TOM PETTY: Purity and Passion

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

While he was in the Sundowners, Tom was asked to fill in as a bassist with an established band comprising of  older kids, The Epics. They liked him so much that they urged him to join the band as bassist and singer, and he accepted. “It was kind of mind-blowing [to join The Epics.] They worked all up and down Florida. That’s when we first started to go on overnight gigs. You’d go and stay in a motel room. And these guys were… crazy.  They were really into girls, and into bringing them back to the room… That’s where I kind of grew up, in The Epics, watching these guys. They were just completely bonko, wild, partying, drunk…. But they had a really good drummer. The guy just played the most solid beat. I loved playing with him.”

But despite the high level of the rhythm section, The Epics became more interested in partying and less inclined to work on their music, which dismayed Tom. They added another guitarist, Tom Leadon, with whom Tom became close friends, and in time the two Toms left the Epics to form a new band. That band was Mudcrutch. They put an ad up in Lipham’s music store, which was the musical center of activity in Gainesville. A drummer named Randall Marsh responded to the ad, and Tom and Tom went out to his place. Petty told Randall it was a shame that they didn’t have a rhythm guitarist, and Randall said, “My roommate plays guitar.” And in came Mike Campbell, carrying a Japanese guitar.

“He kicked off `Johnny B. Goode,'” Tom recalled, “and when the song ended, we said, `You’re in the band, man.’ He had to be in the band. And he didn’t necessarily even want to be in the band. Somehow we convinced him to stay in the band. And that became the Mudcrutch that people know… Mudcrutch got to be very popular in Gainesville. That band really worked.”

It was also at Lipham’s music store, a few years earlier, that Tom met keyboardist-extraordinaire Benmont Tench, who was only 13 at the time. Benmont came into the store, sat down at the Farfisa organ, and proceeded to play all of Sgt. Pepper, adjusting the stops to get various sounds. Everybody there was astounded at the kid’s virtuosity. “But I never saw him again,” said Tom, “until, God, about 1970, and my roommate came in the door one night with this guy, and he was all bearded and had really long hair… Slowly I realized it was Benmont. It was like, `You’re the kid!’ And he said, `Yeah, I have a band in New Orleans…’ I said, `We have a gig tomorrow night, do you want to play with us?’ He said, `All I have is my Farfisa organ.’ I said, `Okay, you’re in.'” Ben made it to the show with organ in tow, and winningly played five sets with the band, all with no previous rehearsal. Tom knew Benmont was ideal for the band.

At this time, Petty was committed to getting the band a recording deal. And he knew that he would never get this deal if they were simply playing covers of Rolling Stones and Dylan songs. So he began bringing in his original songs to the band. He’d written a song called “Up in Mississippi” (“You have to be pretty far south to go up to Mississippi,” he said), which they recorded and made into a 45. The record received a lot of airplay on Gainesville radio stations “because we bribed our friends into calling the request line.” It led to more gigs, and Mudcrutch became one of Gainesville’s foremost bands. The band thoroughly reveled in the recording of the song, a love that lasts to this day. “We fell in love with it,” Tom said. “Totally. We just fell in love with the whole idea of being in the studio and hearing it come back on those great big speakers. And it sounded so good. But it was all the dough we had to pay for one session.”


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  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.

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