In 1959, George Jones notched his first ever Number One single with the rambunctious ode to moonshine, “White Lightning.” But the then 27-year-old singer, who would go on to be heralded as the greatest country vocalist that ever lived, didn’t write the song. That honor belonged to J.P. Richardson — known in the world of Fifties rock & roll as “The Big Bopper.”
Fifty-seven years ago today, Richardson died in the legendary plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, along with the pilot of their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza. That same February, Jones entered the studio to cut the song, delivering his version with his signature hiccups and wheezes.
Richardson’s “White Lightning,” however, is a full-on Happy Days sock hop, driven along by a swooning saxophone and the Big Bopper’s baritone vocals. (Listen to his version above.) Like Jones, Richardson hailed from Texas, and the two were friends, which affected Jones when he recorded the song shortly after the tragedy. According to his autobiography I Lived to Tell It All, Jones was inebriated.
“The word ‘slug’ is slurred in that record,” Jones wrote. “That’s because I was drunk. . . If you listen to the original recording of ‘White Lightning,’ you can hear me stumble over the word ‘slug.'”
Richardson’s connection to country music extends beyond his relationship with Jones though. It was the Big Bopper who, suffering from the flu, asked Waylon Jennings, then the bass player in Buddy Holly’s group, to let him have his seat on the ill-fated plane ride from Iowa to a tour stop in Minnesota. The aircraft went down in bad weather shortly after takeoff, less than six miles from the airport. All onboard were killed.