TOM PETTY: Purity and Passion

Tom was soon in one of those groups, which he organized with Gainesville friends. He knew a kid named Dennis Lee, who played drums. They both had long hair, which was revolutionary at the time, and they bonded. Tom went over to his house one day with guitar in hand, and the two jammed. But it was a pretty girl who crystallized his desire to form a band. “Her name was Cindy Crawford,” Tom said. “Go figure.” She was in charge of dances in the school and had a DJ set to play records, but she needed a band to play in the intermission. He said, “Sure, my band can do it.”

Videos by American Songwriter

And so he quickly went to see his friend Richie Henson, with whom he often played guitar, and told him they were forming a band. Henson got Robert Crawford, another guitarist, and they enlisted Dennis Lee to play the drums. “We got together one afternoon in my front room and played,” Tom remembers fondly. “It was the biggest rush in my life, the minute it all happened.”

They learned four songs, all instrumentals, including “House of the Rising Sun” and “Walk Don’t Run.” They all wore blue shirts and jeans, Tom said, “so we looked like a band.”  They were such a hit that they were invited to play at during the next intermission, and they repeated the same four songs. At the end of the night, as they were packing up their instruments and amps, an “older kid” came up to them and asked, “Do you guys ever play fraternity parties?” Tom answered, “No, we’ve never played anywhere but here.” The guy said he could get them some bookings. This was a Friday night, and the following Saturday, Tom and the group were in Dennis Lee’s garage, trying to learn more songs. “And it never stopped from that moment,” he said. They called the band The Sundowners.

It was the beginning of Tom’s attaining his dream. The guy came through with some gigs, including one at the local Moose Club, where a “Battle of the Bands” was held. The winner got a contract for the whole summer to play every Friday night. The Sundowners won. They were paid 100 bucks a gig. Tom was only 14-couldn’t drive a car yet-so he depended on parents to ferry them to gigs.

As his own mother was dubious about his ability to write songs, she too was quizzical about his ability to earn money from playing music. “My mom was like, `Where did you get this money?’ and I told her I got it for the show. She said, `Really, where did you get this money? If you took this money, you’re gonna have to own up to it.’ I said, `I swear to God, Mom, they paid me this for playing.’ She didn’t believe me. So she called the Moose Club, and the guy said, `Yeah, they get the door, and that’s what they made.'”

By the end of the summer, Tom remembered, he’d made about $200, all of which he put into the band, buying a better amp. Then his father surprised him again by buying him a Gibson bass. Up to this point, the Sundowners had three guitars and drums. Wth his new instrument, Tom became the bass player, teaching himself how to play with a little help from his friends.

Tom and the other Sundowners rehearsed avidly, and the practice paid off; soon gigs became abundant. “We worked constantly,” Tom said. “Gainesville had so many opportunities to play. There was a fraternity row where they had parties every Friday and Saturday night they had socials that you could play in the afternoon. It would be only an hour gig. So if we were really lucky, we’d have a social in the afternoon and then we’d do the show that night and maybe a dance. We were working guys. We were obsessed with it. Completely.”


Leave a Reply
  1. Thanks for the information on the early band The Sundowners. My wife’s uncle is Dennis Lee, the former drummer of The Sundowners. I am a huge fan of Tom Petty and almost passed out when I found out the Dennis had this connection withTom. I received a great birthday gift this year from Dennis–a photo of The Sundowners playing on stage at a fraternity party. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Dennis does not like to speak much about those days with The Sundowners. Hence, I scour the internet for information related to that group.

  2. Thank you so much for the information. It really helped with my 95/100 on my project. Eye contact knocked those 5 points off though. What was Tom’s mothers and fathers name though? Several kids in my class were curious.

Leave a Reply

The Great American Festival