LifeNotes: Guitarist/Producer Tommy Allsup Passes

Tommy Allsup

Famed guitarist, record producer and former Nashville session musician Tommy Allsup has died at age 85.

Allsup is known for his work with such artists as Buddy Holly, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Moon Mullican and Asleep at the Wheel. He was also a recording artist.

He first achieved prominence as a 1952 member of the western-swing band led by Johnnie Lee Wills in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The bandleader was Bob’s brother and had a big hit in 1950 with “Rag Mop.”

Allsup was playing in a group called The Southernaires based in Lawton, Oklahoma when he was summoned to Clovis, New Mexico to play on some recording sessions in 1958. Among the tunes Allsup played on were “It’s So Easy,” “Love’s Made a Fool of You” and “Heartbeat” by Buddy Holly.

Allsup relocated to Odessa, Texas to open a dancehall called The Silver Saddle. His band there was headed by Moon Mullican, the hillbilly-boogie piano stylist famed for such hits as “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” “Sweeter Than the Flowers,” “Cherokee Boogie” and “New Jole Blon.”
Holly came to hear the band on New Year’s Eve. He asked Allsup to accompany him on an upcoming 1959 tour called The Winter Dance Party. Holly had already hired Waylon Jennings to play bass. Allsup recruited drummer Carl Bunch.

At a tour stop in Clear Lake, Iowa, Jennings gave his seat on Holly’s chartered plane to The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), who was ill. Allsup lost a coin toss to Ritchie Valens for the last seat on the aircraft. On Feb. 3, 1959, the plane crashed, killing all aboard. This event became known as “The Day the Music Died.”

Later in 1959, Tommy Allsup relocated to Los Angeles. He became a session musician and a record producer. Among the hits he played on was 1965’s “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis & The Playboys, as well as several instrumentals by The Ventures.

Allsup became the A&R director for country music at Liberty Records. In this role, he became the producer for the label’s Tex Williams, Willie Nelson, Warren Smith, Billy Mize and Bob Wills.

He produced the 1963 Willie Nelson LP Here’s Willie Nelson. Among the Wills albums he produced was 1960’s Together Again, which reunited the western-swing legend with his Texas Playboys vocalist Tommy Duncan.

Returning to Odessa, Allsup opened his own recording studio. Among the hits recorded there was 1969’s “In the Year 2525” by Zager & Evans.

Allsup next relocated to Nashville. In the 1970s, he played on records by George Jones, Marty Robbins, Reba McEntire, Ferlin Husky, Faron Young, Wanda Jackson, Lynn Anderson, Charlie Rich, Kenny Rogers and other country stars. He produced five albums for Asleep at the Wheel and was the head of the Metromedia Records label.

In 1973, Allsup played bass and produced the final album by Bob Wills, For the Last Time. Following the death of Wills, Allsup and vocalist Leon Rausch fronted The Original Texas Playboys. They kept the Wills western-swing legacy alive for several decades.

Tommy Allsup was also a recording artist. In Music City, he led the recording bands The Nashville Surveys and The Tennessee Saxes. His albums included Twistin’ the Country Classics (1962), Tommy Allsup Plays the Buddy Holly Songbook (1965), The Hits of Charley Pride (1969), Tommy Allsup & The Tennessee Saxes Play the Hits of Tammy Wynette (1971), Country Guitars (1994), Tommy Allsup’s Gospel Guitar (2000), True Love Ways (2001) and Precious Guitar (with Billy Grammer, 2010).

Allsup is a member of the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. His son, Austin Allsup, competed on the 2016 edition of the hit TV program The Voice.

Tommy Allsup passed away in Lubbock, Texas on Wednesday, Jan. 11. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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