December 31, 2014

Fear of Flying

It’s one of the safest ways to travel we’re always told. Take to the skies and statistics prove that you’re safer than riding in the backseat of your Uncle Hank’s Chevy. Unfortunately, some aircrafts, both planes and helicopters, do come down…hard…. ahead of schedule…before their estimated time of arrival. The following are a list of sorely-missed rock n’ roll luminaries who had the misfortune of soaring the skies and wound up flying into the great beyond.


Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper)
They were on a “Winter Dance Party” tour through the Midwest beginning on January 23, 1959. Their bill also featured Frankie Sardo and Dion & the Belmonts. 22 year-old Holly had his hits “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “It’s So Easy,” and “Rave On” to get the crowds jumping. 17 year-old Valens was riding high with “La Bamba” and “Donna,” while the 28 year-old Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” was a definite crowd-pleaser. On February 2, the stint at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa ended late, and it was time to hit the road again. The cramped tour bus had a defective heater, and the Big Bopper already had a harsh cold he wanted a doctor to diagnose. Holly saw the benefit of flying ahead of the others so that he could do some laundry and catch up on his mail, which was being forwarded to their next stop in Fargo, North Dakota. Holly decided to hire a pilot to fly a 4-seater Beechcraft Bonanza plane out of nearby Dwyer’s Flying Service. Waylon Jennings, playing bass for Holly, was going to ride with Buddy but instead, allowed the ailing Big Bopper to have his seat on the plane. Valens and Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsup flipped a coin for the fourth seat. Valens won. At around 1:00 in the morning, their very-sleepy pilot took off into bad weather. Within 8 minutes, the plane crashed into farmer Albert Juhl’s frozen cornfield in Ames, Iowa. All four passengers perished. Buddy left behind his bride Maria Elena, and the Big Bopper was survived by his wife, who was six months pregnant, and a daughter. It was truly the day the music died as Don McLean would later sing in “American Pie.”


Otis Redding
The top British music magazine Melody Maker had just published their annual readers’ poll which named Redding the world’s best male vocalist. Elvis Presley, who had topped this poll for the previous 8 years was suddenly knocked off his perch. Otis had just shared the stage on rock’s first significant festival, the Monterey Pop Festival, with The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. In early December 1967, he headed to Memphis, Tennessee to record his hit “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” Three days later, on December 10th, while flying his new twin-engined Beechcraft plane to a concert in Madison, Wisconsin, 26 year-old Redding and his backup band, The Bar-Kays, disappeared from the sky, plummeting into Lake Monoma, just outside of Madison. Only one member, Bar-Kay Ben Cauley, survived the crash. Redding never saw the release of his number one single. His two sons, Dexter and Otis III, joined with their cousin in 1980 to form The Reddings, and their cover of Otis’ tune reached number 55 on the Billboard charts.


Jim Croce
The raucous “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” might’ve showcased the Philadelphia-born musician’s “rocker” side, but it was his timeless “Time in a Bottle” which sums up the melancholy feel we have towards his untimely death. Searching for an appropriate theme song for their tragic film, producers of “She Lives,” an ABC TV movie-of-the-week, felt the words of Jim’s song profoundly captured the emotion behind their film’s terminally-ill protagonist. When “She Lives” aired on September 12, 1973, ABC was swarmed with calls across the United States demanding to know who had composed the film’s wrenching song. Eight days later, on September 20th, 30 year-old Croce played a concert at Northwestern State University of Louisiana in Natchitoches, Louisiana. He and his band needed to get to another concert that day in Sherman, Texas. A Beechcraft D-18 twin-engine airplane had been chartered and upon take-off, the aircraft slammed into a tree just off the runway. Jim and five other passengers were killed. The haunting “Time in a Bottle” went on to number one on December 29th.


Lynyrd Skynyrd
Influenced by southern blues and Merle Haggard, singer Ronnie Van Zant formed his dream band in Jacksonville, Florida in the mid-60’s. With his trademark black hat and storytelling songs, Van Zant led Lynyrd Skynyrd (named after a school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner) to the forefront of Dixie Rock with hits like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird.” On October 20, 1977, the group boarded a chartered twin-engined Convair 240 plane in Greenville, South Carolina. They were scheduled to play a gig at Louisiana University in Baton Rouge. According to keyboardist Billy Powell, they were going to get rid of the plane once they got to Louisiana. Over halfway through the trip, the plane’s engine started to sputter, and Powell related to Rolling Stone magazine that he went up to the cockpit. “The pilot said they were just transferring oil from one wing to another, everything’s okay. Later the engine went dead. (Drummer) Artimus Pyle and I ran to the cockpit. The pilot was in shock. He said, ‘Oh my God, strap in.’ Ronnie (Van Zant) had been asleep on the floor and Artimus got him up and he was really pissed. We strapped in and a minute later we crashed. The pilot said he was trying for a field, but I didn’t see one. The trees kept getting closer, they kept getting bigger. Then there was a sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of baseball bats. I crashed into a table; people were hit by flying objects all over the plane. Ronnie was killed with a single head injury. The top of the plane was ripped open. Artimus crawled out the top and said there was a swamp, maybe alligators. I kicked my way out and felt for my hands – they were still there. I felt for my nose and it wasn’t, it was on the side of my face. There was just silence. Artimus and (sound technician) Ken Peden and I ran to get help, Artimus with his ribs sticking out.” The plane had crashed into a swamp in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Of the 26 passengers on board, 6 were killed, including Van Zant, his guitarist Steve Gaines, and Gaine’s sister Cassie, a backup vocalist. Guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell, and bassist Leon Wilkeson were seriously injured but recovered. Further wounds, consisting of various lawsuits and arrests over the years, plagued the band, however many of the members continued playing the trademark Skynyrd music in one incarnation or another. Sadly, in January 1990, Collins passed away as a result of pneumonia.


Randy Rhoads
The southern California-born Rhoads loved classical guitar compositions. He became known for his intricate stylings in the world of heavy metal, a world not accustomed to such virtuosity. Having made his mark with the LA band Quiet Riot, Randy was asked to join former Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne, when the grandfather of metal struck out on his own as an independent artist. Together, Ozzy and Randy crafted memorable songs for Ozzy’s first two solo albums, “Blizzard of Oz” and “Diary of a Madman.” On March 19, 1982, Ozzy’s band was in the central Florida area to perform in the annual Rock Superbowl XIV at the Tangerine Bowl when tragedy struck. Riding in a chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane out of Leesburg, 25 year-old Rhoads and Ozzy’s hairdresser sat back as the local pilot of the plane buzzed over the Osbourne tour bus below. Making mock dive-bomb maneuvers, the plane suddenly clipped its wing against the vehicle’s roof, which, in turn, sent the aircraft striking a nearby pine tree, and tragically slamming into Voncile Calhoun’s house just 3 miles west of the Leesburg airport. All three passengers were killed. The best new guitarist, as he had recently been named by Guitar Player Magazine, would never again get to show off his talented virtuosity.


Rick Nelson
Okay, so little Ricky wasn’t a hard rocker, per se. He captured 8 consecutive top 10 singles between 1957 and 1959, and his number one hit “Travelin’ Man” made teenage girls’ hearts flutter. Yet, it can be strongly argued that his good looks, his melodic voice, and his upbeat attitude helped mold the hearts and minds of every American adolescent in the early ‘60s into accepting other upbeat, melodic, good-looking singers, namely four moptops who would step onto U.S. soil a few years later. By the late ‘60s, Rick had moved into his “Dylan” phase, appearing in Richard Nader’s rock and roll revival show. His hit, “Garden Party,” was a bitter answer to those fans who wanted him to remain a little teen pop sensation. In the ‘80s, Rick turned to acting, as well as touring. On December 31, 1985, having just played a gig in Guntersville, Alabama, Rick and his band boarded a chartered twin-engine DC-3 airplane to fly to Dallas for a New Year’s Eve show at the Park Suite Hotel. At around 5:15 p.m., the plane caught fire and crashed into a hayfield near De Kalb, Texas. 45 year-old Nelson, his fiancee Helen, four members of his band, and his sound engineer were killed. The Nelson musical legacy was kept alive by Rick’s sons, Gunnar and Matthew, who, on September 29, 1990, scored a Nelson number one hit with their song “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection.”


Stevie Ray Vaughan
Like a reverent student of the guitar, Vaughan approached his craft with careful study and hours of practice. Honing his licks in gritty bars across Texas, young Stevie learned from the works of and flourished under his impressionistic stylings of heroes like Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton. Forming a band that would eventually be named Double Trouble, Vaughan caught the ear of David Bowie at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival. Bowie contracted the bluesman to play on his landmark album “Let’s Dance.” With the help of Jackson Browne, Vaughan secured a record deal soon after, and his masterful axe-wailing was admired and copied by a host of new fans. Falling under the influences of drugs and alcohol in the mid-80s, Stevie seemed to be at the height of his recovery when on August 26, 1990, he appeared with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Robert Cray at an outdoor concert in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. In a dramatic guitar showdown with his fellow performers, Stevie stole the show, as Clapton and Guy happily acknowledged his mastery. Helicopters ferrying the performers and crew out of the resort and back to Chicago took off in the early morning fog of August 27th. The Bell 206 helicopter carrying 35 year-old Vaughan and several of Clapton’s entourage slammed into a man-made ski hill killing all on board. In 1996, Stevie’s heroes, including Clapton, Guy, Cray, and B.B. King, recorded a compilation album called “A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan,” and the album made it to number 47 on the U.S. charts.


Bill Graham
His story is too long to document in a mere paragraph. Rock impresario Bill Graham was not just a legendary promoter. He helped launch the careers of stars like Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, The Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead. He produced noteworthy tours for Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Practically every landmark musical act that came out of the late 1960s had a brush with his talents. Sadly, it ended abruptly at the turn of the ‘90s. On October 25, 1991, a pilot took 60 year-old Bill Graham and his girlfriend Melissa out to the Concord Pavilion in northern California in Bill’s Bell Jet Ranger 206B helicopter to check on one of his venue’s clients, Huey Lewis and the News, who were about to go onstage. The Bay area was in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, and when Bill arrived at the concert, he commented on how scared he had been by the flight. They stayed roughly a half hour. At around 9:55 p.m., a power drop in the arena caused some lights and the sound system to dim during Huey Lewis’ performance. Nearby outside, Graham’s helicopter had struck the very top of 225-foot Pacific Gas and Electric transmission tower, as the threesome headed back to Marin County. The front of the helicopter exploded, and all three passengers were thrown to their deaths. 2000 mourners showed up for this rock pioneer’s funeral, many of them grateful musicians and producers whom Bill had helped guide through their careers.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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