Tommy Allsup, guitarist who backed Buddy Holly, Kenny Rogers and others, died at 85

Tommy Allsup, a rockabilly and western swing guitarist who became a renowned backup player for Bob Wills, Kenny Rogers and hundreds of other entertainers on thousands of recording sessions – and who owed his long career to a fateful coin toss in 1959 – died Jan. 11 in Springfield, Missouri. He was 85.

His son, singer-songwriter Austin Allsup, announced the death on his Facebook page. No cause was reported.

Allsup was touring the Midwest with rock sensation Buddy Holly on Feb. 2, 1959, when Holly, tired of riding through the snow in an unheated tour bus, chartered a four-seat Beechcraft airplane for him and the band.

The bus had been so cold that Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, left the tour because of a frostbitten foot. Holly and fellow headliner Ritchie Valens were taking turns on drums during each other’s sets. Holly had planned to fly his band from Clear Lake, Iowa, to a stopover in Fargo, North Dakota, before the next show in Moorhead, Minneapolis.

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In the dressing room after the Clear Lake show, Allsup agreed to flip a coin for the seat with singer Valens. He took out a half-dollar piece, and Valens called heads. Ben Franklin came up.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever won anything in my life,” Valens reportedly said.

Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, voluntarily gave up his seat to another headliner, J.P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper. Richardson had the flu.

But Holly, Valens and Richardson never made it to their next gig. The plane crashed into a cornfield about five miles north of the airport around 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, and their bodies were ejected from the plane. They died on impact.

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Allsup was originally thought to have died in the crash. He gave his wallet to Holly so that he could pick up some mail for him from general delivery. The authorities found Allsup’s identification near Holly’s body and initially reported Allsup dead.

The tour didn’t stop. Allsup, Jennings and Bunch, all of whom rode the bus, soldiered on for two more weeks with Jennings singing Holly’s songs. Dion and the Belmonts were brought in as headliners.

Allsup joined Holly during a transitional period. The Lubbock-born singer was moving to New York while members of his backup band, the Crickets, wanted to stay in Texas. Allsup’s recordings behind Holly, all cut in Clovis, New Mexico, in 1958, included “It’s So Easy,” credited to the Crickets and later covered by Linda Rondstadt, and “Heartbeat,” later covered by the Beatles.

Allsup’s career neither began nor ended with Holly. Fresh out of high school, Allsup was hired by western swing bandleader Johnnie Lee Wills, the bandleader at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla.

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Throughout the 1940s, Cain’s had served as the house gig for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the group often credited with creating western swing, the Southwestern synthesis of big band jazz, hillbilly and mariachi music. When Bob Wills moved to California, his younger brother Johnnie Lee took over the Cain’s engagement. The band at Cain’s served as something of a farm team for the Playboys and other western swing bands.

Allsup stayed with Johnnie Lee Wills for four years and later worked as a country music player and producer in Los Angeles and Nashville. His rhythm guitar graced such recordings as the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” Rogers’s “The Gambler” and Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” He also recorded the sci-fi folk novelty number “In the Year 2525,” by the duo Zager and Evans, a No. 1 pop recording in 1969.

In the 1970s, Allsup produced one of Bob Wills’ last recordings, “For the Last Time,” and several albums by western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel.

He also opened a Dallas nightclub in the late 1980s, named Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon in acknowledgment of the fateful coin toss. However, he was not as lucky as a night club impresario. The club closed after little more than a year.

Tommy Douglas Allsup was born near Owasso, Okla., on Nov. 24, 1931, to a farming family. His father and brother were both fiddlers, and Allsup began playing guitar behind them at family square dances. By 18, he started his own western swing band, Tommy Allsup’s Range Riders.

A complete list of his survivors could not immediately be determined. His son Austin appeared on the 2016 season of the NBC talent show “The Voice.”

Allsup, who said he kept the coin that kept him alive, said he felt moved to contact Valens’ family soon after the plane crash, but he did not meet them until 1994.

He told the Tulsa World last year, “I had wondered all those years, ‘What are you going to say to them? Are they going to hate you for flipping the coin?’ But they said, ‘We have been trying to get a hold of you because you are our only link to Ritchie. We would like for you to be our brother that we have missed having all of our life.’ “