Famous Air Crash Victims - Part 2: Musicians Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Famous Air Crash Victims - Part 2: Musicians

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Famous Air Crash Victims

Part 1: Aviators | Part 2: Musicians | Part 3: Sportsmen | Part 4: Politicians

The pressures of punishing tour schedules can cause musicians to spend much of their life on the road. They can rack up a good few air miles too, and by the laws of probability alone we can expect to have lost a few in air accidents. But what talent we have lost! Songs such as 'In The Mood', 'That'll Be The Day', 'Chantilly Lace', 'La Bamba', 'Free Bird', '(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay', 'Distant Drums', 'Annie's Song' and many others live on in our memories of these curtailed lives.

Glenn Miller

Many will associate memories of life during the the years of World War II with the music of Glenn Miller1 and his big band. Sixty years after his untimely death at the age of 40, his signature tunes continue to be instantly recognisable: 'In The Mood', Moonlight Serenade', 'Tuxedo Junction', 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' - the list goes on and on. Miller had developed a unique jazz sound which relied more on orchestration than improvisation, and it was a hit.

Miller, a US Air Force captain, was in high demand to entertain the troops during the conflict. In 1944 he relocated to London with his 24-piece dance band, and from there engaged in a busy schedule of concerts. It was on 15 December, 1944 that Miller and his pilot took a flight in a UC-64A Noorduyn Norseman from RAF Twinwood Farm, Bedfordshire to Paris, for a concert to celebrate its recent liberation by Allied forces. The aircraft never arrived, and no explanation has been found. One theory is that the plane was hit by RAF bombs jettisoned over the English Channel.

The Day The Music Died

Don McLean's 1971 hit 'American Pie', released 12 years after the event, was one of the many tributes to three young rock 'n' roll stars who perished on 3 February, 1959 at Clear Lake, Iowa, US, when their unnamed Beechcraft Bonanza crashed shortly after taking off in a snowstorm. The pilot, who was not qualified to fly in those conditions, was also killed.

Buddy Holly2 was only 22, but had already amassed a huge following on the back of hits such as 'That'll Be The Day', 'Peggy Sue', 'Oh Boy!' and 'Maybe Baby'. It was in the middle of a winter multi-act tour, and Holly had chartered the small plane to get him to the next show in Fargo, North Dakota ahead of time, being unhappy with conditions on the tour bus. The other two seats were originally earmarked for two of his new line-up Crickets backing band, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, but the seats were cadged by two other performers: Mexican-American Ritchie Valens3, a 17-year-old whose hits 'La Bamba' and 'Donna' had catapulted him to fame, and 'The Big Bopper'4, originally a disc jockey at KTRM radio, Beaumont, Texas, before he sprang to fame with his inimitable version of 'Chantilly Lace'.

Patsy Cline

Another who died at the height of her career was the country music star Patsy Cline5. On 5 March, 1963, a Piper Comanche piloted by her manager, ferrying her and fellow stars Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, crashed near Camden, Tennessee, en route to Nashville. As with Buddy Holly four years earlier, the pilot was not qualified to fly the plane on instruments, and lost control after running into a storm.

Patsy was 30 years old and the biggest-selling female country music singer of her day. In her short career she left a number of hits including 'I Fall To Pieces' and 'Crazy'.

Jim Reeves

Soft-voiced country and western singer Jim Reeves6 enjoyed a string of hit singles in the early 1960s, including 'He'll Have To Go', 'I Won't Forget You' and, following his death, the biggest-selling single of 1964, 'I Love You Because'. His songs continued to record posthumous success right through to the 1970s, perhaps the most memorable being the 1966 hit 'Distant Drums'.

On 31 July, 1964, Reeves was piloting a Beechcraft 35-B33 Debonair returning from Batesville, Arkansas to Nashville, Tennessee, when he ran into a thunderstorm. As was the case with the pilots in charge of the planes which killed Buddy Holly and Patsy Cline, Reeves was not qualified to fly on instruments. Two days later, the wreckage was found in dense woods ten miles south of Nashville. Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel were both killed. Coincidentally, both Reeves and Patsy Cline's pilot were trained by the same instructor.

Otis Redding

Black American soul singer Otis Redding7 will forever be remembered for the haunting '(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay', recorded three days before and released shortly after his untimely death at the age of 26, on 10 December, 1967.

Following a concert in Madison, Wisconsin, Redding and his backing band, the Bar-Kays boarded a brand new Beechcraft H18 and took off in foggy conditions for Cleveland, Ohio. It remains a mystery exactly how, four miles into the flight, the aircraft spun and crashed into the icy waters of Lake Monona. One of the band survived, but the other five on board lost their lives.

Jim Croce

Only 30 at the time of his death was US singer-songwriter Jim Croce8, best known for his hits 'Bad, Bad Leroy Brown', and the posthumously-released 'I'll Have To Say I Love You In A Song'.

Following a concert on 20 September, 1973 at Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, Louisiana, Croce and his entourage boarded a Beechcraft E18S. Sadly, all six on board died after the pilot failed to gain altitude on take-off and clipped a tree at the end of the runway. These included Croce's guitarist, manager and publicist.

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd9 were the undisputed kings of Southern Rock, producing five best-selling studio albums between 1973 and 1977, as well as the hit singles 'Free Bird' and 'Sweet Home Alabama'. Formed by Ronnie Van Zant in 1964 from friends and schoolmates in Jacksonville, Florida, the band was at its peak when on a tour of the southern states of the USA on 20 October, 1977.

En route between Greenville, South Carolina and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, their Convair CV-300 developed an engine problem, and started consuming excessive fuel. Eventually running low, the plane crash-landed in woodland near Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing six of the 26 aboard and seriously injuring many of the rest. Sadly, the dead included three band members: vocalist Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and Steve's sister and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines.

Randy Rhoads

Heavy Metal guitarist Randy Rhoads10, a member of Ozzy Osbourne's band, was 25 years old when he died in a bizarre air accident. On 19 March, 1982, the band were on their way to a festival in Orlando, Florida and had stopped over at the house of the tourbus driver Andrew Aycock. Early in the morning, while the band were sleeping on the bus, Rhoads and the band's hairdresser were invited for a ride in a Beechcraft Bonanza F35 by Aycock. Whether or not they knew that Aycock's licence had expired or that he had taken the plane without permission, or that he had taken cocaine is not recorded. Four times the plane attempted to 'buzz' the bus. On the fourth pass, one of the wings clipped it, and the plane embedded itself into a nearby house. None of the plane's passengers survived.

Ricky Nelson

Rock 'n' roll teen idol Ricky Nelson11 was second only to Elvis Presley in popularity and commercial success at the peak of his career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His string of hit singles included 'Hello Mary Lou' and 'It's Late'.

Nelson's career, and indeed his life was somewhat on the slide in the 1980s, when he started touring again on the 'nostalgia circuit'. On 31 December, 1985, on his way to a New Year's Eve concert in Dallas, Texas, the Douglas DC-3 in which Nelson and the band were flying caught fire, probably through a faulty cabin heater, and the cockpit and cabin filled with smoke. Crashing in a field near De Kalb, Texas, both pilots survived, but Nelson, his fiancée and his backing band all lost their lives.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Eric Clapton sang 'Born Under A Bad Sign' with Cream in 1968, and he's suffered more than his fair share of life's misfortunes. One such event was the untimely death of fellow blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan12 on 27 August, 1990. Following a blues concert featuring Clapton, Vaughan, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray in East Troy, Wisconsin, the band were set to return to Chicago. As well as on the tour bus, a number of seats were available on helicopters, and Vaughan obtained a seat on a Bell BHT-206B, replacing his brother Jimmie. It was foggy, and the pilot failed to gain enough altitude to clear the hill at the Alpine Valley Resort, crashing on a ski slope. All five on board died: the pilot, Vaughan and three of Clapton's crew.

John Denver

One of the biggest-selling artists of the 1970s, John Denver13 wrote and recorded a number of memorable, almost poetic songs which struck a chord with the record-buying public. Notable among these were 'Take Me Home, Country Roads', 'Sunshine On My Shoulders', 'Annie's Song' and 'Thank God I'm A Country Boy'. His musical career had largely peaked in the 1970s, but he went on to become active in politics and humanitarian work.

Denver was 53 years old when he lost his life, solo-piloting his Rutan Long EZ on 12 October, 1997 off Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California. Denver was unfamiliar with the aircraft, and lost control while trying to operate a fuel transfer switch. In addition, he was not medically qualified to fly, having had his certificate revoked in 1996 by the FAA14 after it had learned of Denver's drink problem.


Rising star of R&B, Aaliyah15 was only 22 years old at the time of her death, yet had been recording albums since she was discovered by hip-hop producer R Kelly at the age of 14. She had also broken into movies, most notably starring in Queen Of The Damned.

On 25 August, 2001, Aaliyah was one of nine passengers in a Cessna 402B chartered by Virgin Records, returning from Marsh Harbour, Bahamas to Miami, after shooting a video for her new single 'Rock The Boat'. They didn't get far; the plane crashed in flames at the end of the runway, killing all nine. Investigations later showed that the plane was overloaded by 700lbs and was only licensed to carry eight. In addition, the pilot was unqualified, and tested positively for cocaine and alcohol.

Honourable Mentions

  • Paul Jeffreys - Cockney Rebel's bass player, 33, and his new wife Rachel were among 259 killed on 21 December, 1988 when Pan American flight 103, a Boeing 747, was bombed by Libyan terrorists and crashed at Lockerbie, Scotland.

  • Stan Rogers - On 2 June, 1983, the Canadian folk singer, 33, was on his way home to Toronto from the Kerrville Folk Festival, Texas on Air Canada flight 797, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32. During the flight a mysterious fire began in the rear lavatory, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing at Cincinnatti, Ohio. When the doors were opened to evacuate the passengers, the influx of air caused a flash fire, which killed 23, including Rogers, who lost his life attempting to rescue other passengers.

The Classical World

  • Ginette Neveu - The French virtuoso violinist, 30, and her pianist accompanist brother Jean-Paul were flying to the US for a concert tour on 28 October, 1949. Approaching San Miguel Island in the Azores for a scheduled stop-over, the Air France Lockheed Constellation twice aborted the landing before flying into a mountainside. All 48 on board were killed. These also included French champion boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was flying to New York to fight Jake LaMotta.

  • Jacques Thibaud - Four years later, on 1 September, 1953, another Air France Lockheed Constellation crashed on landing, while carrying another celebrated French violinist. This time it was 73-year old Jacques Thibaud - one of 42 who died when their plane crashed into Mt Cemet in the French Alps on the final approach to Nice. Thibeau was en route to French Indochina16. Not surprisingly, the irreplaceable Strad violins of both Neveu and Thibeau were destroyed.

1Born Alton Glenn Miller on 1 March, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa, USA.2Born Charles Hardin Holley, 7 September, 1936 in Lubbock, Texas, USA.3Born Richard Steven Valenzuela, 13 May, 1941 in Pacoima, Los Angeles, USA. He is not to be confused with Ricky Valance of 'Tell Laura I Love Her' fame, although this name adopted by David Spencer from Ynysddu, South Wales was no accident.4Born Jiles Perry Richardson Jr on 24 October, 1930 in Sabine Pass, Texas, USA.5Born Virginia Patterson Hensley, 8 September, 1932 in Winchester, Virginia, USA.6Born James Travis Reeves, 20 August, 1923 in Galloway, Texas, USA.7Born Otis Ray Redding, Jr on 9 September, 1941 in Dawson, Georgia, USA.8Born James Joseph Croce on 10 January, 1943 in South Philadelphia, USA.9Pronounced 'Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd', as their 1973 debut album tells us.10Born Randall William Rhoads, 6 December, 1956 in Santa Monica, California, USA.11Born Eric Hilliard Nelson, on 8 May, 1940 in Teaneck, New Jersey, USA.12Born Stephen Ray Vaughan on 3 October, 1954 in Dallas, Texas, USA.13Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr on 31 December, 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, USA.14Federal Aviation Administration.15Born Aaliyah Dana Houghton on 16 January, 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, USA.16French Indochina is the region occupied today by Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

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