Tommy Allsup, the guitarist who famously avoided “the Day the Music Died” after losing his plane seat in a coin toss to Ritchie Valens, died Wednesday following complications from a hernia operation. He was 85. His son, Austin, confirmed Allsup’s death in a Facebook post.
“A message from Austin’s team: Austin’s father, guitar legend and western swing icon Tommy Allsup has passed away today,” the post read. “We want to continue to pray for Austin and his family and those immediately effected by his passing.”
Over the course of a career that spanned decades, Allsup performed with artists like Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Merle Haggard and Bob Wills. However, Allsup will best be remembered for the fateful “lost” coin flip resulting in the musician winning “an additional 57 years and 11 months,” as his friend Randy Steele told BBC News.
Allsup, who was touring with Holly after the two met during a recording session in 1958, was initially supposed to be on the ill-fated, Holly-charted flight from Mason City, Iowa to Fargo, North Dakota. However, Valens, who suffered from a fear of flying, asked Allsup if he could take his spot on the plane.
“[Valens] asked me four or five times could he fly in my place. For some reason, I pulled a half dollar out of my pocket and flipped it. He said ‘heads’ and it came up heads,” Allsup recalled of the February 2nd, 1959 flight. “So I went out to the station wagon and told Buddy. I said, ‘I’m not going. Me and Ritchie flipped a coin. He’s going in my place.’ Buddy said, ‘Cool.'”
Waylon Jennings also avoided the plane crash after giving his seat to J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
When the plane crashed, Allsup was originally one of the five people reported dead by the Associated Press. As the guitarist clarified later, Holly had Allsup’s wallet on him at the time of the crash because Holly agreed to retrieve Allsup’s mail at a Minnesota post office.
Speaking to the Associated Press, Austin Allsup, a recent The Voice contestant, said his father considered his coin flip loss “a blessing.”
“I know my dad has talked about that many times and knew that he was very lucky to be here. It could have been the other way around,” Austin Allsup said.
Austin Allsup added that Valens’ sister contacted him after his father’s death to offer her condolences. “I told her in my message back, now my dad and Ritchie can finally finish the tour they started 58 years ago,” he said.
Allsup, an inductee of the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, will be buried in his native Oklahoma.
“Tommy Allsup was one of western swing and rockabilly music’s finest,” Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, said in a statement. “The Oklahoma native and was admired by his peers and fans alike [and] heralded by Paul McCartney as one of the finest guitar players in the world. Our deepest condolences go out to Tommy’s family, friends and creative collaborators.”