Plane Sailing? The Unfortunate Five
Croce self produced his first album ‘Facets’ in 1966 with $500 that was a wedding gift from his parents. The Louisiana native came into his own in the early seventies. ‘Time in a Bottle’ topped the Billboard charts, a feat he equalled with the Worldwide smash ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown’. It automatically thrust Croce into the limelight, something the singer was ill-prepared for. However his blend of Folk Rock was perfect tonic for the excess swinging sixties and Croce found himself a champion of the folk scene. A scene that included Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot and Woody Guthrie. Croce would actually perform with his wife from the mid-60’s to early 70’s. His star at his highest on the release of his 2 million selling ‘Life & Times’ album.
Jim Croce was 4 albums in and a clutch of Grammy won before losing his life on September 20th 1973.
On the day his single ‘I Got A Name’ was released (it would go Top 1o) Croce and 5 others were killed when their charted plane crashed into a tree shortly after taking off from a regional airport in Louisiana. The investigation showed the wing of the plane had clipped a pecan tree having failed to gather enough height on takeoff. A month after Croce had died, ‘I Have to Say I Love You in a Song’ was post-homuosly released, reaching number 2.
Another 30 year old whose talents weren’t fully blossomed was Tennessee born Patsy Cline.
Her hits began as a precocious twenty-something in 1957 with ‘Walkin after Midnight’
Worldwide success quickly followed with covers of Harlan Howard’s ‘I Fall to Pieces’, ‘She’s Got You’ which both crossed over from the country charts to the Billboard Top 20.
Now a household name Cline immortalized herself as the early queen of country with a simple 2 minute plus song by Willie Nelson when ‘Crazy’ topped the charts in 13 countries (strangely it stopped at Billboard #9 and didn’t top the country charts) in 1961.
On the evening of March 5th 1963 Patsy Cline lost her life in a plane crash which had taken off from Dyers Municipal Airport Tennessee. Ironically the day before the fight had been cancelled due to thick fog but instead of taking a 16 hour trip home, Cline stayed over to take the ill-fated plane the next day. The plane wreckage was found some 90 miles from its Nashville destination, along with Patsy’s wristwatch which stopped at 6.20pm
Known as ‘Gentleman Jim’ , Country Music Hall of Famer Jim Reeves first caught the imagination of the American public which his unique Nashville sound in mid-fifties, scoring several hits before checking out in 1964.
Amusingly his first Billboard #1 was ‘Bimbo’ a song recorded first by Gene Autry in 1954. Reeves made it his own, topping the charts a year after Autry had guided it no #’24.
‘Mexican Joe’ spent a massive 36 weeks on the Country charts before finally making it to the top spot . Reeves was credited as the inventor of the ‘Nashville Sound’ which was basically a rough version of Honky Tonk music which Reeves would be associated with until his early demise. He also scored hits with ‘He’ll Have to Go’,’Silver Bells’ and a yuletide version of ‘Blue Christmas’.
On July 31st 1964 Reeves, his manager and band members, were on route to Nashville when disaster struck. Reeves himself was at the controls when the plane encountered a violent thunderstorm. Many theories exist as to what exactly cause the plane to crash. The most popular says that in trying to get the plane back on track, Reeves flew off course, further into the rain, letting his airspeed get too low and stalled the aircraft.
This would eventually lead to a down tailspin and the resulting crash. Reeves was just 40.
Very few country artists managed to cross over from the traditional routes to mainstream success the way one Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr did in the seventies. John Denver recorded and released no less than 300 songs, won multiple Country & American music awards, a Grammy, an Emmy (for a live NBC special) scored 3 No.1 albums and left his mark in the hearts and heads of many, none more so then ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ – his biggest hit.
Born in Roswell, New Mexico, Denver first came to prominence in 1969, playing many folk clubs, at first with a guitar his grandmother had bought him, before self-producing his first vinyl effort ‘Rhymes & Reasons’ which gave him so moderate exposure however his cut ‘Leaving on a jet plane’ would be covered by ‘Peter, Paul & Mary’ becoming a #1 smash and announcing Denver on a national stage.
From there he would record hit upon hit. ‘Rocky Mountain High’ , ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’, ‘Sunshine On My Shoulders’ and I’m Sorry. Between 1972-82 no country artist sold more records than John Denver.
When the NASA space shuttle Challenger imploded in 1987, killing all 7 astronauts on board, Denver had actually been on standby to take the place of any of the seven should they fall ill. It would be a lucky reprieve but only for a handful of years. John Denver was killed on October 12th 1997 when his Rutan- Long EZ plane crashed into Monterey Bay killing the 53 year old. Denver had not been legally allowed to fly the plane at the time. John had a number of drunken driving arrests which also prohibited him from piloting a plane.
It’s perhaps ironic ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ was then re-released, bringing Denver back to the top of the Country charts, months after his death.
A crash that wiped out three of the most precousous talents of the fifties, February 3rd 1959 was indeed the day the music died when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P Richardson (the Big Bopper) lost their lifes.
Holly’s rise to fame was nothing short of astounding. Even by 22 the likeable Texan had sold almost 20 million records and between 1957-1959 with his group The Crickets, recorded certifiable classics like ‘ That’ll Be The Day’ , ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘Everyday’ , ‘Oh Boy’ and ‘Not Fade Away’. No artist in the history of the Billboard charts has scored so many million selling hits in just a three year period like Buddy & his Crickets had.
Around the same time Richard Steven Valenzula was making a name for himself, a name carved out by hits like ‘Donna (a US #1 and ‘La Bamba’) – Valens would be only 17 when he went to his death along with Holly and Texan J.P. Richardson , who as the ‘Big Bopper’ had just scored a Billboard #6 hit with ‘Chantilly Lace’
On the night of the tragedy the weather had been ominously awful. Holly had charted a plane for himself Will Jennings, Tommy Allsup, Valens, and Richardson & Valens. Jennings would give up his seat to Richardson who gladly accepted – thus Jennings would cheat death and become a country superstar and Valens ‘won’ a coin toss with Allsup to go onboard.
Pilot Rodger Peterson took off in the storm though not actually certified to fly by instruments only (which wasn’t uncommon)
On the early hours of February 3rd Holly, Valens, Richardson and pilot Peterson crashed into a cornfield killing all of them. The incident would be immortalized in Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’