How a coin toss cost this pioneering Hispanic musician his life on ‘The Day the Music Died’

Ritchie Valens almost wasn’t on the plane that killed him

Rock and Roll singer Ritchie Valens poses for a photo during the filming of 'Go, Johnny, Go!' on January 20, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection) (Getty Images)

It is one of the most famous songs recorded, depicting one of the most famous tragedies in music history.

Musician Don McLean became a legend for his song “American Pie,” which largely referred to a plane crash in 1959 that killed three of the brightest and most popular young stars in rock and roll, and had the famous lyrics “The Day the Music Died.”

When many look back at that crash, they think of it simply as “the crash that killed Buddy Holly,” given his rising fame at the time and his everlasting impact.

But the crash also tragically cut short the lives of J.P. Richardson, and one of the biggest pioneering Hispanic musical artists of all time, Ritchie Valens.

Just 17 years old -- and eight months into his recording career at the time of his death -- Valens was a pioneer of Chicano rock, a genre featuring singers of Mexican descent who combined rock and roll with sounds and rhythms from Mexico.

Valens was born in California, but both of his parents were from Mexico.

The most notable hit Valens had was “La Bamba,” an adaption from a Mexican folk song.

After quickly gaining national fame with tours and TV appearances, Valens was booked on a tour of the Midwest in the dead of winter to promote an album. Holly and Richardson were among others on the tour.

Fed up with bus travel in the bitter Midwest cold that left the performers sick, and in some cases, plagued by frostbite due to a lack of heat on the bus, Holly decided to charter a plane to Fargo, North Dakota following a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Fargo was less than two miles from the next scheduled tour stop in Moorhead, Minnesota, a 5 1/2 hour drive from Clear Lake.

There were only a few spots on the plane, so Holly originally booked the plane for him and band members Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. The other member of Holly’s band, drummer Carl Bunch, was hospitalized with frostbite after a bus stalled in the bitter cold weather.

However, Jennings let Richardson have his seat because Richardson was sick with the flu.

Valens wanted to fly too, so he and Allsup had a coin toss to decide who would get on the plane.

Valens won the coin toss, which turned out to cost him his life.

To hear Allsup explain the story on YouTube, click or tap here.

In 2001, more than four decades after the crash, Valens was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The world will obviously never know how Valens would have further impacted the music industry, not only for Hispanic people, but in general.

While he was one of those who perished on the “The Day the Music Died,” what Valens accomplished in music in such a short time will live on forever.

This article was initially published in 2021. It has since been updated.

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.