But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
-- Don McLean, "American Pie"
February 3, 1959 is still regarded, 49 years after the fact, as one of the darkest days in the history of rock and roll. Three stars, 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, 22-year-old Buddy Holly, and 28-year-old J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, perished in a plane crash en route to the next stop on their "Winter Dance Party" tour. What many people don't talk about is what a loss to country music occurred that fateful early morning near Mason City, Iowa.
Jiles Perry Richardson was a disc jockey and a songwriter. He wrote a number of songs that have become staples in country music, chief among them, "White Lightnin'." J.P. Richardson and George Jones were very good friends. Jones played guitar and sang background vocals (along with Richardson) on Johnny Preston's only #1 hit, "Running Bear" (which Richardson wrote). Ten years after Preston's version was a pop hit, Sonny James made a #1 country hit out of the song.
Richardson may be dismissed as a novelty songwriter because of songs like "Running Bear," "White Lightnin'," and his own hit as "The Big Bopper" (the song that put him on the ill-fated tour), "Chantilly Lace." That's a gross misrepresentation of the man's talents. Only 28 when he died, he left a treasure trove of songs he had written. He also wrote Jones' song "The Treasure of Love" and Hank Snow's beautiful ballad, "Beggar to a King."
It is unfair to refer to "the day the music died" as a "rock and roll" tragedy, for country music lost an important songwriter as well. Indeed, all of music suffered that day.