He was a guitarist, bassist, producer and songwriter born in Owasso, Oklahoma, who started his career in music in 1949 when he became a member of the Oklahoma Swingbillies.
Moving into the 1950s he began playing the guitar in Miami, Oklahoma with the fiddler Art Davis and followed that by moving to Wichita, Kansas, and accompanying Jimmy Hall, also a fiddler.
In 1952 he went back home to Oklahoma and became a member of the Jonnie Lee Wills Band in Tulsa. The following year he started his own band which performed at the Southern Club in Lawton, Oklahoma, and were known as The Southernaires.
Everything changed for him in 1958 when he went to perform at a recording in Clovis, New Mexico and met up with Buddy Holly. Before long he was a member of Buddy Holly & The Crickets and became the first guitarist to play a solo one of their recordings. Sometime later on in 1959, when they were going to a location on their tour, there was a coin toss up between him and Richie Valens as to which one went on the fateful flight which took all the lives of the passengers. In 1979, many years after the tragic event, he opened the club Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon in Fort Worth, Texas, in memory of his narrow escape.
Needing to make an unwanted move following the loss of Buddy Holly, he moved to Liberty Records in California to take up the position of their country & western A&R Director and producer of Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys. He remained working with Bob Wills until 1973 when he recorded his final album For the Last Time. During his years at Liberty he also produced artists that included Joe Carson, Willie Nelson, Tex Williams and many others.
In 1968 he made the moved to Nashville to become the head of Metromedia Records. 4 years later he produced Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel for their debut album with the United Artist label and produced a further four albums for them when they recorded for Capital Records. He went on to produce and perform on many further albums in Nashville, often in the Western Swing genre.
His work as a songwriter included credits on “Guitar Twist” by The Ventures.
During the course of his career he worked with numerous artists either as a guitarist, bassist and/or producer. Just a few of these include Moe Bandy, Johnny Burnette, Vickie Carr, David Allen Coe, Narvel Felts, Janie Fricke, Doug Kershaw, Julie London, Reba McEntire, Bill Medley, Melba Montgomery, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Del Shannon, Warren Smith, Joe Stampley, Ernest Tubb, Bobby Vee, Gene Watson and Dwight Yoakam.
Just a fraction of the recordings he worked on include his own Buddy Holly Songbook as well as Ride With Bob by Asleep at the Wheel, Gone Girl by Johnny Cash, Somethin’ Else: The Ultimate Collection by Eddy Cochran, Two Sides of ‘Crash’ by Billy “Crash” Craddock, Heartaches and Harmonies by The Everly Brothers, Chirpin’ Crickets by Buddy Holly, Clovis to Phoenix: The Early Years by Waylon Jennings, My Very Special Guests by George Jones, Mercury Smashes…and Rockin’ Sessions by Jerry Lee Lewis, Nashville Hit Man by Charlie McCoy, Chain Lightning by Don McLean, Best Of… by Willie Nelson, Everybody’s Got a Family Meet Mine by Johnny Paycheck, Unbreakable Hearts by Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Under Western Skies by Marty Robbins, The Gambler by Kenny Rogers, Will o’ the Wisp by Leon Russell, Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose by Terry Stafford, Yodeling/Country Songs/City Hits by Slim Whitman and Legends of Country Music by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys.
He is estimated to have made at least a staggering 6,500 recordings as a guitarist and/or bassist and such is the mark he made on the music industry that he was made a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Aside from that, Paul McCartney called him “one of the finest guitar players in the world” and there was a book being written about him and his career.
In January 2017, when he was 85 years old, he passed away in hospital in Springfield, Missouri, from complications of hernia surgery. He had been the last surviving member of The Crickets 1959 band which toured with Buddy Holly.
Here he is performing “Kaw-Liga” and “Sugar Foot Rag”….