, you can't help but be struck by how fresh they still sound. His songs are direct and to the point. Unlike Elvis, Holly was largely in control of his music and wasn't being drowned in the wash of strings and lame Jordanaires backing vocals that Col. Tom Parker imposed on Presley. Holly didn't face the real barriers of institutional racism that Chuck Berry and Little Richard did, and he wasn't a self-destructive reprobate like Jerry Lee Lewis. Holly had control of his art and his future – it was all out in front of him and he could have gone any number of ways with his career. He was learning how to use the recording studio to get sounds he couldn't otherwise produce. The late song "True Love Ways" suggests that Holly might have decided to go more mainstream with his sound, but that's a matter of some debate among rock historians. It's all speculation, of course.
Elvis gave rock its attitude. Chuck Berry gave rock its basic grammar of guitar and rhythm. Little Richard gave rock its theatricality. Jerry Lee Lewis gave rock its outlaw stance. When I think about Buddy Holly, the sense I get is that he gave rock its narrative style, which is why Holly is the patron saint of singer-songwriters, even though he rocked it more fiercely than most of those who came in his wake. Buddy Holly told stories. The guy whose career might have been a template for what Holly might have done is Dion DiMucci, who went from singing doo-wop with the Belmonts to becoming a tough-minded songwriter in the 1960s, even as he managed to derail his career a number of times with substance abuse. Holly was more grounded than Dion, but they shared a similar, no-nonsense sensibility that informed their music. And while Holly may have died 50 years ago today, his sensibility has survived him.
UPDATE: Gino reminds me that Dion was part of the tour and could have easily been on that plane, too. See his comments in the thread.