Tails you live. Heads you die.
That's not something out of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men, where an eccentric hitman let's the gambling gods determine the fate of his victims with the toss of a coin.
No. It's much more serious. More real. Fifty years ago today, Ritchie Valens died because he won a coin flip.
Today is a special day of remembrance for music fans. Fifty years ago on this date, February 3rd, 1959, a small plane crashed in a corn field in Iowa during the middle of a blizzard. The pilot and three passengers died instantly. Those passengers included Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper.
At the beginning of 1959, Buddy Holly was the shit. Aside from Elvis, no one was more popular or as accomplished as a musician as Holly and his back up band called the Crickets. Holly, a Lubbock, TX native, was just 22 years old at the time of his unfortunate death. Valens, fresh off his hit Donna, was still a baby and budding musician at 17-years old. La Bamba was actually the B-side of that issued single of Donna. Who knows what sort of music those two would have created during the halcyon years of the 1960s.
Fifty years is a long time ago, yet that date was seared in the memory banks of many Baby Boombers including musicians such as Don McLean who was a 13 year old paper boy when he discovered the news that his idol, Buddy Holly, perished in a plane crash. Many years later, he penned the lyrics to American Pie - decades before Madonna and other artists would butcher his masterpiece and homage to Holly.
In Rolling Stone, there's an article about the tragic crash. Paul McCartney admitted that he was still in high school when heard about the news. He and George Harrison went to school together and huddled in the corner to read about the devastating plane crash in a newspaper. Buddy Holly was among the earliest influences for John Lennon and the the other young British kids who would eventually become the Beatles, who in turn influenced several generations of musicians and artists.
And in some weird coincidence, a teenager from Hibbing, Minnesota, caught one of the last concerts performed by Valens and Holly. A high school senior by the name of Robert Zimmerman went to a concert hall in Duluth, Minnesota. If you are one of seven people who don't know, Robert Zimmerman was the birth name of a guy you probably heard of... Bob Dylan. Although Woody Guthrie is often mentioned as one of Dylan's major influences, he also appreciated and admired Buddy Holly.
The reason that I'm writing about this tragic day a half of century ago is because of a simple coin flip. Ritchie Valens died because he won a coin flip. As poker player, we are all too familiar with racing for our tournament lives or being on the better end of a coin flip and trying to make that hand hold up. It's an integral part of tournament poker. You have to win your coinflips in order to survive. Alas, Ritchie Valens won his coin flip and it cost him his life.
In early 1959, several musicians embarked on a three-week tour called The Winter Dance Party. I dunno who had the genius idea of playing shows in small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa... in the middle of winter. But that's what they did. The musicians toured on dilapidated buses. No heat at all. There were stories about Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens huddled in the back of the bus in blankets while playing acoustic guitars. The energy and vibe of their music kept them warm. Well, that and the occasional bottle of hooch that the guys in the bands would pass around to keep warm.
Constantly being on the road warps your mind. And I can only imagine the insane travel tilt that those musicians had to endure as they criss-crossed icy roads through farmland that linked up small town after small town. A couple of weeks into the tour, Buddy Holly was already sick of the road. He missed the warmth of his own bed. His missed his wife. He missed having clean underwear. He wanted to fly to the next gig in order to gets some rest and take the next morning off to wash his clothes instead of being stuck on a bus, freezing his ass off with dirty skivvies, sputtering through the depressing farmland of Minnesota en route to the next gig.
Holly asked one of the managers to charter a flight. The flight cost $108. That's a hefty amount in 1959 dollars. The plane was a four-seater Beechcraft Bonanza (including the pilot). Holly took one seat and offered up the other two seats to whoever wanted to buy them for $36 a pop. Dion got the first offer, but his conscience couldn't make him pull the trigger on the deal. In a Rolling Stone article, Dion mentioned that rent was $36 per month at his parents' apartment back in the Bronx. He declined the offer, which ended up saving his life.
Next in line were two of Holly's band members in the Crickets. Waylon Jennings (yes, that Waylon Jennings who played bass for the Crickets) almost took the seat but kindly gave up his spot in favor of the Big Popper, who had come down with the flu. His act of generosity saved his own life, while in the same breath, cost another man his life.
Tommy Allsup, the guitarist in the Crickets, had the other seat locked up. Despite a morbid fear of flying, Ritchie Valens pestered Allsup all night to give up the seat. Allsup finally decided to let fate decide who gets the seat. They agreed to flip a coin. And here's where revisionist Hollyweird history fucks stuff up. In the film La Bamba, there's a dramatic scene on the snowy runway of Mason City airport where the coin flip took place. Except that did not happen. The coin flip took place backstage and not on the runway. The runway scene added a more dramatic effect for the film.
Regardless of the locale, Allsup pulled a 50-cent coin out of his pocket and tossed it in the air. He let Valens call it.
"Heads," said Valens.
The coin landed on heads. Valens won the coin flip and won the seat on the charter plane. Buddy Holly rode shotgun next to the pilot. Valens and the Big Bopper climbed into the back seat with bags full of dirty laundry from various band members.
Tails you live. Heads you die.
Fifty years ago, Ritchie Valens lost one of the most tragic coin flips in the history of gambling and music. RIP, sir.
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