48-Year-Old Mystery: UT’s Bill Bass Hired to Examine Big Bopper’s Remains

KNOXVILLE –- Did J.P. Richardson, better known as “the Big Bopper,” die in that famous plane crash of 1959 — or did he survive the crash and die as he struggled to leave the scene to get help? Or, was foul play involved?

William "Bill" Bass
William “Bill” Bass
University of Tennessee Professor Emeritus William “Bill” Bass, a renowned forensic anthropologist and founder of the Body Farm, has been hired by Richardson’s son, 47-year-old Jay Richardson — a musician known as The Big Bopper Jr. — to help solve those mysteries once and for all.

“I’m not sure how much the family learned about the accident when it happened. They just need some closure,” Bass said. “So, I’m going to examine the remains and give them all of the information that I can.”

Bass, along with documentary maker Jon Jefferson — with whom he has authored three books — will travel to Texas to examine the exhumed remains in early March.

‘The Day the Music Died’

J.P. Richardson, 28, died along with rock superstars Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on Feb. 3, 1959. After finishing a concert together, the three musicians boarded a four-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza that crashed minutes after taking off from the Mason City, Iowa, Municipal Airport.

The tragedy was immortalized as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s song, “American Pie.”

The fatal crash occurred while Richardson, Holly and Valens were on “The Winter Dance Party” tour, scheduled to play in 24 Midwestern cities in three weeks. They had just done a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, and were on their way to a gig in Minnesota.

As the story goes, Holly had grown weary of traveling by bus, which was cold and constantly breaking down, and had chartered a plane to take him and his band members — Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup — to the next stop.

Richardson was ill and asked Jennings if he could have his seat on the plane. Jennings agreed. Valens then convinced Allsup to flip a coin for the other plane seat, and Allsup agreed. Valens won the toss and a seat on the plane.

The official Civil Aeronautics Board report of the accident says the plane took off at 12:55 a.m. By 1 a.m., the plane was no longer in sight, and radio communications had ceased.

The wreckage was found the next morning on a farm about five miles from the airport.

The Civil Aeronautics Board report concluded, “the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by instruments when he was not properly certificated or qualified to do so. Contributing factors were serious deficiencies in the weather briefing, and the pilot’s unfamiliarity with the instrument which determines the altitude of the aircraft.”

The pilot’s body was autopsied, but the bodies of the three musicians were not.

“They were just rock ‘n’ rollers,” Jay Richardson said in a recent interview from his home in Katy, Texas. “There was no big push to really find out what happened. It was like, ‘Let’s clean up this mess and go on.'”

Long overdue memorial

The Big Bopper was buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont, Texas, on Feb. 5, 1959. An in-ground plaque marked his grave.

A Beaumont youth hall was named for him, but over the years, that building has fallen into disrepair and been used as a city warehouse.

Jay Richardson finds all of this rather discouraging. While there are monuments memorializing his father in Green Bay, Wisc.; Dallas, Texas; and Clear Lake, Iowa; “if you go to Beaumont, his hometown, where he was so proud to be from, there’s really nothing.

“My dad did a number of things in a very short time,” Richardson said. “But it seems like a lot of people just remember him as that guy that died in the plane crash with Buddy and Ritchie.”

Now, plans are under way to move the Big Bopper’s remains to a place where fans can more easily pay their respects.

“When J.P. Richardson was killed in 1959, the cemetery did not allow above-ground monuments,” Bass said. “When Jay Richardson’s mother — the Big Bopper’s wife — died a few years ago, the cemetery had expanded and changed its policy.”

In September, the Texas Historical Commission temporarily installed a 27-by-42 inch plaque detailing J.P. Richardson’s life on the Big Bopper’s old gravesite. After the musician’s remains are exhumed and examined by Bass, they will be reburied in “a very prominent spot, with nice landscaping and room for the plaque and a monument,” Jay Richardson said. A life-sized statue of the Big Bopper also has been created for the site, he said.

Putting rumors to rest

Last summer, as plans were being made to move his father’s body, Jay Richardson saw Bass talking about his forensics work on TV.

He called UT and tracked down Bass.

Since his father’s body was going to be exhumed any way, Jay Richardson thought it might be the perfect chance for an investigation.

“My goal is to find out what happened. I want to know if what they said happened to my father really happened to my father,” he said.

“I’ve been hearing these rumors for 20 years. Let’s put them to sleep while we have the opportunity.”

One of the mysteries, Jay Richardson said, stems from where his father’s body was found at the crash site. Although the pilot’s body was found in the wreckage and the other two bodies found close to the wreckage, J.P. Richardson’s body was found nearly 40 feet away, in a field. Although Richardson’s injuries, as noted on his death certificate, were sufficient to kill him, Jay Richardson still wonders if his father didn’t survive the initial impact and die as he struggled away from the scene.

Another mystery involves Buddy Holly’s pistol, found two months after the crash.

There are contradictory reports about whether it had been fired prior to being discovered — and how many times it had been fired.

There also have long been rumors of a bullet hole in the pilot’s seat, although the evidence has never found. Further, Richardson said the owner of Dwyer Flying Service, who provided the airplane and pilot, told him “he believes his pilot was incapacitated. He said his pilot could have landed that plane on the roof of a house and had flown that route before.”

Also, Richardson said, he wonders why the gun wasn’t mentioned in any of the official reports about the crash.

“When they did initial investigation of the accident, officials weren’t aware there had been a gun aboard,” he said. But by September, when the Civil Aeronautics Board issued its accident report, the gun had been discovered, but it still wasn’t mentioned.

‘Cold, right and correct’

Although it’s been 48 years since J.P. Richardson died in the plane crash, his remains could still yield answers about that fateful night.

“We will X-ray everything we recover from the grave,” Bass said. The bones could yield information about some of the injuries he sustained and, if J.P. Richardson was shot, the remains could hold the bullet or “lead spatter” peeled from the bullet.

Jay Richardson said he knows Bass’ investigation might not answer all, or any, of his questions. But, then again, it might. And that’s why, although he expects it to be emotionally wrenching, he has to do it.

“It’s not going to bring dad back,” he said. “But this crash was a big part of history. And the facts ought to be cold, right and correct.”


Contact:
Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu