On February 3, 1959, the world lost three of its fastest rising stars, Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Ritchie Valens. The story has long been told that Valens might have been spared, had he not won a coin toss against Tommy Allsup, Buddy Holly's guitarist.
The story goes like this. Buddy Holly and his band, comprised of Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings and Carl Bunch, along with J.P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens, were playing on the Winter Dance Party tour. Travelling from town to town on cold and uncomfortable tour buses was taking its toll on the performers, who had come down with cases of the flu and even frostbite! It was because of these conditions that, after performing in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly decided to charter a plane for his band to travel to Moorhead, Minnesota, the next stop on the tour. Richardson was suffering from the flu, so Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on the plane to him. When Holly heard that Jennings wouldn't be on the plane, he joked, "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." to which Jennings responded, "I hope your ol' plane crashes!" a phrase that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Valens, who had once had a fear of flying, asked Allsup for his seat. There has been some controversy over how this happened, but most witnesses agree that Allsup and Valens decided on a coin toss, conducted by DJ Bob Hale, and Valens won Allsup's seat on the plane.
Shortly after take off, the pilot lost control of the aircraft and crashed the plane into a corn field. All aboard were lost, and that day famously came to be known as The Day The Music Died.
Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings continued on the Winter Dance Party tour with Jennings taking the lead, even as funeral arrangements were being made for their friends. After the tour ended, Allsup moved to Los Angeles and became a session guitarist. In 1979, he opened a club in Dallas called Tommy's Heads-Up Saloon, so named for that fateful coin toss with Valens 20 years earlier. Allsup continued to work as a session guitarist for the rest of his career.
Tommy Allsup died on January 11, 2017, at the age of 85, from complications resulting from hernia surgery.
Watch Allsup tell the story of the coin toss in his own words.
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