Singer-songwriter Don McLean has famously labeled the crash of an airplane named "American Pie" the "day the music died," but thanks to a lucky coin toss, guitarist Tommy Allsup lived until age 85. Allsup, a member of Buddy Holly's band, flipped a coin with Ritchie Valens for the last seat in Holly's charter plane late on Feb. 2, 1959, after a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, and Valens won. The plane crashed shortly after midnight on Feb. 3 in a cornfield, killing Holly, Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and the pilot. Allsup lived another half-century, but died Wednesday at a hospital in Springfield, Missouri, of complications from a hernia operation, according to his son, Austin.
Allsup — an Oklahoma native who went on to a career as a successful session guitarist and record producer for artists like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, the Ventures, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, and Roy Orbison — called losing that coin toss "a blessing," Austin Allsup told The Associated Press on Thursday. "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." Valens' sister offered him her condolences upon hearing the news, Allsup said, and "I told her in my message back, now my dad and Ritchie can finally finish the tour they started 58 years ago."
Tommy Allsup returned to the Surf Ballroom in 2007 and recounted the story of that fateful night:
The coin toss that saved Allsup's life was fictionalized in the 1987 movie La Bamba, with Stephen F. Schmidt playing Allsup, Lou Diamond Phillips playing Valens, and Marshall Crenshaw as Buddy Holly. You can watch it below, with a fan-fiction ending. Peter Weber