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