TOM PETTY: Purity and Passion

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“We stayed for a few more days, and on the last day we were here, we went by Shelter Records, and gave the tape to this girl named Andrea Starr… She opened the door, and she thought we were cute, she told me later. She took the tape to Simon Miller Mundy, who was their A&R guy. We went home [to Florida] and sold everything we owned, and got ready to come to California. And literally, in a rehearsal, the phone rang and I answered it, and it was Denny Cordell. I thought he was calling about a car we had for sale. And he said, `I really want to sign your group. I think you guys are really great. I think you guys are like the next Rolling Stones.’ I was like, “What is this?” But we knew who Denny Cordell was. We knew he had done `A Whiter Shade of Pale’ and the Joe Cocker stuff. We knew that he was a real guy we were talking to on the phone. But I had to say, `Well, I’m really sorry, but we already promised London Records we would sign with them.’ And he said, “I’ll tell you what. If you’re going to drive out here, I’ve got a studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And that’s going to be not far out of your way. Why don’t you stop in Tulsa, and meet with me, and then you can see if you like us.'”

Tom and the band took Cordell up on his offer, and drove to Tulsa, where Leon Russell had a studio. Once there, they met Cordell in the middle of a windstorm on the street. He brought them to Shelter’s studio, which was built in a church. “It was called the Church studio,” Tom recalled. “It was a really nice studio. [Cordell] said, `Spend the night, and tomorrow we’ll go in and do a session. And we’ll see how you like it'” And we were like, `Wow, we get to do a session in a studio! Hell yeah, we’ll spend the night.’ …We spent the next day recording, and he went, `That’s it. I’m sold. I want to sign your band.’ And we liked him a lot, much better than the guy at London, who was an executive type. So we said, `Okay, we’ll go with you.'”

Mudcrutch recorded an album, with the song “Depot Street” released as a single. But it failed to fly, and the band split up. Tom was offered a solo deal from Shelter Records. He cut some tracks with a phenomenal line-up of musicians, including Al Kooper, “Duck” Dunn, and Jim Gordon, but didn’t relish the idea of being a solo artist, preferring the camaraderie of a band. At the same time, Benmont organized a group to record his own songs, and invited Tom to play harmonica. The band consisted of Mike Campbell on guitar, Ron Blair on bass, Stan Lynch on drums, Randall Marsh also on drums, Jeff Jourard on guitar and Benmont on keys. “And it instantly hit me,” Tom said, “that man, you know, this is home. This is where I should be. And I quickly did my pitch about talking them into going in with me.” Tom wanted Lynch, Blair, Campbell and Tench to be in his own group, and convinced them to join by saying he already had a record deal. They accepted, and The Heartbreakers were born.

Skip ahead several years to the present. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are one of America’s most beloved and enduring rock and roll bands. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in  2002, they have released countless classic albums (such as Damn The Torpedoes and Southern Accents in addition to Tom’s great solo albums, such as Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers) and have amassed a wealth of hit songs, including “Refugee,” “American Girl,” “The Waiting,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and more. They are also one of the greatest touring bands to ever hit the concert stage. They have so many hits, it would be easy for them to become a nostalgia act, but Tom is careful to remain presently and vitally connected to his work, and “not to become a jukebox,” imbuing his work with a timelessness of energy, purity and passion.

“We’ve got a lot of material,” he explained. “We’re not stuck with the same fifteen songs. It’s a big temptation sometimes just to play the really huge songs, because the crowd loves it, and if you let them have their way, they’ll demand that. It’s important to give them something in a show that they didn’t expect. And to take them somewhere that they didn’t really plan on going…

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to play `American Girl’ anymore. We’ve been playing it for thirty years. But then maybe you’ll get two hours into the show, and the place is frenzied, and the vibe is so great, and the first couple chords of that song come on, and there’s such a rush of adrenaline throughout the building, that the next thing you know, you’re really digging playing `American Girl.’ And I’ll feel, I can’t believe I’m digging this again, but I am.


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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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