His signature riffs and arrangements continue to
be part of the soundtrack of life for several
generations of music lovers, from Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy” to the Everly
Brothers “Lucille,” Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” Kenny Rogers’
“Gambler,” Asleep at the Wheel’s "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read," and so
He traveled with Johnnie Lee Wills as a teenager and was part of the final
recording session Bob Wills did with his Texas Playboys. His name was etched
forever in rock and roll history on “The Day the Music Died” after a fateful coin
toss spared him from flying with Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens in
the plane that crashed into a lonely Iowa cornfield. His prominence in the music
industry continued afterward as A & R Director for Liberty Records country
division in Los Angeles, then in a similar position with Metromedia Records in
His prestige grew to the point that a few years back, Samick Guitars issued a
limited edition Tommy Allsup model, a beautiful full-sized arch-top with gold-
plated hardware. Only 500 were custom created, and each is considered a classic
Yet today, nearly 60 years after he started his music career, it would be easy to
walk past Tommy Allsup in the hardware or garden supply store near his home in
Azle, Texas, never knowing of his fame. He would be more comfortable talking
about getting his garden ready for planting. He certainly would never tell you
about the amazing 10,000 recording sessions with the likes of Willie Nelson,
Eddie Cochran, Walter Brennan, Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette, Julie London,
Vickie Carr, George Jones, Mickey Gilley, Hank Thompson, Lorrie Morgan and
Asleep at the Wheel—not unless you asked.
And during a memorable interview with the legendary guitarist, songwriter and
arranger, he candidly talked about the early years, the coin toss, the thousands
of historic recording sessions, and what continues to excite him today.
THE EARLY YEARS
DH: Let’s go back to your early years. When did you first begin to understand that you
might want to play guitar and be involved in music the rest of your life?
TA: I was raised on a farm in the Tulsa area. My Dad was an old-time break-down fiddle
player who played lots of square dances. World War II was going on, and I was just a kid,
but I remember that he played a lot of dances and parties, especially during the summer
time. Seventy or eighty people might show up from all around the countryside. The people
would pass the hat around. By the end of the night, there would usually be a pretty good
little kitty in the hat. The guys in the band could make more in one night playing than they
could make working two weeks in the fields. Plus, it was obviously a lot easier. As I hit my
early teens, I started playing with them some. When I saw that you could actually make
pretty good money doing it, I really got busy practicing and serious about making music.
DH: When did you start playing with the Swingbillies?
TA: In 1943 we moved off the farm in the Tulsa area to Claremore, thirty miles or so up
Route 66. During my junior and senior years at Claremore High School, I started playing
with a group of guys called the Oklahoma Swingbillies. We played the American Legion
every Saturday night there. We’d have pretty big crowds. We’d split the money up and did
good. Then a year later, I met a young steel guitar player named Bill Roy, and so we
decided to start our own band. We bought an old bus from Leon McAuliffe.
DH: The Leon McAuliffe?
TA: Yeah. He was playing all around that area.
DH: So you were hanging around with the likes of unquestionably one of the most famous
steel guitarists in the world and still in high school?
TA: By that time I was a senior.
DH: Did you do a lot of the usual high school activities such as sports, or were you totally
dedicated to music by then?
TA: I played football my freshman year, but then the music became a lot more important.
DH: Did it have something to do with getting all the girls without having to get crushed and
pounded by all those tough Oklahoma high school guys?
TA: Right! (laughs) Plus, I could get a few bucks in my pocket without all the bruises and
broken bones! I figured it was a pretty good deal.
DH: So you focused more and more on the music. Were you pleased with the results?
TA: We were playing two or three nights a week
all around that area and had good crowds. And
as soon as I got out of high school, I went on the
road with a guy named Art Davis, then came
back to Tulsa to work with Johnnie Lee Wills,
and I’ve been playing ever since then.
DH: Johnnie Lee Wills, as in Bob’s brother?
As in one of the six original Texas Playboys?
TA: That’s him. By that time this time, Bob had
moved to California, so Johnnie Lee had taken
over the band and the live broadcast on KVOO,
replaced his banjo with his fiddle, and renamed the band "Johnnie Lee Wills & All The
DH: So you were one of “All the Boys”? That had to be amazing for a DH: Who else besides your Dad and Bob Wills? Were you influenced by the sounds
kid just out of high school to be playing with one of the best known
bands of that era.
TA: Yeah. It was pretty exciting.
DH: You’ve already mentioned your Dad and his group. Who were
some other influences?
TA: Bob Wills all the way! As Waylon Jennings wrote many years later,
“Bob Wills Is Still the King.” It was sure true back then.
coming out of WSM in Nashville or more the people around you in Oklahoma and Texas?
TA: Mostly Bob Wills and the Oklahoma swing music. There wasn’t a lot of country music
around there at the time. If you didn’t play Bob Wills’ music, you didn’t work. People wanted
to come to the dances to dance, so you had better play “Ida Red” and “Take Me Back to
Tulsa” for them to dance to or you were fixing to have a problem.
MAKING ROCK AND ROLL HISTORY
DH: A whole new chapter unfolded for you during the mid- to late-Fifties. How did you get
involved in Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico? And is that how you got hooked
up with Buddy Holly?
TA: During a lot of the Fifties I had a band named the Southernaires based out of Lawton,
Oklahoma. We were working at a place called the Southern Club. We played there seven
nights a week. It was there that I got a call from a friend of mine, a piano player, to come
out to Clovis and record with a trio he was working with. I took off a couple of days from the
club and went over to Clovis to help out. We recorded the trio one night. Norman Petty, the
studio owner, had a bass player, a drummer and a background vocal group on staff there.
He didn’t have a guitar player right then, so he asked me if I wanted to stay around a few
days and play on some more records. I said, “Sure.” It was during that time that I first met
DH: Norman’s studio was becoming
quite a hot place to record…
TA: It really was. He had sessions
going on every day and night. Buddy
came in from England. He and the
Crickets already had a few hits by
then. He asked me to play on some
of his records. The first night we cut
“It’s So Easy (to Fall in Love).”
DH: Wow! That’s quite a start—only
one of the most influential songs in
rock and roll history!
TA: It turned out pretty well didn’t it?
DH: You might say so! Plus, the unforgettable guitar licks were yours, right?
DH: Saying that it turned out “pretty well” might be an understatement.
TA: All I know is that Buddy, the Crickets, and I got along pretty good. Norman saw that
and it led to doing more songs.
DH: There were a lot of changes starting to happen with Buddy and the Crickets then,
TA: The summer of `58 both Buddy and Jerry Allison got married. That fall they had a tour
coming up called “The Show of Stars” out of New York. There were probably twenty acts on
it. Buddy asked me to go on tour with them. That was also the time that he decided that he
wanted to move to New York, but the Crickets didn’t want to live there. He was also having
some trouble with Norm Petty at the time, so in the end he went ahead and moved and the
other guys all stayed in Clovis.
DH: What happened to you after the fall tour with Buddy and the Crickets?
TA: I went back to the band from Lawton, and we moved to Odessa. That area was starting
to boom with the oil business and all, so we went there to open up a new dance hall named
the Silver Saddle. I played there with a guy named Moon Mullican (the hillbilly boogie piano
picker out of Nashville who ended up being so influential over guys like Hank Williams,
Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley). We were there in Odessa on New Years’ Eve. Buddy
was in Lubbock for the holidays, and he drove down to see us play. He told me that about
this tour called the Winter Dance Party Tour that was coming up, and that Jerry Allison and
Joe B. Mauldin weren’t going to go. He asked me tour with him and mentioned that he was
going to hire a West Texas kid named Waylon Jennings to play bass. He wanted me to find
a drummer. I mentioned that there was a good drummer from that area named Charles
Bunch. Charles, or Carl, as everyone calls him, was in that first trio I played in the session
at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis.
DH: As the new group came together and practiced, did any of you have any idea how
historic those times were?
TA: Buddy was already having huge hits, of course, but I don’t know if any of us really
thought of it that way. I did know that things were really starting to happen. On the fall tour
that had just finished, he stole the show, even though there were a lot of other major stars
playing on the same bill. So I knew that Buddy was cutting a pretty wide swath, but right in
the middle of it, I’m not sure we really knew how big it was becoming.
THE FATEFUL WINTER DANCE PARTY TOUR
DH: So Waylon, Carl, and you started rehearsing with Buddy?
TA: Yeah, we went to New York to get ready. Then we went to Chicago for more
rehearsals, and while we were there we found out that we had to back the other acts on
the bill. Something happened to the band, and they only had a few horn players ready for
the tour. That’s why Waylon, Carl, and I ended up playing for the other acts.
DH: By the way, you mentioned that Carl Bunch’s given name was Charles. Why did Buddy
and the rest of you call him “Goose,” or is that a story we shouldn’t know about?
TA: (laughs) No, it wasn’t a bad story. One day Carl left a bag of something, and
somebody had to bring it to him. Buddy was just joking around, good-naturedly, and said,
“Carl, you’re like a goose. You wake up in a different world every morning.” It really didn’t
make a lot of sense, but then Buddy said, “Hey, that’s a good nickname for you.” That’s
what we called him after that. Goose was just a kid, seventeen, so we kept an eye out for
him. He had been traveling for several years already, but this was the biggest thing he had
ever done—the biggest thing any of us had ever done, for that matter.
DH: So much has been written about Buddy
Holly, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and
Richie Valens, especially since they are etched
in rock and roll music history together because
of what happened. You got to see them up-
close and personal. What were they like?
TA: They got along well—three very different
personalities. The Bopper was a very outgoing
guy. He had been in the army and had worked
as a DJ for several years down around his
hometown of Beaumont, Texas. So he seemed
to be pretty grounded and clued-in on what
was happening. Buddy was Buddy. Very likable.
Very confident. He was more reserved off
stage than people would think. He was truly a
creative genius, not just as a songwriter or
performer, but in the way he approached
making records and doing the music business.
Richie was still a kid. He was real high energy
on the stage, but the rest of the time he was
pretty reserved, kind of like Buddy. Richie
asked a lot of questions about touring and
performing. He was just naturally curious, I
suppose, but you could tell that he really had his heart set on a big career in showbiz.
They had three different personalities, as did Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo and
the other guys on the tour, but we all got along well on the road.
DH: And, of course, they will be linked together forever by what happened. The Winter
Dance Party tour was memorable in so many ways. Both Waylon and Carl have talked
about how you were playing to packed houses, yet you were having to deal with horrible
buses and Carl’s frostbitten feet and all…
TA: Yeah, the heaters on the busses kept breaking down. It was freezing all the time. Carl
landed in the hospital in Iron Horse, Wisconsin. Carl missed a couple of nights before he
caught up with us. We flip-flopped around. Buddy played a little drums behind Richie, and
Richie played behind Buddy. One of the Belmonts also played drums some.
DH: Then came “The Day the Music Died.” What happened is well-known, of course. How
did you possibly make it through that time?
TA: It was kinda like being in a blue haze. The promoter flew Jimmy Clanton in the next day
to help out. He already had a gold record with “Just a Dream” by then. But the show at
Moorhead, Minnesota, was just Waylon, me, the Belmonts and Frankie Sardo. Carl Bunch
was still in the hospital, but he joined us fairly soon after that.
DH: The story about the coin flip to determine the last seat on the plane with Buddy and
the Bopper has become a rock and roll legend…and somewhat of a mystery. Since you
were there, let’s set the record straight, once and for all.
TA: It has been pretty wild—all the different stories. I remember one time this DJ walked up
to me and said he would give me the famous quarter that Richie flipped for the last seat. I
told him, “Well, first of all, it wasn’t a quarter. It was a fifty-cent piece. Second, Richie didn’t
flip it. I did. And there wasn’t anyone else besides Richie and me except a couple of fans
getting his autograph.”
THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED
DH: So, what actually happened that fateful night and afterward?
TA: Buddy decided to charter a plane for himself, Waylon and me. It was a four-seater
Beechcraft Bonanza plane. Carl was still in the hospital in Iron Horse. We were all tired and
wanted to get to the next town in time to get some sleep, do some laundry, and I had a
letter coming to General Delivery in Fargo from my Mom that I wanted to pick up at the post
office. The Bopper had the flu, so he talked Waylon into giving up his seat.
DH: There are so many versions of what happened between you and Richie, as well as the
famous coin toss. I understand that the La Bamba movie really got it wrong.
TA: After the dance was over that night, I came back inside to
make sure we had everything loaded. Richie was standing in
the doorway into the ballroom. I had seen him a lot that night
because he had played drums for the Bopper, then he
played drums for Buddy, and Buddy played drums behind
Richie that night. Several times Richie tried to talk me into
letting him have my seat on the airplane. He was coming
down with a cold or something and not feeling well, but I kept
telling him that I really needed to go on the plane. When I went
back in to look around before we took off, Richie said, “Come on,
guy, let me fly.” I don’t know why to this day why I suddenly pulled out the half-dollar,
flipped it and said, “Call it.” Just like that he said, “Heads!” Sure enough, it was heads. So I
went back out to the car where Buddy and the Bopper were waiting and told Buddy, “Hey
man, Ritchie's flying in my place, I'm not going.” That’s the way it went down.
DH: What made you finally give in and flip the coin?
TA: I have no idea. I’ve thought about it. I don’t have an answer. Just an impulse, I guess.
DH: What happened to the half-dollar that you flipped?
TA: My wife at the time, now my ex-wife, had a belt made and had the fifty-cent piece put
into the buckle that was shaped like a horse shoe. A guy designed it and put that coin in it.
She’s still got it locked up in a safe-deposit box.
DH: Why do you think they got it so wrong in the movie La Bamba?
TA: When I signed a release for the movie people to use my name, they sent a copy of the
screenplay, and it was written exactly like I just said. When the movie came out, though,
they had Buddy flipping the coin at the airport hangar.
DH: Any idea why?
TA: Maybe they needed more of Buddy’s character in the movie or something. All I know is
that it wasn’t like the script I signed off on.
DH: In La Bamba, they also made a lot out of Richie’s fear of flying and fear of airplane
crashes. Do you remember it that way?
TA: Not at all. I know he wanted to be on that plane, for sure. He asked me at least six
times. Certainly nobody thought of it crashing, but he was up for it. I didn’t see any fear.
DH: Tell the part about your ID that caused so much mystery and controversy.
TA: When I went back out to the car to tell Buddy and the Bopper that Richie was going in
my place, I remembered that my Mom had sent a letter with some papers I needed to sign,
so I asked Buddy to go by the Fargo post office when he got there and pick up the letter.
Buddy said he would need my ID to do it. I pulled out my wallet and was fishing around for
my license, and Buddy said, “Just give me your wallet.” I didn’t think anything about it and
handed it over to him. Of course, when the plane went down, I was identified as one of the
people on the plane because my wallet was found on the site.
DH: How did you get the news about the crash?
TA: We didn’t find out until about 11 the next morning. We
got to Fargo, North Dakota, to check into a hotel. I walked
in with the road manager, went up to the desk clerk and
said, “Put me in the room next to Buddy Holly.” The clerk
looked at me strange and asked, “Why, haven’t you
heard? Those guys all got killed in a plane crash this
morning!” Even as we were talking, there was footage
about Buddy, the Bopper and Richie running on the
television in the hotel lobby, but I just figured that it was
some sort of advertisement for the dance. When I heard
what the desk clerk said, I realized that the television
newsman was talking about the crash.
DH: One can only imagine how devastated you must have
felt. However, that wasn’t your first concern, was it?
TA: Right. It was already being reported that I had died in the crash, as well, because they
found my billfold and ID with the bodies and wreckage. So I ran up to my room, got on the
phone and called my Mom in Oklahoma. This was two and a half hours or so after the news
went out. I asked her if she had seen or heard any of the news. Thankfully she hadn’t had
a radio or television on. Even as we were speaking on the phone, one of her neighbors
was frantically trying to call her to tell her the news about the crash and me being killed.
Anyway, I told her about what I knew. After I got off the phone, the neighbor lady finally got
through to tell her what she had heard on the Tulsa TV station and that I was one of the
people who died in the crash. The authorities in Iowa had found five IDs and had listed all
five names as dead.
DH: How relieved your mother must have been to say that she had just talked to you.
TA: Yeah. She told the neighbor what I had told her.
DH: I understand that you didn’t talk much about the crash for years.
TA: It was tragic, that’s for sure. 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.
NO TIME FOR GRIEVING
DH: Jimmy Clanton and Carl Bunch have both described in other MyBestYears.com
INTERVIEW SPOTLIGHTS what it was like after the plane crash. One can only imagine how
surreal that time was as you had to finish out the tour—no time to grieve for the death of
your three close friends. What was it like for you?
TA: It was pretty strange. Buddy’s guitar was still in the bus. Some of their clothes were still
there. The Bopper’s sleeping bag was there—a guy from Nashville who produced
“Chantilly Lace” ended up with that. We carried that stuff around during the rest of the tour.
DH: Some of the guys on the tour were pretty young—Carl, Jimmy and Bobby Vee. Dion
and the Belmonts were pretty young…Frankie Sardo, too. How old were you?
TA: I was 26 at the time. I think you had to be 21 at the time to go into a bar and drink, and
I remember it was pretty much only Waylon and me that were able to slip out and find a bar
to drink a couple of beers after the shows. I think all the rest of the guys were too young,
so it was pretty tough on all of us. Maybe being a little older helped me get through it.
DH: How did you possibly deal with the grief as it all came crashing around you, yet you
had to keep playing to packed houses every night for the rest of the tour?
TA: For me, playing and traveling was good. It kept me from thinking about it so much at
the time. It was a lot of pressure to keep going. A lot of the people came to the shows to
grieve with us, I guess. A lot probably came out of curiosity to see how we were handling
things. It was pretty emotional for everyone.
DH: How did you deal with the fact that you had escaped death in such a dramatic way?
TA: At the moment, I didn’t want to think about it much. It probably didn’t really soak in at
that time. Down the road, maybe four or five days later, Waylon and I started talking about
it, and one of us said, “What are we doing here?” Neither of us could come up with a good
answer. We just made a decision to keep going.
DH: In addition to Jimmy Clanton, there were several other artists who joined the tour after
the crash, right?
TA: Frankie Avalon came, but then he had to leave after a couple of days, then Fabian
came in for a few days. We had a couple more weeks of tour that we had to do, so we
decided to go ahead and finish it up. Carl joined us again a couple of nights later.
DH: Is that when you met Bobby Vee?
TA: He was at Moorhead the night of the plane crash. That’s where I first met him, then I
ended up being on all of his records on Liberty.
DH: Back to the shows…the main three stars were all gone. What was it like to go out and
perform, knowing that the fans were there because they wanted to hang onto everything
that Buddy, the Bopper and Richie had meant to them?
TA: We brought in Ronnie Smith to do some of the vocals. He had been in the trio with Carl
Bunch. And Waylon started doing Buddy’s stuff. He did it great. He kept saying, “Aw,
they’re just here because they’re curious.” I told him, “Naw, man, they’re diggin’ what you’re
doing. You’re gonna be a star one of these days on your own.” He just laughed. The truth
was, the fans who came to the shows were really liking Waylon and what all the rest of the
acts were doing. Maybe all that had happened forced us to step it up a little more. It all
seemed to work out. Yes, maybe there was some sympathy, but the people who came were
knocked out, I think.
THE LAST SHOW AND BEYOND
DH: Can you describe your emotions as you got to the last show of the tour?
TA: Our last show was in Springfield, Illinois. It was sad, of course, but Waylon, Carl,
Ronnie and I headed immediately for New York. We had been promised all of the money
from the tour that Buddy and us had coming. That’s one way they kept us on the tour by
promising the money.
DH: Did you get paid?
TA: Naw. All we got was reimbursed for the train tickets back to New York. We had a
meeting there with Norman Petty, Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin. They wanted me to stay
and play guitar on some sessions they were doing as the Crickets. Sonny, Carl, Ronnie,
and Waylon headed back to Lubbock in Jerry’s car. Coral kept releasing more of Buddy’s
records. In the end, we all went different directions. I came back to Texas. J.I. (Jerry Allison)
ended up in California where he soon became one of the industry’s top session players
recording with Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Rivers, Waylon, Nanci
Griffith, Paul McCartney and many others. Joe B. (bassist Mauldin) ended up in California,
too, and eventually became a recording engineer at Gold Star Studios (the legendary Los
Angeles studio that became the hit factory for Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and other major
60s rock performers). Sonny Curtis who had played lead guitar on Buddy’s first Decca
sessions did a lot of work in Nashville and all over, and he has written some great songs.
Carl Bunch went into the Army, then ended up doing a lot of work in Nashville with guys like
Hank Williams Jr. and Roy Orbison.
DH: Wonder whatever happened to that guy named Waylon?
TA: (laughs) Yeah, he cut a few records, too. He was one of a kind. You could see it even
back in the early years.
DH: How long have you been involved in getting back together for the reunions of the
Winter Dance Party?
TA: I didn’t do anything with it until 2002. I had been back to the Surf Ballroom in 1994 for
the thirty-fifth anniversary. Since 2002, I’ve been going back every year since then.
DH: How did you meet John Mueller? (Read the INTERVIEW SPOTLIGHT featuring John)
TA: I met him in Lubbock. He played Buddy on the Broadway-type play. He went on the
road tour. We’ve played together. Johnny Rogers also does a great Buddy, too. He came
down here to see me, and we’ve played the Surf Ballroom.
DH: Going back to 1959. After the crash and the trip to New York City, you headed to
Texas for awhile, then you went to California, right? What made you head west instead of
Nashville or staying in the Big Apple?
TA: I got a call from Moon Mullican in the early part of 1960. He had heard from Jimmie
Davis, of “You Are My Sunshine” fame. Moon said, “Jimmie’s running for governor of
Louisiana again. You wanna go with me and campaign for him? If Jimmie gets elected, we’ll
have a pretty nice job for four years.” I wasn’t interested in that, so I headed to California
and worked in a club there on the south side of Los Angeles. Snuff Garrett came by one
night and asked, “You want to come by and play on a Buddy Knox session?” Snuff wasn’t
but about twenty years old then, but he had just taken over A&R for Liberty Records, and
he had signed Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette, Buddy Knox, Timi Yuro, and Gene McDaniels.
I started doing sessions and never looked back.
DH: You are obviously talking about rock and roll classics when you mention those artists.
You laid down some heavy tracks.
TA: We had a lot of fun. There was so much happening there. We did the Jan and Dean
tunes. I pretty much played on everything that came out from Liberty during those years,
plus a lot of tracks for other record companies. Eventually I joined Liberty Records as A&R
Director of all their Country and Western products and ended up producing people like Tex
Williams, Willie Nelson, Joe Carson, Warren Smith, and Billy Mize.
DH: You got to work with some
TA: It was fun being there with
the likes of people like Walter
Brennan, Julie London, Vickie
Carr and so many more.
DH: And it had to be especially
rewarding to work with your
childhood hero, Bob Wills.
TA: It was. I got to produce him
and the Texas Playboys quite a
bit. That lasted through Bob’s
final recorded album, For the
Last Time, in 1973.
DH: You recorded it in Dallas. Why there?
TA: It was where he did his first records back in 1935. We used some of the original Texas
Playboys on the last recording, including Leon McAulliff, Eldon Shamblin, Smokey Dacus
and Al Strickland. Bob directed the sessions from his wheel chair.
DH: When did you head for Nashville?
TA: In the mid-Sixties. I actually headed for Odessa and built a studio. I was there a couple
of years. One hit some people may remember that we cut there was “In the Year 2525” with
Zager and Evans. We put it out on our own label, then RCA picked it up. It ended up being
the biggest record of the year in 1969.
DH: Then in the late Sixties you hit Nashville, right?
TA: December of 1968. We stayed there until 1999 when we moved back to Texas.
DH: You went there to head up Metromedia Records, right? Is that when you worked with
Asleep at the Wheel?
TA: Yeah. I met Ray Benson, produced their first album for United Artist Records, then
ended up producing four more LPs for Capital Records.
DH: Wasn’t it about this time that you helped Ray Price to record the now-classic tune, “For
the Good Times”?
TA: I was actually looking for songs for Clay Hart, the first artist I recorded in Nashville.
Clay ended up on the Lawrence Welk Show, which kinda killed his country music career.
Anyway, Kris Kristofferson had written some tunes, so I went by Marjohn Wilkin’s Buckhorn
Music to pick up some acetate demos. Clay liked an uptempo song, but didn’t like the
slower one. At the same time Ray Price was cutting an album. I went by with another friend
to say hello. I had the acetate in my hand and gave it to Ray. I had known him since the
early Fifties in Oklahoma. I said, “You ought to do this song. It’s a hit.” He said, “Well, let’s
go listen to it.” They were on a five-minute break. We went up to an office and he played it.
Ray said, “Let’s cut this tomorrow.” The rest is history. It went on to be the biggest hit he
DH: Kris, the writer, and Marijohn, the publisher, were pretty happy the way it turned out.
What were some of the other artists with whom you worked in Nashville, songs that you’re
especially proud of.
TA: Kenny Rogers—songs like “The Gambler” and “Lucille.” Tammy Wynette and George
Jones—their duets. Charlie Rich—“Behind Closed Doors.” There was quite a few. Nashville
always seems to be filled with talented people. There’s always something going on.
DH: How about Ray Stevens?
TA: I only did one session with Ray, but
I used his studio a lot. He had a really
good studio there in Nashville.
DH: Gary S. Paxton?
TA: Lots of sessions with him.
TA: I never did work with him directly. I
did a ton of demo sessions with Ben
Wiseman, who ended up getting 87 songs cut by Presley. The closest I got to being on an
Elvis session was when we did the demo to “Little Sister,” and they stole my guitar lick.
DH: How about the Everly Brothers?
TA: I worked on all their sessions for Warner Brothers. They had some
big hits those years—“Cathy’s Clown,” “Ebony Eyes,” and “Lucille.”
DH: You’ve talked about growing up with Western Swing music. You’ve
stayed heavily involved with it through the years, in addition to
TA: I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve produced five albums with Hank
Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys, a couple of albums with the
Original Texas Playboys, and another couple with Leon Rausch, as well
as Swing projects with people like Willie Nelson, Mack Sanders, Johnny
Bush, and Billy Mize. And I’m still part of the Texas Playboys.
BACK TO TEXAS
DH: You were born in Oklahoma, traveled and lived in Texas, California and Tennessee,
yet now you’re living back in Texas after all the years elsewhere. How did that happen?
TA: My wife has a sister who lives in this area, and we decided to move here and live
closer to her family. It felt right to be back in the area where it all started. Plus, so much
changed in Nashville, and I really wanted to get back to this area. I wanted mainly to play
DH: It’s always been mostly about playing music, hasn’t it?
TA: I like all the parts of the music business. Session work is great. So is arranging and
producing. My favorite part has always been playing music live.
DH: What do you see as the major trends in the music biz today?
TA: There are a lot of really talented people out there. So many of the new kids coming up
learn by buying DVDs and sit there learning licks off of it. They learn to play mostly licks.
They aren’t really learning to play or feel the music. If you throw a new song at them, they
don’t know what to do. Still, there are a lot of really great pickers out there.
DH: Let’s talk about the Paul McCartney quote. He said that you were one of the finest
guitar players in the world. How does it feel, after all these years, to be looked up to in that
way, not just by Paul, but by all the people whose heart-strings you’ve touched with your
TA: It feels good. I really don’t think about the past as much as I’m always pretty excited
about the future. I’m glad I got to do all those things.
DH: Speaking of Paul McCartney. Back in the 1990s, you were invited to his annual “Buddy
Holly Birthday Bash” at the legendary Lonestar Roadhouse Café in New York. How did it
feel to be playing the old hits like “That’ll Be the Day” and “Oh Boy” with the former Beatle?
TA: It sure brought back a lot of memories, and it was pretty awesome to look over and see
Paul and some of the other people sitting in with the band.
DH: And yet, legend has it that the very next night you were back in Oklahoma playing Bob
Wills music at a dance with the Texas Playboys. How wild is that to bridge so much of your
own musical history in two nights?
TA: I remember that. We played at Pawhuska. It was pretty special to think about how
those two concerts did sort of tie a lot of things together.
ALWAYS THE MUSIC
DH: Everyone in the music business always seems pretty amazed at the variety of styles
that you have played through the years. What kind of music do you like best?
TA: Good music!
DH: That says it all, and during nearly 60 years, you’ve certainly performed a lot of
different music and influenced a lot of people. Another thing people in the biz talk about is
how you always have been able to stay so grounded and “down home”?
TA: I guess part of it is that I never really wanted to be a big star. I figured I'd leave that to
someone else. I’ve mainly just wanted to play and work with really good people.
DH: Tell us about your family.
TA: My wife’s name is Caren. She and I
have one son. I also have four children
from an earlier marriage, with four
grandchildren and five great-grandchildren
DH: Your son Austin is gaining a good
reputation as a performer.
TA: Yeah, he’s a great singer, songwriter
and picker. I’m real proud of him…proud of
all my family.
DH: Do you still write a lot of songs?
TA: Not as much as doing arrangements
for songs. I just finished a CD with Dan
Roberts. He writes a lot of stuff with Garth
Brooks and others, including a number one
hit, “The Beaches of Cheyenne,” that he wrote with Garth and Bryan Kennedy. He had
been working on a cowboy theme for the CD. Dan said, “Tommy, you know what a cowboy
TV is?” I told him I didn’t. He started talking about how they sat around at night and
watched a campfire and told stories, then he compared it to how today most people sit
around at night and watch television. We ended up taking that idea and writing a song,
“Cowboy TV.” He wrote the words and I wrote the music. He wanted it to sound old, so we
did something that sounded sort of like something that would have been in a Gene Autry
DH: So you still enjoy the give-and-take of the writing and arranging?
TA: I really do. I like going in, taking a song, putting an arrangement to it and seeing how it
all comes out. I never get tired of that. Don’t guess I ever will.
DH: You’ve still got the fire in your eyes and you voice sounds young when you talk about
it. Is that amazing to you after all these years?
TA: It’s still very rewarding to me. I guess
I’ll keep doing it until they shut the coffin.
DH: Speaking of which, what will they
put on your tombstone?
TA: It’s too far away to think about!
DH: That’s probably the best quote in
the entire interview.
TA: I stay excited about life.
DH: Do you often think about what could have happened to you that night back in 1959?
TA: I still think about it nearly sixty years later, and while I feel badly about what happened
to Buddy, the Bopper, Richie and the pilot Roger Peterson, I’m mighty thankful to still be
here. I don’t really dwell on it any more than I have to. I guess my philosophy just makes
me keep looking forward. I try to forget about yesterday, since I can’t do anything about
what’s already happened. I know I don’t have tomorrow, `cause it’s not here yet. Mostly, I
can only do something about today, so I try to live it to the fullest and do what I’m supposed
to. You can’t dwell on the past. You just have to keep moving on.
To those who know him best, Tommy Allsup is a man who lives by that philosophy.
He is a man at ease with himself and the legacy he has built. You can feel it when
he stands onstage, whether he is playing “It’s So Easy,” “Ida Red,” “The Gambler”
or “Drag City.” History literally flows from his hands into the hearts and memories
of each person in the crowd. The treasured connection between the fans and a
true legend is absolutely unmistakable, passionately felt and totally immeasurable.
What an amazing journey!
Best of all—for Tommy Allsup and all of his fans around the world—the journey is
far from over.
Paul McCartney calls him “one of the finest
guitarists in the world.” His legacy in the music
industry as both a live and session guitarist
draws comparisons to a handful of the most
innovative members of a rarified musical
ionosphere with the likes of Les Paul, Chet Atkins,
Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan,
Phil Keaggy, Duane Allman, Carlos Santana, Eddie
Van Halen and Robert Johnson. That’s standing in
some mighty tall cotton, as people used to say
where he grew up in Oklahoma!
|The Big Bopper,
and Buddy Holly...
forever etched in rock
and roll history together!
|Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and
Tommy Allsup...historic moment
onstage during the Winter Dance
|The Day the Music Died...
five IDs found on the
crash site, including
Tommy Allsup's in his
by the promoter to the
Winter Dance Party tour
|Original Texas Playboys' Leon Rausch (right) and
Tommy Allsup perform during the 2004 Bob Wills
Birthday Bash at Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom
(Photo by Kelly Kerr/Tulsa World)
|On tour...Buddy Holly and Tommy Allsup
|Special thanks to
of West Main
for coordinating the
Tommy Allsup interview
|All contents © 2008, 2015, 2016 by MyBestYears.com. No portion may be
used in print, for broadcast or on the Internet without prior permission.
and feature for
by bestselling author