On February 3, 1959, Richardson died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa, along with music stars Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and pilot Roger Peterson. The accident was famously referred to as "The Day the Music Died" in Don McLean's 1971 song "American Pie".
J. P. Richardson was born in Sabine Pass, Texas, the oldest son of oil-field worker Jiles Perry Richardson, Sr. (1905–1984) and his wife Elise (Stalsby) Richardson (1909–1983). Richardson had two younger brothers, Cecil and James. The family soon moved to Beaumont, Texas. Richardson graduated from Beaumont High School in 1947 and played on the "Royal Purple" football team as a defensive lineman, wearing number 85. Richardson later studied prelaw at Lamar College, and was a member of the band and chorus.
Richardson worked part-time at Beaumont, Texas radio station KTRM (now KZZB). He was hired by the station full-time in 1949 and quit college. Richardson married Adrianne Joy Fryou on April 18, 1952, and their daughter Debra Joy was born in December 1953, soon after Richardson was promoted to supervisor of announcers at KTRM.
In March 1955, he was drafted into the United States Army and did his basic training at Fort Ord, California. He spent the rest of his two-year service as a radar instructor at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
Richardson returned to KTRM radio following his discharge as a corporal in March 1957, where he held down the "Dishwashers' Serenade" shift from 11 am to 12:30 pm, Monday through Friday. One of the station's sponsors wanted Richardson for a new time slot, and suggested an idea for a show. Richardson had seen college students doing a dance called The Bop, and he decided to call himself "The Big Bopper". His new radio show ran from 3:00 to 6:00 pm, and he soon became the station's program director.
In May 1957, he broke the record for continuous on-air broadcasting by 8 minutes. He performed for a total of five days, two hours, and eight minutes from a remote setup in the lobby of the Jefferson Theatre in downtown Beaumont, playing 1,821 records and taking showers during 5-minute newscasts.
Richardson is credited for creating the first music video in 1958, and recorded an early example himself.
Richardson, who played guitar, began his musical career as a songwriter. George Jones later recorded Richardson's "White Lightning", which became Jones' first #1 country hit in 1959 (#73 on the pop charts). Richardson also wrote "Running Bear" for Johnny Preston, his friend from Port Arthur, Texas. The inspiration for the song came from Richardson's childhood memory of the Sabine River, where he heard stories about Indian tribes. Richardson sang background on "Running Bear", but the recording was not released until August 1959, seven months after his death. The song become a #1 hit for three weeks in January 1960.
The man who launched Richardson as a recording artist was Harold "Pappy" Daily from Houston. Daily was promotion director for Mercury and Starday Records and signed Richardson to Mercury. Richardson's first single, "Beggar to a King", had a country flavor, but failed to gain any chart action. He soon cut "Chantilly Lace" as "The Big Bopper" for Pappy Daily's D label. Mercury bought the recording and released it at the end of June, 1958. It slowly began picking up airplay through July and August, and reached #6 on the pop charts spending 22 weeks in the national Top 40. In "Chantilly Lace", Richardson pretends to have a flirting phone conversation with his girlfriend; the record was comical in nature, with The Big Bopper presenting an exaggerated, but good-natured caricature of a ladies' man.
In November 1958, he scored a second hit, a raucous novelty tune entitled "The Big Bopper's Wedding", in which Richardson pretends to be getting cold feet at the altar. Both "Chantilly Lace" and "Big Bopper's Wedding" were receiving top 40 radio airplay through January, 1959.
With the success of "Chantilly Lace", Richardson took time off from KTRM radio and joined Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts for a "Winter Dance Party" tour starting on January 23, 1959. On the 11th night of the tour (February 2, 1959), the musicians played the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
That night, rock star Buddy Holly chartered an airplane from Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa, intending to fly himself and his bandmates (Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup) ahead to their next tour venue in Moorhead, Minnesota, immediately after the show in Clear Lake. The musicians had been traveling by bus for over a week, and it had already broken down twice. They were tired, they had not been paid yet, and all of their clothes were dirty. The chartered flight would allow them to avoid another arduous bus ride, arrive early before the Moorhead show, do their laundry, and get some rest.
A 21-year-old local pilot, Roger Peterson of Dwyer Flying Service, had agreed to take Holly and his bandmates to their next destination. The local weather forecast for the Clear Lake area was 18 °F (−8 °C) that night with moderate gusty winds and light scattered snow, and Peterson was fatigued from a 17-hour workday, but he agreed to fly the trip.
While Frankie Sardo went to meet the crowd, Holly went into one of the dressing rooms at the Surf Ballroom where he notified Allsup and Jennings that he had chartered a plane to take them to Fargo, North Dakota (which is directly adjacent to Moorhead, Minnesota). On a friendly wager, Ritchie Valens flipped a coin with Tommy Allsup for his seat on the plane, and Valens won the coin-toss. Meanwhile, J.P. Richardson was suffering from the flu and was complaining that the bus was too cold and uncomfortable for him, so Waylon Jennings voluntarily surrendered his seat on the plane to Richardson.
Upon hearing that his bandmates had given away their plane seats and were going to take the bus rather than fly, Holly joked, "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up again." Jennings jokingly replied, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes." Those words would haunt Jennings for the rest of his life.
After the Clear Lake show ended (at around midnight), Holly, Valens and Richardson drove to the Mason City Airport, loaded their luggage and boarded the red and white single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. At around 1:00 am on February 3, 1959, pilot Roger Peterson received clearance from the control tower, taxied down the runway and took off. But the plane remained airborne for only a few minutes. For an unknown reason, shortly after takeoff, the plane slammed into the ground at full throttle about 5 miles outside Mason City, in the middle of farm country. Peterson may have lost his visual reference and thought he was ascending while he was actually descending. It is also possible that he had mechanical problems and was attempting to turn back toward Mason City. The right wingtip of the Beechcraft Bonanza sliced into the frozen ground and sent the aircraft cartwheeling across a cleared cornfield at approximately 170 mph.
The bodies of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson were ejected from the plane on impact and probably tumbled along with the wreckage across the icy field before the mangled plane came to rest against a barbed-wire fence. While Peterson's body remained entangled in the main mass of plane wreckage, the fully clothed bodies of Holly and Valens came to rest several feet away from the wreckage on open ground.
Wearing only a red-checked flannel shirt and light blue cotton pants, the body of J.P. Richardson was thrown approximately 100 feet beyond the wreckage, across the fenceline and into the next cornfield. Like Holly and Valens, Richardson died instantly of massive head and chest injuries.
Richardson was survived by his wife Adrienne Joy Wenner (1936-2004) and five-year-old daughter, Debra. His son, Jay Perry, was born two months later in April 1959. At the time of his death, Richardson had been building a recording studio in his home in Beaumont, Texas, and was also planning to invest in a radio station. He had written 20 new songs he planned to record himself or with other artists.
Jay Perry Richardson also took up a musical career and was known professionally as "The Big Bopper, Jr.", and performed around the world. He toured on the "Winter Dance Party" tour with Buddy Holly impersonator John Mueller on some stages where his father performed.
In January 2007, Jay requested that his father's body be exhumed and an autopsy be performed in response to an alleged internet rumor about guns being fired aboard the plane, and Richardson himself initially surviving the crash; although Jay Richardson never divulged the name of the site where he had seen this rumor. The autopsy was performed by Dr. Bill Bass, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Jay was present with Dr. Bass throughout the autopsy and observed as the casket was opened; both men were surprised to find the remains well enough preserved to be recognizable as those of the late rock star. "Dad still amazes me 48 years after his death, that he was in remarkable shape," Richardson told the Associated Press. "I surprised myself. I handled it better than I thought I would". Dr. Bass's findings indicated no signs of foul play. He was quoted as saying, "There are fractures from head to toe. Massive fractures ...[Richardson] died immediately. He didn't crawl away. He didn't walk away from the plane".
After the autopsy, Richardson's body was placed in a new casket made by the same company as the original, then was reburied next to his wife in Beaumont's Forest Lawn Cemetery. Jay then allowed the old casket to be put on display at the Texas Musicians Museum. In December 2008, Jay Richardson announced that he would be placing the old casket up for auction on eBay, giving a share of the proceeds to the Texas Musicians Museum, but downplayed the suggestion in later interviews.
Jay Richardson "Big Bopper, Jr." died on August 21, 2013, at the age of 54, three years after his sister Debra Bridges died. He was survived by his wife Patty, sons Jay Jr. and Thomas, and daughter Ashlyn, along with her husband Kevin Ray Adams and their daughter Hadley. Patty Richardson currently holds all trademarks relating to the Big Bopper, and has signed Earl Benjamin of C3 Entertainment as the licensing agent.
Songs Richardson composed and recorded include:"Chantilly Lace" #6 hit for the Big Bopper
"White Lightnin'", #1 Country hit for George Jones
"Treasure of Love" (George Jones song)
"Running Bear", #1 hit for Johnny Preston and Sonny James
"The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor"
"Little Red Riding Hood"
"Walking Through My Dreams" (two versions, one on 45-RPM only, the other on LP)
"Beggar to a King" (recorded under his real name), (later recorded by Hank Snow in 1961, it made it to #5 on the country singles chart)
"Crazy Blues" (recorded under his real name)
"Bopper's Boogie Woogie"
"That's What I'm Talking About"
"Monkey Song (You Made a Monkey out of Me)"
"It's the Truth, Ruth" (two versions, one on 45-RPM only, the other on LP)
"Preacher and the Bear"
"Someone Watching Over You"
"One More Chance"
In 1988, Ken Paquette, a Wisconsin fan of the 1950s era, erected a stainless steel monument at the crash site depicting a steel guitar and a set of three records bearing the names of each of the three performers. It is located on private farmland, about one-quarter-mile west of the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue, about eight miles north of Clear Lake. Paquette also created a similar stainless steel monument to the three near the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003.
J.P. Richardson's pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The Big Bopper is fondly remembered not only for his distinctive singing and songwriting, but also as a humorist who combined the best elements of country, R&B, and rock 'n' roll.
In 2010, Richardson was inducted into the Iowa Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Richardson's name is mentioned as one of the upcoming musical acts in both the print and television versions of Stephen King's short story "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" about a town inhabited by late musical legends. Buddy Holly is subsequently featured in the story.
The Canadian television comedy show SCTV featured a character named "Sue Bopper-Simpson", a fictional daughter of the Big Bopper, played by Catherine O'Hara. The character was a part-time real estate agent who appeared in a musical titled I'm Taking My Own Head, Screwing It on Right, and No Guy's Gonna Tell Me That It Ain't.
Shortly after the fatal plane crash, Tommy Dee wrote and recorded a song titled "Three Stars" in tribute to Richardson, Holly, and Valens. It was later recorded by Eddie Cochran, a friend of the three musicians.
Van Halen's song "Good Enough" from their 1986 album 5150 begins with singer Sammy Hagar calling out "Hello Baby!", imitating the Big Bopper's hook in "Chantilly Lace". Phil Lewis of L.A. Guns does the same in their song "17 Crash" from their 1989 album Cocked & Loaded.
The Simpsons episode "Sideshow Bob Roberts" features a gravestone of The Big Bopper in Springfield that Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) used to help commit voter fraud and become elected for mayor. The gravestone is a bust of the Big Bopper holding a telephone receiver, with the epitaph reading "The Big Bopper", his birth and death years (1930–1959), then a parody on the memorable hook by reading "Gooooodbye, baby". He also appeared as a vampire holding a telephone in an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon during the episode "C.E.D'oh".
An episode of The X-Files features the Big Bopper. The episode is called "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose".
In Not Fade Away, a turbulent road novel taking place at the end of the fifties, Jim Dodge narrates an eventful trip to the Big Bopper's grave.
Richardson was portrayed by Gailard Sartain in The Buddy Holly Story, Stephen Lee (actor) in La Bamba, and John Ennis in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
On the London stage, Richardson has been portrayed by John Simon Rawlings and Steve Dorsett in the musical Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story. Jason Blackwater in the 2013/14 '25th Anniversary' UK National tour and Thomas Mitchells in the 2016/17 UK National Tour.
"Chantilly Lace" is used in the movies True Romance and American Graffiti.
The character Dragoon is referenced as being the Big Bopper, as is his partner/body host Red Mantle being Buddy Holly in the animated series The Venture Bros.