For many people, the most notable date in February is Valentine’s Day. But for those familiar with the history of rock music, two others stand out: Feb. 3, 1959 — “the day the music died,” as Don McLean described it in his 1971 hit “American Pie” — and Feb. 9, 1964, when the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The urge to debate runs deep in human nature, so it’s only natural that some rock fans like to argue about which date is more significant. For many who treasure the music of the late 1950s, it’s no contest: That dark day in 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed when their plane crashed in a snow-covered field in Iowa, casts the longest shadow in rock music history.

No one can deny the magnitude of the loss. All three musicians were no strangers to the pop charts. Holly, in particular, was the very definition of a rising talent: a guitar-playing vocalist who co-wrote some of that era’s most memorable hits, including “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.”

Most rock stars in those days had their songs written by others, but not Holly. His talent for creating ear-catching tunes, combined with his natural charisma and signature hiccupping vocal style, strongly suggest that he had much more to contribute to the music scene before he was silenced at the tender age of 22.

So it’s easy to see why Feb. 3, 1959, represented a stark dividing line for McLean and his contemporaries. For the grieving teenagers who had danced to 45s by Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper at sock hops, the music had indeed died.

Except, of course, it hadn’t.


Yes, sadly, Holly’s voice had been stilled all too soon. At least his physical voice had. In a larger sense, though, it continued — and grew. Because for many musicians who would go on to create hits in the ’60s, Holly’s work wasn’t just an influence; it was a playbook. They learned his songs and began weaving his sound into their own.

Exhibit A: The Beatles. Voracious record collectors at a time when British youth found rock ’n’ roll vinyl hard to come by, they snapped up Holly’s singles and dropped them into their sets long before becoming hitmakers in their own right.

When the group’s “Anthology 1” double-CD set came out in 1994, it led off with the earliest recording that Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison ever made: a warbly but committed rendition of “That’ll Be the Day.”

They continued to cover Holly tunes regularly in those early days. “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday,” “Reminiscing” and others dotted their sets as their reputation grew.

Yes, the enthusiastic crowds at Liverpool’s Cavern Club could expect to hear songs by such legends as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But the future Fab Four also regaled them with numbers like Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (later featured on their “Live at the BBC” album).

And when the Beatles needed some good covers on “Beatles for Sale,” their first studio album after “A Hard Day’s Night” left them a bit drained creatively, they included another Holly tune frequently played live in their club days: “Words of Love.” And on 1996’s “Anthology 3,” what do we hear them playing during a Get Back/Let It Be rehearsal? “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues,” the flip side of the “Words of Love” single.


“Buddy Holly was the first one that we were really aware of in England who could play and sing at the same time,” John Lennon once said. “Not just strum, but actually play the licks.” Added Paul: “John and I started to write because of Buddy Holly. It was like, ‘Wow! He writes and is a musician.’”

So when Beatle fans claim their record-setting first Ed Sullivan appearance as the most significant event in rock history, it’s not an implicit criticism of Holly, who had died almost five years earlier. It’s a compliment. Along with Berry, Richards — and, of course, the game-changing Elvis Presley — Holly helped launch the group that would redefine rock for generations.

No, the music didn’t die that day. The Beatles picked up the mantle left by the pioneers like Holly and took rock to unimaginable heights. Music didn’t change much in the wake of Feb. 3, 1959. But the dividing line between music pre- and post-Feb. 9, 1964, is undeniable. A revolution had been declared by the lads from Liverpool. And Holly helped light the fuse.

Paul Gallagher is associate director of editorial, media and public relations at the Heritage Foundation. He wrote this for


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