Guitarist and producer Tommy Allsup died Wednesday (Jan. 11) in Springfield, Missouri, at the age of 85.
Allsup was born Nov. 24, 1931, on his Cherokee mother’s allotment near Owasso, Oklahoma. Influenced by his fiddler father, he began his musical career sitting in at local dances. He joined his first band, the Oklahoma Swingbillies, while still in high school.
Like most country-oriented artists of his era, he was greatly inspired by the western swing music of Bob Wills. He would go on to perform both with Wills and his brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, and produce Bob Wills’ final album, For the Last Time, in 1973
In spite of an array of musical distinctions — including induction into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame — Allsup was perhaps best known as the man who “lost” a coin toss to Ritchie Valens, thus enabling Valens instead of him to board the ill-fated plane that carried Buddy Holly and his entourage to their deaths in Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959.
Allsup had recorded with Holly even before he began touring as his lead guitarist in the summer of 1958. The first song he cut with the rising star was “It’s So Easy (To Fall in Love).” In later years, Allsup’s guitar work would enrich such other classics as the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.”
After completing the Holly tour, during which a series of other young artists filled in as headliners, Allsup moved to California and began performing in a Los Angeles nightclub. There he met Snuff Garrett, who was then heading Liberty Records. Garrett hired him to play on a Buddy Knox session — which launched him on a long period of doing session work for the label.
Eventually, Allsup was appointed to head A&R (artist and repertoire) for Liberty’s country music division. In that capacity, he produced Willie Nelson, Tex Williams and Billy Mize, among others.
Allsup moved to Odessa, Texas, and set up a recording studio after he left Liberty. It was here that the duo Zager & Evans recorded their dystopian “In the Year 2525.” Allsup released the song on his own label, after which RCA picked it up and, in 1969, propelled it to No. 1.
In late 1968, Allsup relocated to Nashville to head Metromedia Records. He continued to work as a producer and session musician. He produced Asleep at the Wheel’s first album for United Artists and four more for Capitol.
Allsup’s particular fondness for western swing led him to produce five albums for Hank Thompson, as well as similarly-themed projects for Leon Rausch, Jody Nix, Johnny Bush. Curley Chalker and others. He remained active in the music business until shortly before his death.
Allsup’s name was made known to a new generation via his son Austin Allsup’s appearances on the 2016 season of the NBC talent show, The Voice.
Funeral plans for Allsup have not yet been finalized.