When and how did the band form?
Drawing from the ranks of his high school friends, Petty founded his first band, the Sundowners. As often happens, the band metamorphosed into the Epics and, eventually, Mudcrutch. After pulling together a demo tape in the living room of past and future bandmate Benmont Tench, Petty took his show on the road, leading his bandmates to Los Angeles to pursue fame and fortune. By 1974, the band found a home on Shelter Records and released a single, Depot Street . Despite some critical attention, the band fizzled and soon disbanded. Never one to give up, Petty enlisted Mudcrutch members Tench (keyboards) and Mike Campbell (guitar), along with Gainesville musicians Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums) to form the now famous lineup that was dubbed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They released their first album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on November 1976. In 2006, the band celebrated the 30th anniversary of that release.
Has the band always been Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers?
Tom explains, Yes, it was always Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, because Mudcrutch, the band that Mike and Benmont and I had just before that, got burned so badly. We made a record, and then we put a single out, and the band broke up. And I thought, If I’m going to start another group, I’m going to put my name into it, so at least I get something out of this. And I wanted to have a lot of say in what went down. In the other group, I felt I had to stand silently by and watch it self-destruct. So I really wanted to be the leader.
How does Tom go about writing songs?
I mostly write on the guitar, but I’ve written a few on the piano. I wrote ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Don’t Do Me Like that’ on the piano. All of The Last DJ was written on the piano. Sometimes if I’ve got something going on the piano, I might switch over to guitar and play it on guitar just to see if something else might happen. Sometimes it sets me off into a new direction. I also spend time writing things, writing lyrics, writing whatever interests me at the time, whatever feels right. And sometimes I’ll sit and write lyrics. I’ll just write in my notebook. I’ll jot down ideas or titles or something that seems interesting to me. And then there’s the other side of the coin where [words and music] both come at the same time. Those are the ones I really like, where I’m just playing and start to sing and a song starts to appear.
I pretty much like to write alone, although I wrote with Jeff Lynne quite a bit on Full Moon Fever and Into The Great White Open. We wrote in the same room, nose to nose. Mike [ Campbell ] and I have never written that way. It’s usually by tapes. He’ll do his bits, and send it to me.
What awards have Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers received?
Too many to list, but in addition to the many Grammys and Gold and Platinum albums, some include MTV’s Vanguard Award (1994) as well as many MTV Video Music Awards, numerous ASCAP awards for excellence in songwriting, a Clio Award (1995), UCLA’s George and Ira Gershwin Award/Lifetime Musical Achievement (1996), California Music Awards/Bill
Graham Lifetime Achievement Award (1998), Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1999), Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction (2002), R.I.A.A.’s Song of the Century for Free Fallin,’ Radio Music/Legend Award (2003), Billboard’s Century Award (2005), Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Songs of All Time/Free.
Tom has had 15 singles on the Billboard charts – does he feel pressured to write hit singles?
No, I don’t really think that way when I write. I just think, ‘I’ve got to come up with some more music,’ and then kind of hope and pray that one of the batch, or two or three or four of the batch, will be hits.
What about the Traveling Wilburys?
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Petty joined legends Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison as one fifth of the Traveling Wilburys. They released two albums – Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988) and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990). I think George always had the idea in his head of the Traveling Wilburys. Actually, we had all been hanging out for some time by then. We had all been hanging out socially. I think maybe we had already done part of Full Moon Fever by that point. Roy had just come on the scene, because Jeff was going to do a track with Roy . The first day I met Roy, Jeff and I and Roy wrote that song You Got It. Anything you want, you got it… We had written that song. So everybody knew each other. We had been hanging out. And George decided — cause he was just trying to do an extra track for single — so he thought, if we’re all here, let’s design something for each of us to sing on. And when he got the record on, he felt it wasn’t really a George Harrison record, it’s more of a group. So what do you say we have a group? So that’s how that ball got rolling. It was a great band. It was really fun being in that band.
If Tom weren’t a musician, what else would he like to do?
I feel like a lucky man. A lot of people really struggle to find out what they want to do in life, but I knew as soon as I saw Elvis Presley, when I was 11. From that point on, music became my religion, my nourishment. It was also a safe haven for me. My life was very turbulent as a child and a little scary, and music made everything seem right. It has also pulled me through some other dark times.
Being so independent, as Tom ever considered eliminating the record companies and releasing his records himself?
This is something he has considered quite a bit lately, and certainly thinks it could be done. Tom – with and without the Heartbreakers – writes and records a lot of songs so would like to release more records than he does he remembers when groups like the Beatles would release up to three albums a year. I like the idea of having an independent label, I like that idea much better because it reminds me of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll when there were a lot of independent labels, and they were actually driven by people who liked music. They were music people, not lawyers or accountants or whatever you have running the music business now.
What is Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure?
An hour-long weekly radio program that Tom hosts on XM Satellite Radio Network. The first season of twenty shows wrapped up on May 2, 2005, and Tom plans to do a second season in 2006. He personally chooses landmark songs, offbeat cuts and live-in-concert classics recorded by legendary artists from Jimi Hendrix to Carl Perkins, ELO to Little Richard, Elmore James to the Beatles, Bob Dylan to Jerry Lee Lewis, with Petty providing informed and passionate commentary.
What television acting has Tom done?
Tom has a recurring role on the animated program King of the Hill, playing Lucky, a character who earned his nickname when he won a $53,000 settlement – enough to retire .. slipping on urine in a Wal-Mart. He also had a special guest appearance on The Simpsons and parts in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show.
Tom Petty (vocals, guitar)
Mike Campbell (guitar)
Benmont Tench (keyboards)
Ron Blair (bass)
Scott Thurston (guitar, keyboards, harmonica)
Steve Ferrone (drums)