Tommy Allsup, the guitarist who famously narrowly escaped “the Day the Music Died” after losing a coin toss, has passed away at the age of 85. He died on Wednesday after battling complications from a hernia operation. His son, Austin, confirmed the news in a Facebook post.
Born near Owasso, Oklahoma, on November 24th, 1931, Allsup enjoyed a decades-long career, which saw him work alongside country/rock legends like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Roy Orbison. The Grammy-winning musician, however, is best known for his fateful February 1959 coin toss that resulted in “La Bamba” rock ‘n’ roller Ritchie Valens, and not him, receiving a seat on the plane that crashed in Clear Lake, Iowa — a tragedy forever known as “the Day the Music Died”.
At the time, Allsup was on tour with Buddy Holly, who was also aboard the plane, after meeting during a recording session just a year prior. J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson also died in the accident after Waylon Jennings gave up his seat.
“[Valens] asked me four or five times could he fly in my place,” Allsup recalled that tragic night. “For some reason, I pulled a half dollar out of my pocket and flipped it. He said ‘heads’ and it came up heads. 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.'”
Austin Allsup told the Associated Press that his father, up until the day he died, considered the coin toss “a blessing,” adding, “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.”
Below, watch a video in which Allsup recounts that life-changing night.