CLEAR LAKE – What began as a call out on stage during the Winter Dance Party event at the Surf Ballroom in February has turned into a formal challenge from one performer to another over what is probably the most famous coin flip in rock ‘n roll history.
During his performance on the night of Friday February 4th, guitarist Tommy Allsup did not conceal his contempt for Dion DiMucci (both men were performers on the Winter Dance Party Tour and appeared at the Surf in Clear Lake, Iowa in the hours before a fateful plane crash took the lives of Buddy Holly, J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson, Ritchie Valens and pilot Roger Peterson).
At one point during his set Allsup said, “You’ll try to figure out who it is, I’ll give you a clue. He had a group called the Belmonts. I’m gonna kill him if I see him, if I ever get him from behind his computer and get his butt out here to Clear Lake. Shane said I’ll put a boxing ring out here and I’ll spot him 10-years and I’ll whoop his ass right here on stage… you ‘all think I’m kidding don’t you?” Allsup asked as audience members hooted, “well I’m not.”
“If you saw (Mike) Huckabee on television a couple of months ago, you saw him (DiMucci) on there, and he’s brain dead, he can’t even talk straight you know, telling about the Winter Dance Party. This all started about 2-years ago, I don’t like it, I’m going to let him know about it, because he says a guitar player down in Texas says he flipped a coin with Ritchie Valens, he said, but I did it. You know what he said, we used to get under the blanket with Buddy on the bus; we didn’t have any blankets on the bus. We didn’t have any blankets on the bus to get under; we froze our rears off every night you know. “
Allsup ended his comments on the subject by saying, “I challenge him (DiMucci) to come out here and we’ll get right up here on stage and talk about it and when he calls me a liar…hell (he then held up a clenched right fist) the old man’s gonna get him right here.”
Within the past week Allsup also threw a punch in the form of a written challenge to DiMucci.
In a blistering open letter posted on his Facebook page Allsup invites the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member to “end all your lies about flipping the coin with Ritchie Valens, and to end all your vicious character assassination of all the parties involved, people you NEVER knew to begin with. I officially challenge you to meet me in Clear Lake, Iowa and submit to a polygraph test…NOW. If you are telling the “truth” as you profess, you should be a man and step up to the challenge. “
The dispute over the story of a fateful coin flip during the night of Holly’s final show gained more momentum following the Winter Dance Party Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Luncheon in Clear Lake.
It was held the day after Allsup issued his challenge to DiMucci from the Surf’s stage.
Attendees of the sold out event watched a film produced by the Rock Hall with DiMucci talking about his Memories of the 1959 Winter Dance Party.
The one-hour long video features DiMucci reminiscing in 2009 about the formation of Dion and the Belmonts, his upbringing and the now infamous tour.
It concludes with DiMucci saying, “wherever you are Buddy, wherever you are Ritchie and J.P., I hope to do you proud, I still love ya.”
But some fellow performers, family members and historians contend that DiMucci fell far short of his lofty goal.
There is no disputing that the musicians suffered several hard-ships while on the road in January and February, with a tour schedule 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, DiMucci claims 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 DiMucci, “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 DiMucci.
“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 homeboys 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 were there that night who dispute DiMucci’s account.
In an interview in 2010 Frankie Sardo found DiMucci’s version of events hard to believe. He points out that Holly was a Texan and would take care of his friends and 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 trip.
Waylon Jennings has offered a different version of events that night as well and said he gave his seat up to Richardson. Also, if the coin flip had occurred as DiMucci 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 with the flu.
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 afterward.
Allsup said that Valens had pestered him for his spot on the plane several times that evening. After losing the flip of the coin, which was witnessed by Master of Ceremonies Bob Hale, 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 how Allsup explains the fact his identification was found with the wreckage of the plane.
In an interview during the Winter Dance Party week in early February Allsup commented on DiMucci’s different 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 done 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 also questions DiMucci’s recollection. She met him for the first time in New York City, in 2001 when Ritchie was inducted into the Rock Hall.
She recalls sitting for an hour with DiMucci as “he poured out his heart as he spoke of the tour, the guys, the camaraderie, the cold. He also spoke of how he and Ritchie became good friends sitting next to each other for much of the tour.”
But Valens-Lemos said, “he never once mentioned that he flipped the coin with Ritchie, don’t you think that would have been worth mentioning to his sister, pretty important piece of information. I believe he didn’t mention it because he never flipped the coin with my brother.”
She was among the crowd who watched the film during the luncheon and took even greater offense at DiMucci’s assertions about pilot Roger Peterson, 21, of Clear Lake.
DiMucci said “later on it was found that Roger Peterson was kind of a troubled, he got let go from a lot of places, he was kind of a troubled, you know and that Jerry Dwyer the owner of that flying service took him on and he wanted to give the kid a break.”
When asked for a response, Barbara Dwyer said she and her husband “don’t agree at all with Dion’s characterizations of Roger Peterson.”
“To hear Dion speak so freely about something he has no knowledge of, he spoke with the confidence of an expert,” said Valens-Lemos. “Anyone can go online and read another persons thoughts or ideas it doesn’t make it the truth and then to use it in the manner he did, was irresponsible and libelous. I felt as if I had just heard about the accident all over again. And it broke my heart to think about Roger’s family and how it would affect them.”
DiMucci claims that Peterson “got vertigo plain and simple.”
The Civil Aeronautics Board aircraft accident report does not indicate that investigators came to that conclusion. But it confirms DiMucci’s claim that Peterson was not certified to fly by instruments. The CAB concluded that contributing factors to the crash included “serious deficiencies in the weather briefing, and the pilot’s unfamiliarity with the instrument that determines the attitude of the aircraft.
Jerry Dwyer is writing a book in an attempt to explain what went wrong and to clear Peterson’s name. Dwyer contends he was a careful pilot, had flown the Beechcraft Bonanza to several places across the country and was very familiar with it.
Allsup concluded his online salvo directed at DiMucci with even more pointed words, “PROVE you’re telling the truth! By NOT accepting this challenge, the whole world will finally see you for the liar and devious “person” you are.”
“The least you could do is sit down with a polygraph and prove the things you are saying are true. I’m willing to do it. Is the “King of the New York Streets” a cowardly liar or a real man who will accept this challenge?”
During a phone conversation DiMucci declined to respond to Allsup’s challenge directly, instead he opted to answer with a statement he placed on his Facebook page:
“I have never gained so much as one dime of profit as a result of the tragedy on February 3, 1959 when I lost three friends that died in a terrible plane crash. Furthermore, I will never do anything to experience any monetary gain related to that unfortunate event. So there is just no earthly reason for me to distort the truth about what happened in the dressing room I had the meeting with my friends leading up to the flight. I was there in the meeting…those that dispute my recollection were not there. That being said, all of the people that want to dispute the recollection I have shared about the event seem to be seeking monetary gain in some way from the tragedy. So they name call. I guess sometimes the “business” side of “show business” generates disappointing results.”
Valens-Lemos said she “will be surprised if he (DiMucci) responds to Tommy’s challenge. I also believe most of the fans already know the truth. It’s just important to us that no one is allowed to change rock ‘n roll history.”
DiMucci confirmed that he and the Surf’s management are currently discussing the possibility that he may return to the venue for a performance. DiMucci has not been back to Clear Lake since the 1959 Winter Dance Party.