February 3, 1959 has often been referred to as “The Day the Music Died”. This is because on this day, 52 years ago, a small plane, with three passengers and a pilot, crashed and all the passengers perished. Those three passengers were music greats Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
The fact that Valens was a mere seventeen years old makes the incident quite tragic in itself. However, there were also certain ironies associated with the fatal accident that add to the anguish: Valens was not the one originally scheduled to fly on that plane. Musician Tommy Allsup was. He and Valens had flipped a coin to determine who the “lucky” passenger would be.
The loser would have to ride the bus from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota, the next stop on their 24-city “Winter Dance Party” tour. Traveling by bus only meant a prolonged trip through Iowa’s brutal, wintry weather. A snowy storm was raging and the heater on the bus had gone kaput.
The winner of the coin toss was Valens.
The plane crash marked the bitter end of his short-lived, yet immensely memorable, musical career.
Just eight months earlier, Valens had been discovered at a local San Fernando movie theater when music producer Bob Keane came to hear him play guitar and sing. Impressed by his talent, the owner of Del-Fi Records soon signed a recording contract with Valens. Almost immediately, Valens found himself in a whirlwind of fan adoration and media attention. During the next several months, Valens’ popularity grew and grew. In a few months, he had made two appearances on the immensely popular television show “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand”; by the end of the year, Valens appeared onstage in New York City with the likes of headliners Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jackie Wilson and The Everly Brothers, amongst others.
Valens was a musical sensation.
It was certainly a stupendous achievement for a young man from San Fernando, California. Valens was a local celebrity who had attended school in the San Fernando/Pacoima area and was highly admired by his peers. His popularity was extensive; with songs like “La Bamba”, sung entirely in Spanish, he was the first Latino musician who made a successful crossover into mainstream rock’n’roll.
No one knows what might have become of Valens. Yet he still is a part of the history of the small city of San Fernando, California. In the heart of the municipality, the San Fernando Museum of Art and History pays tribute to his musical excellence, along with others who, over the years, have risen to celebrity status. (There’s a San Fernando High School yearbook on display showing comedian George Lopez alongside his fellow Varsity Baseball teammates.)
The museum opened in July 2005 and is housed in the city’s old fire station; one of San Fernando’s early fire trucks remains on display. The museum’s permanent exhibits celebrate local heroes, including many United States Veterans, as well as members of the Police and Fire Departments who have demonstrated their valor and commitment to public service.
Dedicated volunteers, including Elvira Orozco and John Brooks, help keep the museum doors open and insure that history—and its heroes—will stay alive for future generations to admire, and perhaps even emulate.
(The San Fernando Museum of Art and History is located at 519 South Brand Blvd. San Fernando 91340. Hours of operation are Wednesday thru Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Admission is free. For additional information call: (818) 838-6360.)