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The Sky Is Crying

The most notorious rock and roll air disasters and plane crashes

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Rock and roll was thought of as little more than a fad during the first few years of its existence, and only as a money-making machine after that; little thought was given to the mechanics of touring, and even by the Seventies, musicians themselves took a number of chances to get where they had to be, and right now. Flying may be safer than driving, but that's only true for commercial airliners... these ten crashes, all private flights, took the lives of some of pop's best and brightest, and usually at far too young an age.

1. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper

Date: February 3, 1959, Clear Lake, IA
Also killed: Roger A. Peterson (pilot)
Buddy, Ritchie, and J.P. Richardson were all strapped for money when they joined the Winter Dance Party tour of early 1959; two had to leave pregnant wives behind. But the tour was miserable, requiring the three to dart back and forth across the midwest, adding new shows wherever they could, and the unheated bus was no protection from a particularly brutal winter. When Holly decided to charter a plane to make it to the next show (and also to get some laundry done), it seemed like a great idea. But the pilot had never flown "on instruments," and the pitch-black sky soon confused him. The Beechcraft Bonanza slammed into the ground as he attempted to turn.

2. Otis Redding, The Bar-Kays

Date: December 10, 1967, Madison, WI
Also killed: Richard Fraser (pilot)
Otis had just completed recording what he considered his "crossover" hit, "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay," when he left to go on tour with his backing band, the Bar-Kays (who had come up with a recent hit of their own in "Soul Finger"). The next day, aboard Otis' own pride and joy, his personal Beechcraft plane, the band attempted to land at the Madison airport, but weather conditions were so bad they were forced to circle Lake Monona while waiting for ground clearance. Before long, low visibility had caused the pilot to crash into the lake, killing all but one passenger -- Bar-Kays trumpeter Ben Cauley, who took 40 years to return to the site.

3. Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins

Date: March 5, 1963, Camden, TN
Also killed: Randy Hughes (pilot)
Having ironically just finished a tribute concert for the family of a country music DJ who'd been killed in a car crash, country legend Cline and her other fellow stars flew back to Nashville, with her manager, Hughes, at the controls. Bad weather postponed the flight an extra day, however, and, anxious to get going, Randy phoned his wife in Nashville, who informed him that the weather was clearing there. Unfortunately, she was actually in the storm's eye, and when the four proceeded on, Hughes, who was not rated "on instruments," lost all visibility and attempted to land on a nearby highway. Instead, he skirted some trees, which brought the plane down in a nearby swamp.

4. Lynyrd Skynyrd

Date: October 20, 1977, Gillsburg, MS
Also killed: Walter Wiley McCreary (pilot) William John Gray (co-pliot), Dean Kilpatrick (manager)
The Convair that these Southern-rock icons had bought seemed doomed from the start: Aerosmith's people had already turned it down, due not just to the doubtfulness of the craft, but also its crew, who had been seeing drinking and doing drugs. The crew was sober that fateful night the band flew from Greenville, SC to their next gig at LSU in Baton Rouge, but something -- possibly an engine malfunction, pilot error, or likely both -- caused the plane to dump most of its fuel and attempt an abortive landing in the Mississippi swamps. Four band members died; six were critically injured.

5. Jim Croce

Date: September 20, 1973, Natchitoches, LA
Also killed: Marty Muehleisen (band member), Kenneth D. Cortose (agent), George Stevens (comic), Dennis Rast (friend), Robert Newton Elliott (pilot)
There's little evidence as to what brought down the chartered commercial plane Croce and his fellow musicians lost their lives in; the plane crashed into a pecan tree shortly after taking off from the airport, but the sky was clear, visibility was perfect, and the tree was the only one in the vicinity. Since the pilot had a history of heart disease, however, and had run to the airport in order to make the flight, it's been assumed by many that he suffered a heart attack while carrying the group from their concert at Northwestern State University.

6. Rick Nelson

Date: December 31, 1985, DeKalb, TX
Also killed: Helen Blair (fiancee), Bobby Neal, Rick Intveld, Andy Chapin and Pat Woodward (band members), Clark Russel (road manager)
Controversy still persists over what exactly ignited the fire that caused Nelson's secondhand DC3 to make an emergency landing en route to a New Year's Eve show in Dallas. Some claim he'd been freebasing, given his history of drug abuse and the trace amounts of cocaine found in his system. A more likely cause, however, was a heater fire common to that model. The plane filled with smoke, the crew landed on power lines, causing it to catch fire, and the passengers, rather than crashing, died from smoke and flames. The pilot and co-pilot escaped through the cockpit windows.

7. Stevie Ray Vaughan

Date: August 27, 1990, East Troy, WI
Also killed: Bobby Brooks, (Eric Clapton's agent), Colin Smythe (Clapton's assistant tour manager), Nigel Browne (Clapton's bodyguard), Jeff Brown (pilot)
Clapton and blues guitar legend Vaughan, along with Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Jimmie, Vaughan's brother (and Fabulous Thunderbirds member), had just finished an extraordinary set at a blues festival held in the Alpine Valley Music Theater when Stevie Ray learned of a seat aboard Clapton's helicopter that would allow him to get home sooner. A combination of fog, haze, and a man-made ski slope the pilot was unfamiliar with ended Vaughan's life soon after. (Fortunately, fans could not hear the crash, which occurred a few miles away.)

8. Randy Rhoads

Date: March 19, 1982, Leesburg, FL
Also killed: Rachel Youngblood (band seamstress and cook), Andrew Aycock (pilot)
Rhoads, guitarist in Ozzy Osbourne's band, was already a rising guitar god, seen as the "next Eddie Van Halen" by legions of metal fans worldwide. On the morning of March 19th, tour bus driver Aycock, who was also a licensed pilot, decided to take a Beechcraft Bonanza from a neighbor's hangar and take it for a joyride, inviting Rhoads and Youngblood along for the fun. Aycock, who was later found to have cocaine in his system, then flew the plane through part of Ozzy's tour bus (having twice attempted to "buzz" it), then, having clipped a wing on the bus, careening into a pine tree and then a garage.

9. John Denver

Date: October 12, 1997, Pacific Grove, CA
A rare case of a musician piloting the airplane that caused his own death, John Denver was an avid amateur pilot who loved flying experimental aircraft. The one in which he died was designed perfectly, but the builder made the fatal mistake of placing the fuel selection valve behind the pilot's head, forcing him to balance on the right rudder in order to switch tanks. Denver left the airport with less fuel than he should have, and hit the right rudder when he attempted to switch, causing him to plow into the Pacific.

10. Bill Graham

Date: October 25, 1991, Vallejo, CA
Also killed: Melissa Gold (Graham's girlfriend), Steve Khan (pilot)
Rock's most famous promoter (responsible for the San Francisco scene of the Sixties, among other things) was in the process of putting together a benefit concert for victims of a recent firestorm in Oakland when he decided to return home despite low clouds and generally poor weather. Members of Huey Lewis and the News, whose concert he'd been attending, attempted to get him to wait, but Graham took his chances, and while the pilot followed highways and bobbed up and down to escape the low ceiling of visibility, he wrapped Graham's Bell chopper around an electrical tower, killing everyone instantly.
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