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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2012/03/28
by Mike Gruenberg

The Day(s) the Music Died

In My Life

I was just a lad when I heard the news that Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in February of 1959. Perishing along with Holly was Mexican singer Richie Valens who was enjoying a new found success with back-to-back hit records of “La Bamba” and “Donna”. The third person who died that cold night in Iowa was a Houston based DJ, JP Richardson who was known as the Big Bopper. For a young rock’n’roll aficionado like myself, Holly’s death was hard to comprehend since I had only recently bought the “Peggy Sue” record which I played constantly on my old Webcor record player. Since I wasn’t much of an Elvis fan, Holly represented to me a budding star that I wanted to know more about through his records and personal appearances. He was the new rock star of my generation.

Their death occurred during a rock and roll caravan tour of stars that year playing to sold-out crowds of teenagers in the Midwest. Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper were part of larger group of performers who arrived in Iowa on a tour bus. Apparently, the tour bus had a malfunctioning heating system to go along with uncomfortable seats. The prospect of taking another long ride on that awful bus again after the Iowa show to the next city was met with dissatisfaction by most of the performers. So when an alternative method of travel presented itself in the form of a plane ride, the thought of ditching the bus in favor of the small plane was most appealing. Messer’s Holly, Valens and Richardson jumped at a chance to take a plane instead of a bus and paid for that decision with their lives. It was shocking to lose those guys who were just beginning to enjoy stardom.

The early 60’s saw the death of Eddie Cochran, who had hits with the songs, Summertime Blues and C’mon Everybody. He died due to complications from an automobile crash. In 1963, country singer Patsy Cline died as a result of a plane crash. In 1964, singer Sam Cooke was shot to death in a tragic case of mistaken identity. Sadly, the common thread of all the deaths of these performers was the fact that fate put them at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The turbulent late 60’s gave way to the even more turbulent 70’s. In 1970 superstar Jimi Hendrix who was approaching the prime of his career was found dead as a result of being asphyxiated on his vomit after ingesting a heavy dose of barbiturates. A month later, another superstar, Janis Joplin was found dead due to a heroin overdose. These were shocking deaths especially for those of us who were so caught up in the music of those times. A year later Doors lead singer, Jim Morrison died of heart failure. Although official cause of death was not drug related, speculation was that heavy use of drugs contributed to Morrison’s demise.

So here we are in 40 years later and history seemingly is repeating itself in the sense that two musical legends died. One of them died of natural causes and the other died due to unnatural causes. Davey Jones, lead singer of the Monkees died of a heart attack and soon thereafter, Whitney Houston died due to use of drugs. Davey was 67 years old and Whitney was 48 years old when they died.

I vividly remember the Monkee’s television show. Sure, everyone knew that initially studio musicians did most of the recording. We all knew about the internal struggles between the group and Don Kirschner, but the show was fun to watch. Reportedly at one time John Lennon told Mickey Dolencz of the group that he never missed a Monkees episode on television. I had the opportunity to see Davey a few years ago when he was appearing as part of a 60’s revival show. He was personable, sang all the Monkees’ hits and put on a professional and thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Was there ever a more perfect voice emanating from more beautiful person than Whitney Houston? I think not. I remember being told by a business colleague to buy her first album when it was first released. My friend was so enthused about Whitney that she gave me her vinyl copy of the album to take home and play it that night, but I had to swear to remember to bring the LP back to the office the next day, or else! I became a fan of Whitney’s that day and continued to be one so many years later.

I was sad when Davey died because here was a person that I had seen countless times on television, listened to all the Monkees’ albums and always recognized his familiar Manchester accent on the songs when he was the lead singer. It was as though a family friend died. Conversely, I was angry when Whitney died. To see such a beautiful and talented person throw it all away made be depressed and sad.

The bottom line is that we all will die someday. Given the attention to healthy life styles and proper nutrition, many of us will be able to live far past the ages of our parents. Both Davey and Whitney left us far too early. The difference is that Davey died because it was his time and Whitney died because the drug demons in her life overtook her and cheated her fans and family. Hopefully, young people can learn from Whitney’s tragedy and put aside drugs in favor of life.

The great Don McLean in his epic song, “American Pie” talks about the “the day the music died” which I am told was in reference to the Holly death. The reality is that whenever a music celebrity passes on, it’s a sad day not only because they are no longer with their fans, friends and family, but also because their music dies with them leaving us only with memories.

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