Jan 11, 2017: Tommy Allsup, ‘Lucky’ Guitarist for Buddy Holly—Obituary

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Tommy Allsup (r.) with Buddy Holly in January 1959, days before Holly’s death

Tommy Allsup, a pioneering rock ’n’ roll guitarist best known for playing with Buddy Holly—and passing on the opportunity to claim a seat in the ill-fated plane that crashed with Holly and other rockers on board—died January 11, 2017, in Springfield, Missouri, from complications following hernia surgery. Allsup was 85.

Allsup was a member of the band backing Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on Feb. 3, 1959. Following the show, he lost a coin toss to determine who would get the one remaining seat in the tiny plane that would take them to the site of their next gig. Valens “won” the toss and went down with the plane near Clear Lake, Iowa. The three singers, as well as the pilot, lost their lives. (Others who didn’t get on the plane included Dion, who also claims to have lost the coin flip, and Waylon Jennings.)

Tommy Allsup was born Nov. 24, 1931, in Owasso, Okla. In addition to Holly he played with rocker Roy Orbison, country giant Willie Nelson, western swing band Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and others within those genres. He was considered a pioneer of the rockabilly style that became popular during the first rock ’n’ roll era.

Tommy Allsup

In the early ’60s Allsup moved to L.A. where he did session work and played with local bands. He eventually went back to his Oklahoma hometown where he continued to work in various capacities. He opened a nightclub, Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon, in Dallas.

With the news of his passing, the Buddy Holly Center posted on Facebook: “We are saddened by the news that Tommy Allsup passed away today at the age of 85. The staff at the Buddy Holly Center extends its condolences to Tommy’s family during this difficult time. Rave on, Tommy!”

Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy, said, “Tommy Allsup was one of western swing and rockabilly music’s finest. The Oklahoma native and GRAMMY® winner was admired by his peers and fans alike—heralded by Paul McCartney as one of the finest guitar players in the world. Probably best known for working with Buddy Holly, Tommy later went on to produce and work with the likes of Merle Haggard, Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys, and Willie Nelson, earning him a spot in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Our deepest condolences go out to Tommy’s family, friends, and creative collaborators.”

Watch Tommy Allsup discuss the disputed coin flip story.

Related: Our feature on Buddy Holly

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