CLEAR LAKE – A conflict over different versions of one of the most enduring stories to emerge following the death of rock ‘n roll legend Buddy Holly is reaching a boiling point this weekend in Clear Lake.
For years Guitarist Tommy Allsup has told the story of flipping a coin with Ritchie Valens to determine who would fill the last spot in an airplane headed for Fargo, North Dakota.
Most rock ‘n roll fans know that Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Buddy Holly and pilot Roger Peterson died in a crash that happened moments after the Beechcraft Bonanza they were riding in left the Mason City Airport a short time after the show.
Allsup contends the coin flip happened following the performance at the Surf Ballroom during the Winter Dance Party Tour, which arrived in Clear Lake on February 2, 1959.
Allsup’s account of the coin toss is largely verified by Bob Hale, who as a young KRIB disc jockey, had been tapped to play the role of master of ceremonies for the show and witnessed the flip.
But another performer on the bill that night is raising the possibility that there was more than one coin flip, or at least another version of that infamous event.
Saturday’s Winter Dance Party Rockin & Roll Hall of Fame Luncheon in Clear Lake featured the screening of the Rock Hall archived film with Hall of Fame Inductee Dion and his Memories of the 1959 Winter Dance Party.
Attendees at the sold out event watched the 1 hour-long film. It features Dion reminiscing in 2009 about the formation of Dion and the Belmonts, his upbringing and the Winter Dance Party Tour.
It also contains some assertions that historians and his fellow performers dispute.
There is no disputing that the tour members suffered several hard-ships while on the road in January and February of 1959 in a tour that zigzagged across the upper Midwest.
The troupe found themselves on long rides in buses that either had little or no heat or were continuously breaking down.
It reached such a point of frustration that Holly attempted to charter a plane on a show date in Wisconsin the night before their appearance at the Surf.
He succeeded in finding a plane on the night of February 2.
In his film, Dion states that performer Frankie Sardo was on stage during the show when Holly called him, Richardson and (the other headlining performer) Valens into a dressing room.
He informed them he had chartered a plane to Fargo, but there was a problem, there were only 2 available seats, so only 2 of the 3 could go. He encouraged them to flip a coin to decide the issue.
“We flipped,” said Dion, “J.P. pulls heads, he says listen, heads you go, tails you ride in the golden chariot.”
“I pulled heads, Ritchie gets tails, when he (Holly) told me (it would cost) $36 to get on that plane to split the cost, it was like a magic number for me, my parents always argued about the $36 in rent in the Bronx in New York City,” said Dion.
“So I win the toss, one of the guys winning the toss, but the $36 was the deadly factor for me. I said Ritchie, he was so cold, sick and lonely looking. And he was alone, I had my home boys the Belmonts with me, I said Ritchie you take this, you go and he said’thanks.’ When we walked out that dressing room we knew who was going to be on that flight.”
But unless there was more than one coin flip, there are others who dispute Dion’s account.
In an interview in 2010 Frankie Sardo finds Dion’s version of events hard to believe. He points out that Holly was a Texan and would take of his fellow Texans first. That means he would have ensured that guitarist Tommy Allsup and Bass Player Waylon Jennings would have had first right of refusal on the possibility of a plane ride to escape another cold bus ride.
Waylon Jennings has offered a different version of events and if the coin flip had occurred as Dion claims there would be no reason for a well documented exchange that occurred between Holly and Jennings after Holly discovered that Jennings had given his seat up to Richardson, who was sick.
Holly is quoted as saying “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up.” Jennings responded, “Well, I hope your plane crashes.” It was an off the cuff joke among friends that would haunt Jennings for years.
Valens was also ill and Allsup said he had pestered him for his spot on the plane several times that evening. After losing the flip of the coin, Allsup said he walked back out to a waiting station wagon and told Holly that Valens would be making the trip. He also gave Holly his wallet so that he could pick up some mail for him at their next stop. That is why Allsup says his identification was found in the wreckage of the plane.
During his performance at the Surf on Friday evening, witnesses claim that Allsup challenged Dion to return to the Ballroom.
Days earlier he commented on Dion’s differing account about the coin flip.
“If his story was true, the devil must have got ahold me and put a very bad story in my head that I’ve suffered just about everyday of my life for 50 years and then he comes along 50 years later with a different story,” said Allsup.
“I know what I did, if he wants to stick to his story, let him stick to his story, if people want to believe it, let um believe it. But I’ve did 50 years of suffering over my story and how he got in my head I don’t know if I didn’t do it,” said Allsup.
Valens’ sister Connie Valens Lemos watched the screening and called Dion’s description of pilot Roger Peterson “heartbreaking.”
Dion described Peterson as a “troubled” person, “who had been let go from a number of places.”
Lemos said had met Peterson’s parents and was impressed and said if he was anything like them, then Dion’s characterization is unfair.
Dion contends that Peterson “got vertigo plain and simple.” He intimated it, Peterson’s skill and bad weather were major factors in the crash.
Plane owner Jerry Dwyer is on a quest to Peterson’s name. Dwyer said he personally trained Peterson, contends he was a careful pilot and had flown the Beechcraft to several places across the country.
Lemos is also offering her reaction to the dispute over the coin flip. “I like what Mike Huckabee (television host and former presidential candidate) said, ‘He says you know a lot of times, time blurs memories and maybe for Dion, somewhere in his memory he started thinking or remembering things and maybe that’s how he remembers it.’”
Maybe to him that is the truth,” said Lemos, “but I believe the truth is Tommy Allsup’s story.