“It is a wonder more of us aren’t killed, we rack up so much mileage in the air and on the road. It was inevitable that the law of averages would catch up with some of us.”
That’s how a Grand Ole Opry veteran put it to Daily Variety regarding the March 1963 crash that took the life of Patsy Cline.
The comment couldn’t have been more spot on.
A succession of musicians have been victims of plane crashes over the years, beginning with the downing of Glenn Miller’s plane in WWII and including most recently, the death of 22-year-old R&B songstress Aaliyah in 2001. The list in between is long, from Buddy Holly (1959) to Otis Redding (1967), from Ronnie van Zant (1977) to Steve Ray Vaughn (1990) to John Denver (1997).
This past week marked the 20th anniversary of the crash that took the life of Rick Nelson. Said Variety‘s obituary in its signature even-toned style: “Seven of the nine people aboard the private DC-3, including Nelson’s fiancee, Helen Blair, and members of Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band, were killed on a flight between Guttersville, Ala., and Dallas’ Love Field. Band was on its way from a date in Alabama to Cotton Bowl festivities.”
Because by definition his death, and that of most other victims, took the paper by surprise, the obituaries were not as insightful about their musical legacies as one might have hoped.
It was only later, for example, that the deaths of Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens — in a plane that crashed on its way to a gig in Fargo, N.D., in 1959 — came to symbolize the end of the early rock ‘n’ roll era.
Variety didn’t even report on that day the music died, perhaps because its publication date was six days after the Feb. 3 accident. Daily Variety carried a brief item on page 8: “Three Rock-Rollers Die in Plane Crash.”
“All three of the singers were on a notably quick upsurge in popularity,” the report said, “with each having records which sold more than a million copies. Valens’ (who was only 17) big hit was ‘Donna,’ Holly’s was ‘Peggy Sue’ and Richardson’s (the Big Bopper) was ‘Chantilly Lace.'”
About the Miller tragedy, Variety had more to say. It was wartime and the paper covered the big band era — and the relationship between the war and showbiz –assiduously. The accident that took the band leader’s life was termed “a puzzle” by Variety (and every other paper, for that matter).
“The War Dept. announcement of the disappearance of Major Glenn Miller on a plane trip between England and Paris two weeks ago shocked the band business deeply,” the paper said Dec. 27, 1944.
“It’s held unlikely that the plane fell into the English Channel since the latter, at the point of the plane’s crossing, is only 30 miles wide.” There was apparently still hope at that point that the plane had simply gone missing behind enemy lines and would be recovered.
Intriguingly, in the very issue of Variety (Jan. 2, 1986) that carried the death of Nelson, 41 years after Miller’s death, the paper also ran a half-buried item detailing a new theory about the 1944 crash.
The new explanation suggested the band leader might have died as a result of bombs jettisoned over the English Channel by RAF planes returning to England from an aborted mission. Two former RAF pilots had come forward to say they remembered seeing a Norseman aircraft plummet into the sea, apparently from shockwaves caused by the bombs on Dec. 15, 1944.
That indeed was the type of plane Miller was traveling on, and the day his music died.