The anniversary of 'the day the music died' is this Monday and, rather than put up one incredibly long post that points out the ridiculous number of references made throughout Don McLean's "American Pie", I'm going to segment the song into it's pieces (late '50's-early '60's, mid '60's to late '60's, late '60's to early '70's) and give you some cover versions to listen to along the way (spoiler alert: none of them are any good [which is what makes them so much fun]).
"Three Stars" by Eddie Cochran was the first song to commemorate the musician's deaths, so it only makes sense to start there and to include some background to the events that led up to the plane crash on February 3, 1959.
Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, and Buddy Holly were part of the three week Winter Dance Party tour across the Midwest (along with Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, and The Crickets [Waylon Jennings, Carl Brunch, Tommy Allsup]). The groups had been travelling by bus, but the bus had already broken down during that first week of the three week tour, and Holly, Allsup, and Richardson (The Big Bopper), were to fly ahead to do the group's laundry and get some rest before the next show. The pilot agreed to take the three to their next destination, not mentioning the blizzard warnings which had come in to aircraft personnel and, shortly after take-off and only five miles from the airport, the plane crashed and the remains were not discovered until the next morning. The three musicians killed in the crash were the three most widely loved rock 'n roll musicians of the time and their deaths, timed with the end of the '50's (February 1959), seemed to be the end of that era of rock music; which is why McLean chose to refer to the anniversary of the crash as "the day the music died".
At only seventeen years of age, Ritchie Valens made music history when his single, "La Bamba", became the first pop charting hit, in the US, which was sung entirely in Spanish, allowing him to successfully cross into the mainstream rock scene. Personally, I find Valens death to be particularly sad because he had a fear of flying while growing up (due to the memory of a plane crash that had injured several of his childhood friends) and had only overcome this fear in order to travel from place to place and to achieve his dream of becoming a musician and performer. He was not supposed to be on the plane that night (as he was the youngest and was expected to brave the bus ride), and he only got a seat on the three passenger plane by winning a last minute coin flip against Allsup in between sets during that night's performance.
The Big Bopper had been an army corporal and radio personality for multiple years before he added singer/songwriter to his resume and is most known for his interminably catchy single, "Chantilly Lace" (it will be in my head for a week now).
Buddy Holly is one of my all time favorite artists and, if you're interested in his music, you should research him (though it takes more than a simple Wikipedia search to garner all the interesting stuff, so only bother if you're truly interested). In a time when it was impossible to get fame without a label to back you, Holly (actually Holley, but popularized as 'Holly') worked around label contracts to continue making the music he wanted to create. Two 'E! at the Golden Globes' style fun facts about Holly's death: 1) His wife, mentioned in the song as "the widowed bride", had a miscarriage shortly after Holly's death which was caused by the psychological trauma of finding out her husband had died from her morning newspaper; this led to the move towards not allowing media to release victim's names until after family member's had been notified. 2) Phil Everly, of The Everly Brothers, was one of the pallbearers at Holly's funeral, as The Crickets' Waylon Jennings (who had jokingly said "I hope your plane crashes" in response to Holly's "I hope your bus freezes up" the night of the crash) could not attend, due to the ongoing Winter Dance Party tour.
"Three Stars" Eddie Cochran