You never had to wonder who created a stir when Tommy Allsup made his entrance to the Surf Ballroom.
Always wearing that big cowboy hat and flashing that unmistakable grin, Allsup never failed to draw a crowd of well-wishers.
And when he finally got on stage, guitar in hand, well, he had fans soaking up every precious word, every perfect chord – just as he had since he was a kid touring with Buddy Holly.
The music business – and certainly the Surf Ballroom – lost another star Wednesday when Allsup died at age 85.
MASON CITY | Tommy Allsup, guitarist and rock 'n' roll pioneer, has died.
Allsup, in recent years, had been a regular performer at every Winter Dance Party, that three-day event held annually as a tribute to the music and era of Holly, Latino sensation Ritchie Valens, disc jockey and recording artist J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and countless others.
Holly, Valens, Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson were killed in a plane crash shortly after they performed the stormy night of Feb. 2, 1959. And every year, the Surf sells out its Winter Dance Party held to honor them and, of course, those countless others.
Allsup might have been on that plane – chartered by Holly to get to their next tour stop rather than endure another long ride on their cold bus -- had he not lost a coin flip with Valens for a seat.
“It saved my life,” he would later tell music historian Bill Griggs.
The crash, of course, was the subject of Don McLean’s haunting song, “American Pie.”
But Allsup, those from his era and, thankfully, the Surf Ballroom would have nothing of music dying.
CLEAR LAKE — Another chapter in rock ’n’ roll history was composed Saturday night at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.
Continuing his career that started professionally in 1949, he moved to California after the crash and joined Liberty Records, where he was associated in one form or another with country swing legend Bob Wills and other greats such as Tex Williams, Willie Nelson and others – including Bobby Vee, who took over for Holly on the Winter Dance Party Tour and also was a big hit at the Surf Ballroom on numerous occasions. In all, according to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Allsup – along with everything else he’d done in the music business – managed to play guitar or bass on more than 6,500 recording sessions.
Yet he never sought the spotlight.
“I never really wanted to be a big star,” he told the Rockabilly Hall. “I figured I’d leave that to someone else.”
Well, Tommy, our tall, talented friend, you will always be a big star at the Surf Ballroom, where legions of your fans will reunite again this Feb. 2-4.
He will be missed dearly, as will Bobby Vee. A tribute had been planned for Bobby, and we know that Tommy will be remembered, too.
And many of the best memories will be shared among his many fans who shook his hand, got his autograph, posed for pictures and watched, listened and adored his music just like they did when they were kids – with Tommy flashing the genuine smile all the time.
Thanks, Tommy, for keeping the kid in all of us who love your music.