Richardson Autopsy Answers Lingering Questions About “The Day the Music Died”

Matt Clark | March 15th, 2007

I “discovered” country music through the early rockabilly of Buddy Holly and his contemporaries, and I retain a strong interest Buddy’s career and the events surrounding his untimely death. There have been several interesting news stories about the infamous “Winter Dance Party” tour in the past several months, but the most significant involves an underappreciated figure in the history of both rock ‘n’ roll and country music. In late 1958 Buddy Holly and the Crickets disbanded, and in January 1959 Holly embarked on a tour of Midwestern states with a new band that included a young bassist named Waylon Jennings. Holly and Jennings had become close friends in recent years and Holly produced Waylon’s first record, “Jole Blon/When Sin Stops” at the same Clovis, New Mexico studio where Holly had defined rock ‘n’ roll. In the early morning hours of February 3rd 1959, Jennings escaped death after he surrendered his seat on a chartered plane to J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The rest, of course, is rock ‘n’ roll and country music history.

Today, most remember Richardson only for dying alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, but he had a profound impact upon rock ‘n’ roll and especially country music during his short life. While a DJ at KTRM radio, Richardson wrote “White Lightning,” which became the first number one hit for George Jones. “Running Bear” another Richardson composition, was a hit for Sonny James after it went to number one for Johnny Preston and The Bopper’s own “Chantilly Lace” is still heard on Oldies stations today.

A planned above-ground memorial to the Bopper made it necessary to move his remains from their current resting place in Beaumont, Texas to a cemetery with more space and better access for fans. The planned exhumation also provided a rare opportunity for J.P. Richardson Jr., the child born three months after the Bopper’s death, to “meet” his famous father. As the 1959 crash has spawned much wild speculation in the subsequent decades, Jay also hired forensic anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass to autopsy his father’s remains and put several insidious rumors about the Bopper’s demise to rest.

The exhumation and autopsy was performed on March 6 in Beaumont and Ron Franscell published an excellent firsthand account in the Beaumont Enterprise. Bass’s finding were unsurprising; the Bopper suffered extensive fractures and at least three injuries that would have proven fatal at the moment of impact, dispelling speculation that he may have survived the crash and died while trying to summon help. However, Jay Richardson’s opportunity to say hello — and goodbye — to his father was most important. The Bopper’s remains were reportedly exceptionally well preserved, to the extent that his “thick brown hair was still perfectly coifed in his familiar 1950s crewcut.” “‘I’ve been talking to Dad all day,” (Jay Richardson) said. “And after 48 years, he can still amaze me.”‘

I heard of the planned autopsy several months before it was to be performed (the exact date was kept a secret). While at the time I thought that it was in poor taste, I have changed my opinion after reading about how respectfully and intimately it was conducted. However, the autopsy was filmed for a medical documentary and I may change my mind if the documentary seems misguided or exploitative.

For the morbidly curious, West Texas music historian Bill Griggs was also present at the autopsy and has posted a more graphic account on his site. Please be advised that his article contains graphic descriptions of the Bopper’s remains.

  1. Brody Vercher
    March 16, 2007 at 8:41 am

    To me it seems a little contradicting to want to melt/crush the casket so that it doesn’t get sold, but then turning around and filming a documentary and taking pictures…as well as moving the bodies so they’re “easier to find in the future.” It sounds kind of like a tourist attraction to me.

    I personally would never want to exhume a family member. There’s just something very morbid about it to me, like you’re disturbing those who have already been laid to rest; just let them rest.

  2. Matt C.
    March 16, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    The behavior of pretty much every family member of those killed in the 59 crash has been beyond weird since their deaths. The actions of Buddy Holly’s widow have been especially baffling. I thought the Richardson exhumation was just going to be the latest in a series of absurdities, but was pleasantly suprised when it turned out to not be as misguided as I thought it would be. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still strange.

  3. Brody Vercher
    March 16, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    I’ve never done any research on the accident, or really heard much about it, so all this stuff is new to me. It’s pretty interesting as well. I’ll have to go looking around to see what behaviors all these people are exhibiting.

  4. ccf
    February 27, 2008 at 11:11 am

    I remember hearing Waylon before he died in an interview saying that he and Buddy were cutting up that night. Waylon gave up his seat on the plane and went in the bus.

    Buddy told him “I hope you freeze on that bus”
    Waylon to Buddy “Yea I hope your airplane crashes”

    Waylon said that still hanunted him.

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