No article on the late Tommy Allsup would be complete without the story of an unsuccessful coin flip saving his life – and that goes for this one, too. But the well-known story of Buddy Holly chartering a plane in 1959, and bandmate Allsup giving his seat to Ritchie Valens, avoiding the fatal crash, overshadows Allsup’s excellent guitar playing and impressive resume as session musician and producer.
In Tom Wheeler’s tome, The Stratocaster Chronicles, Richard Thompson cites the “nifty bits” Tommy Allsup played on Buddy Holly records. Actually, Allsup played on relatively few Holly songs – “Lonesome Tears,” “It’s So Easy,” “Heartbeat,” “Love’s Made A Fool Of You,” and “Wishing,” cut in the Spring of ’58 – but, as Thompson adds, “Great tone, great player.”
Allsup was 85 when he died January 11. In addition to Holly, his career ranged from playing guitar and bass on sessions with Johnny Cash and George Jones to producing “In The Year 2525” by Zager & Evans. In between, he did session work with the Everly Brothers, Kenny Rogers, Bobby Vee, Marty Robbins, Charlie Rich, Del Shannon, Earl Scruggs, Johnny Burnette, Don McLean, Doug Kershaw, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Watson, Dwight Yoakam, Leon Russell, Herb Ellis, Johnny Paycheck, Melba Montgomery, Charlie McCoy, Ernest Tubb, Ferlin Husky, and many others. And behind the console, he produced Willie Nelson, Warren Smith, Tex Williams, Johnny Bush, Slim Whitman, Hank Thompson, and four of Asleep At The Wheel’s first five albums.
The Wheel’s leader, Ray Benson, recalls, “Buddy Spicher, the fiddler, recommended Tommy as producer, and we were very lucky that he made the right call. Allsup was great because he let us do what we wanted, and just helped us do it.”
Asleep At The Wheel’s original pianist, Floyd Domino, says, “Tommy was like this genial host of a big party, and he brought us along for the ride. He opened so many doors to so many people – a giant circle of people that he knew and helped. He was completely laid back, and he had this kind of perpetual smile – calm and positive. When we did the first album, I played a solo on ‘Take Me Back To Tulsa’ – one of those mistakes, and I recovered from it – and he was just laughing, thinking it was great. He called it ‘falling down the stairs.’”
The band’s singer and rhythm guitar for many years was Chris O’Connell. “Tommy was one of the first to encourage me to play rhythm guitar, and he impressed upon me the necessity of steadiness and conformity in the string attack,” she says. “Tommy played the Eldon-Shamblin-style rhythm guitar with ease. I don’t think I ever heard anyone but Eldon and Tommy do that. Aside from Count Basie’s rhythm section, I’ve never heard such exquisite, unruffled time – tight enough to lend structure, but loose enough to swing.”
Benson agrees. “He took Eldon [with Bob Wills] and added Tommy Allsup to that. When rock and roll came around, he adjusted very easily. He told me, ‘All I did was turn up the treble.’”
Allsup and the Wheel won a Grammy for the group’s 1999 album, Ride With Bob. But perhaps Allsup’s crowning achievement was producing 1973’s For The Last Time, by Wills and a cast of former Texas Playboys. Lead vocalist was Leon Rausch, who joined the Playboys in ’58. “Tommy never had much to say, but whatever he produced, his work came out in the result,” he said. “His heart was in it.”
In a 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame conducted an interview with Dion Demucci, who was also on tour with the 1959 Winter Dance Party, with Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper. He disputed Allsup’s account, saying that Holly chartered the plane for “the headliners,” rather than bandmates Allsup and bassist Waylon Jennings, and that he, not Allsup, gave up his seat to Valens. Besides the fact the Dion waited more than 50 years to “set the record straight” (previously writing an autobiography that made no mention), his version is simply illogical. Holly’s drummer was in the hospital after the heater-less bus resulted in frostbite on his toes. Holly wanted to get himself and bandmates to the next town, to avoid the long, cold bus ride. The Big Bopper had the flu, so Jennings let him have his seat. And Allsup and Valens flipped a coin.
Allsup wrote an open letter, shooting numerous holes in Dion’s story and challenging the singer to take a polygraph test alongside himself. It’s unfortunate that in his later years, an event that had haunted him for decades was questioned. As Allsup told author Darryl Hicks in 2008, “It still bothers me. Just the fact that Ritchie lost his life and I didn’t, you kind of blame yourself in a way. It’s something you think about without wanting to. A lot.”
This article originally appeared in VG June 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.