Tommy Allsup, a member of Buddy Holly’s reconstituted Crickets who endured harsh days on the road touring with the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour in 1959 and lost the coin toss to Ritchie Valens that saved his life, has died. He was 85.
After the tour that took the lives of Holly, Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson in a plane crash in an Iowa farm field on Feb. 3, 1959, Allsup continued his career as a rockabilly and Western swing guitarist. But it was the fateful moment in rock ’n’ roll history that Allsup could never forget.
Allsup and the other Cricket, Waylon Jennings, were supposed to be on the plane that Holly had chartered to fly him and the two to Fargo for the tour’s next stop in Moorhead. But the Bopper was ill, and Jennings gave up his seat to Richardson, the large Texas DJ who sang “Chantilly Lace.”
At a Feb. 2 stop in Clear Lake, Valens, who was only 17, begged Allsup to give up his seat. “Ritchie, all night long, would come around and say ‘Let me fly,’ and I said, ‘Get away from me, quit it, don’t bug me,’ ” Allsup is quoted saying in “The Day the Music Died,” by Martin Huxley and Quinton Skinner.
Later, he saw Valens signing autographs.
“For some reason, he [Valens] said, ‘You going to let me fly? And I just flipped a 50-cent piece and said, ‘Call it.’ He called heads. And so I went back to the station wagon, and I told Buddy, ‘I’m not going to be flying. Will you get my shirts laundered?’ ”
The single-engine, four-seat Beachcraft Bonanza crashed several hours later; the unheated tour bus filled with the rest of the entertainers, including Dion and the Belmonts, made it to Moorhead.
Allsup died Jan. 11 in Springfield, Mo., due to complications from a hernia operation, said his son Austin Allsup, a singer and musician.
Tommy Douglas Allsup was born near Owasso, Okla., on Nov. 24, 1931. By 18, he started his own Western swing band, Tommy Allsup’s Range Riders. He played backup for Bob Wills and Kenny Rogers and produced records for Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel.
His rhythm guitar was on such recordings as the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” Rogers’ “The Gambler” and Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.”
In the 1970s, Allsup produced one of Wills’ last recordings, “For the Last Time.” He also opened a short-lived Dallas nightclub in the late 1980s, named Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon in acknowledgment of the fateful coin toss.
Another of Allsup’s enduring memories of the Winter Dance Party tour — which zigzagged in haphazard fashion across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa — was how cold it got on the buses that kept breaking down. After a Jan. 31 show in Duluth and with the temperature about 30 below, the bus stalled on an incline near Hurley, Wis. In an interview with the Star Tribune in 2009, Allsup gave this description of the tour’s dire straits: “It was so cold, and we were just sitting there right in the middle of the road. Everybody started thinking, ‘we were about to freeze to death.’ ”
One of Allsup’s biggest fans was Sevan Garabedian of Montreal, who is working on a series of interviews for a documentary about the tour.
“What a great loss,” Garabedian posted on Facebook. “Way over half a century ago, Tommy lost a coin toss to Ritchie Valens that, as fate would have it, saved his life and gave him 58 years that he would not otherwise have had. Tommy made the most of his ‘extra’ time and then some.”
The Washington Post and Associated Press contributed to this report