Just how did a boy from hillbilly country meet Elvis, Brian Wilson and George Harrison before even releasing a record? The story of Tom Petty is one that defies all the odds…
It’s 1978. Bruce Springsteen, seeing a kindred spirit, has called the latest guy to be called the future of rock n roll, Tom Petty, to see if he wants to hang out. Petty has just bought a red Camaro with the whole of his first royalty cheque – the princely sum of $7,000.
There they are, two happening young rock stars, listening to The Rolling Stones on an eight track through the car’s frankly incredible quadraphonic speakers.
They’re having fun, but there‘s a crucial difference between the two men.
In the words of Petty biographer Warren Zanes, while Springsteen might have “loved the music hillbillies played…he sure didn’t know what it was like to be one”.
This is two stories. First, the story of Tom Petty. How and why a dirt-poor kid from Florida builds a band, writes incredible songs and sells millions of records.
The second is the story of Wildflowers, Petty’s 1994 solo album which remains his finest accomplishment, songs of sadness and hope written during a tremendously difficult time.
Part 1: “…and you tell that to kids nowadays, they don’t believe you”
Petty’s childhood was tough. His father was born half Cherokee, half white and experienced first hand what it meant to be not-white. He saw how white people were treated better. And so he hid his past, in order to not be an outsider. It affected him. Earl Petty, perhaps like many fathers of the time, put food on the table, but didn’t provide much nurture to his family.
Said Tom about watching TV: “what I noticed on television was that families were nothing like ours”.
Petty remembers being beaten by his dad with a belt after hitting a passing Cadillac with slingshot from his catapult. “He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts”.
Tom was just five years old when that happened.
Beyond the abuse, Tom’s dad had unusual ways of “toughening up” and impressing his son. Like swinging a snake around his head to snap it’s neck. Or knocking an alligator out.
You know, normal dad stuff.
Meanwhile, Tom’s mum was suffering from cancer. Words like “chemotherapy” didn’t go unnoticed by the young Tom.
Tom Petty meets Elvis Presley
Petty’s uncle Earl worked with film crews who came to Florida for location work and he was working on the Elvis film, Follow That Dream. Petty’s Aunt Evelyn asked the ten year old Petty, would he like to join some of his cousins in the town of Ocala and meet Elvis?
Elvis emerged from a fleet of white Cadillacs on Ocala’s Main Street.
“He didn’t look like anyone I had ever seen” said Petty.
His uncle introduced him, and Petty and Presley shook hands.
“I went home a changed man” said Petty. “When I went home the next day I was looking for Elvis records” which he traded a box of slingshot for.
“I played the records so much. My parents thought there was something wrong with me. Even the other kids thought it was weird. I just loved to listen to it.”
Although Petty wanted to be like Elvis, he couldn’t see how he could be a rock n roll star. The Byrds hadn’t yet written a song telling him what to do. He was a school kid. But being a rock n roll star? “I just didn’t understand how you got to be one. How did you suddenly get a mohair suit and an orchestra?”
“Then the minute I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan – there was a way to do it.”
“When they played the Ed Sullivan show it all became clear. This is what I’m going to do. This is how you do it.
In 24 hours everything had changed.”
“Dad threw down $35 for an electric guitar because I wouldn’t shut up about it. I set about scouring the neighbourhood for people who had instruments.”
Early Band Names: A Cautionary Tale
At the age of just 14 Petty was in a band called The Sundowners playing at gatherings hosted by fraternities attached to the University of Florida. The first time he got paid, his mum looked at the money and thought he’d stolen it.
He joined The Epics, but with music getting heavier, the name began to sound old-fashioned.
The singer of The Epics, Rodney Rucker, left the band, choosing instead the more normal Floridian hobby of hunting animals. His brother, Ricky joined the band instead.
To replace “The Epics”, they chose perhaps one of the least auspicious names of any band, ever, until perhaps the blossoming of punk or death metal:
Heroically, Ricky painted “Mudcrutch” on the side of his van, and did it in the shape of a large penis.
Which was great, but just a few weeks later, he also decided he didn’t want to be in the band, and he took his van with him, complete with penis-shaped-emblem. History is silent on how long the logo stayed on the side of the van.
You’d like to imagine it’s still there now.
Part 2: Petty puts his band together
The Education of Mike Campbell via a Broken Hifi
Mike Campbell also started to play guitar after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. As a boy, he recalled his dad would listen to Johnny Cash records. When his son asked him why he liked the records, Campbell senior replied “because Johnny Cash sings about the truth”. The idea stuck with the young Mike that here was a reason to listen to music.
Campbell practised guitar more than other kids. But he was somewhat cash-strapped, and his record player would only play stereo records from one channel at a time. This problem had one unintended benefit: it allowed him to hear the individual parts of records, especially early Beatles records, where individual instruments would be played from one side or the other, and at a very young age he could see how records were constructed by listening to one channel at a time.
Campbell auditions for Mudcrutch
Campbell travelled to Gainesville, Florida from Jacksonville, to study at university. He was greeted by dozens of kids playing in bluesy jam bands. One band, singing poppy, harmony-filled shorter songs stood out. The band was Mudcrutch.
Campbell’s room mate introduced him to the band. Campbell was younger, short haired, and the circumstances echoed those of Paul McCartney when meeting John Lennon at Woolton Village Fair an ocean away and thirteen years earlier. Petty, whose guitarist had just quit, asked the younger man if he could play, and Campbell expertly reeled off Johnny B. Goode.
Campbell: “about a minute into it, they looked at me and their whole faces changed…they got to the end and he said ‘You’re in our band.’”
The Story of Benmont Tench, Judge Tench and Tom Petty’s Jedi-Level Powers of Persuasion
Benmont Tench was nerdy and rich, and couldn’t have been further away from the Floridian culture of hunting and fishing if his name had been Linda McCartney. His dad was a judge, they lived in northwest Gainesville – the posh bit -and he went to the same boarding school that Abraham Lincoln and Gore Vidal attended although, it should be said, not at the same time. As a boy he was forced to play piano for an hour a day every day, measured by an egg timer sat on top of the piano.
Even in the sixties in Florida egg timers were no longer in regular use except in board games.
How posh was the Tench household? Benmont (I mean, his name wasn’t “Ben”, it was “Benmont” for a start – there’s a clue right there) found out about the blues by hearing John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at boarding school (another clue), and then talking about the music with his family’s hired help (huuuge clue) – their housekeeper, an African American woman called Elizabeth Joe, who had seen B.B. King play and would go on to tell him about Joe Tex.
That’s how posh the Tench family was…
Tench kept an eye on the Gainesville music scene via correspondence (are we still doing clues?) with a friend. He joined Mudcrutch onstage once or twice, including once in support of a young Lynryd Skynryd.
In between his first and second year of studying art at Tulane University, New Orleans he decided instead to join Petty’s band Mudcrutch. When Judge Tench found out his son was going to quit university, throw away his expensive education and join Petty’s band, he hit the roof, and threatened to chuck his son out on the streets. It’s fair to say quite a few parents reading this might have sided with the judge at this point.
Tom Petty went to Judge Tench’s house, and persuaded him that his son chucking in an expensive education to seek his fortune in a no-hope band was, in fact, a really great idea, if not total genius.
The band was called Mudcrutch, in case we had forgotten. It is not recorded whether Judge Tench knew of the penis-shaped logo.
That’s either incredible oratory from Petty, or Judge Tench is partially responsible for countless crime waves in the state of Florida by letting off any smooth talking felon that came before the bench with a half-cocked story. We could speculate defence barristers must have loved having Judge Tench take their case. If he believed Petty, he’d believe anything.
But such were Petty’s powers of persuasiveness, it was not long before not only was Judge Tench’s son in the band, Judge Tench’s living room had become Mudcrutch’s recording studio. Judge Tench was a total walkover. Petty did a similar trick on Mike Campbell, who also quit college to be in the band. Mudcrutch recorded a demo in the Tench front room, and decided to drive to LA to hand it to as many record companies as they could find.
Part 3: Jane Benyo
Wildflowers, recorded between 1992 and 1994, has a lot to do with Tom’s wife Jane. So let’s meet Jane (as was then) Benyo.
On 1st April 1974, Tom and his band left Florida to travel to LA to seek their fortune. They had already driven there once, to deliver demo tapes. That had generated interest, including an offer from London Records, so off they went to take London Records up on their offer.
Curiously, Tom married his girlfriend of one year, Jane Benyo, just a few days before.
It seems odd they would marry just as Petty travelled with his band on a great adventure across the country. Even odder when on the first trip to the church, Petty jumped out of the car and tried to run away, only to be talked round by his mother.
Jane may have wanted some certainty at a time when life was about to change, and when attitudes were stricter. Petty’s mother still held Christian values.
But there was probably another, more practical reason. When they arrived in LA, Jane told Tom she was pregnant. “She must have known back in Gainesville” mused Petty, “my mother probably knew too. There was so much happening at once. I couldn’t possibly know what it all meant. A lot of musicians I’ve known have run when that flag went up”.
The catalyst for Petty’s career may have been meeting Elvis, or wanting to be independent from his father. But that’s not the whole picture. He had spent years putting a band together. He had convinced band members’ parents that it was okay for their kids to drop out of university. He had driven to LA to get a deal, and more or less got one.
And then his wife is pregnant, and he knows if he doesn’t make a success of the band, he will not only have let down his friends – not to mention Judge Tench – he might just have to get a real job himself to make ends meet.
That’s real pressure.
As they are about to leave they get a call from Denny Cordell, an English A&R guru who formed Shelter Records alongside Leon Russell. Cordell had previously worked at Island Records with founder Chris Blackwell and produced The Moody Blues’ “Go Now”. He had heard the demo Petty had dropped off in LA and thought Mudcrutch might be the next Rolling Stones. At least that’s what he told Petty.
Petty and his band mates drove to LA via Tulsa to meet Denny Cordell.
Part 4: The Education of Tom Petty (part 1)
Cordell took Petty under his wing and swiftly signed the band to Shelter Records before they reached LA. He knew it might take time to develop Petty, but could see something there. As the band hung around the Shelter offices all day, Cordell would play records to Petty.
“He’d be telling me “Bass and drums is the foundation of every record you like. You get that right, make a groove, and it’s gonna work”.
“He was also teaching me something about taste”. Petty never had money to buy records, and here was Cordell taking him through his huge record collection and telling him what to listen out for. As Petty saw it, “‘Cause if you have good taste, at least you know what you’re chasing, right?” The two men would talk about why one record was “real” and another didn’t cut it.
Mudcrutch Split Up
They recorded a song, “Depot Street” with a reggae influence.
But despite Cordell’s support, the single flopped. What’s more, as time passed, the band wasn’t improving, and recording sessions weren’t getting results. Shelter, with sudden financial problems of its own, dropped the band, while retaining Petty. At around the same time, in November 1974, Jane and Tom became parents, to daughter Adria.
Petty, under contract to Shelter, stayed in LA, and they agreed Jane should return to Florida with her mother until matters improved.
It couldn’t have looked much bleaker. The band had broken up. There was nothing to show for their great adventure. Petty had a family to raise. And no-one knew his name.
Perhaps he would have jacked it all in right there and then, but he had nothing back home either. There was no family business, no safety net.
He had no songs, either. Well, perhaps one or two…
The Education of Tom Petty (part 2)
At this point, Leon Russell gets to hear one of Petty’s songs.
“Lost in your Eyes” is not a well known Petty classic. But there’s something honest about it. It’s Petty being reflective and accepting, and not a little romantic. It’s a mood Petty would return to in his writing. Without that song, however, there may not have been Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Russell called Petty on the back of hearing that one song and asked if they could write songs together, sending over a white Rolls-Royce to pick up the flabbergasted Petty from his apartment.
It’s now 1975. Petty is unknown, a new father, but with wife and child back home in Florida and has no band. Remarkably, he hangs out with the rock superstar Leon Russell for months.
Russell says “we’re going to do an album with a different producer on each track. What do you think of Brian Wilson?”
Then they get in a Rolls Royce and drive to Brian Wilson’s house in Bel Air.
Russell is clearly someone who can open doors.
After seeing Wilson (who’s in not-too-good shape) Russell says “How about George Harrison?”
They go to Harrison’s place. Ringo shows up.
It’s ridiculous. In this extraordinary period Petty hangs out with Leon Russell, a couple of Beatles, a Beach Boy, Sly Stone, Byrds producer Terry Melcher, Bobby Womack and the Wrecking Crew, and uniquely gets to talks to these legends at work, watching and learning from what they did in the recording studio. “I saw a lot of things that maybe you shouldn’t do and some things you should” he said.
Meanwhile Benmont Tench was pulling a band together, in the style of The Faces, consisting of fellow Gainesville chums Mike Campbell, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch.
Tench called Petty one night to see if he’d like to play harmonica. Without realising, Tench had just got Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers together.
Enthused, Petty went back to Denny Cordell and floated the idea of the new band. It contained a couple of the previously unsuccessful group, but this time it seemed to work. They came up with the slightly ironic “Heartbreakers” name. It was Christmas 1975, and Petty’s near two-year-long Shelter Records education was over.
They recorded an album. They supported the wrong bands, Kiss for one night and Rush on another. The debut wasn’t initially a huge success. After three weeks, the album had sold just 6,500 copies. After eight months it had only doubled that. That’s not many more than Johnny Borell managed with his debut solo album.
But then came success in the U.K., Petty fitting in with new wave acts like Elvis Costello. This led to a top 40 hit in the US with “Breakdown”. Things were looking up.
Part 5: Jane Petty
Jane and daughter Adria rejoined Tom in Tulsa.
There was still no money, mind you.
Jane was at home looking after their daughter while her husband toured around America, or recorded new songs.
“He was gone” said his daughter Adria.
Stevie Nicks describes Jane as Tom’s first great love. “They’d been together since they were kids, and they were young parents. Then he got famous. But I think he was crazy about her”.
Adria agrees. “I feel like they had a real special partnership. I saw them as good people doing their best. And really, I think my mother was an inspiration to him”.
By 1981, their financial situation had improved as Tom’s career took off, but despite being a great mother to Adria, Jane was not immune to problems, and drugs and alcohol, combined with being a rock star’s wife all took their toll. Their second daughter arrived in 1982.
Said Tom, “Raising a family at that age…kept me grounded in a way I wouldn’t have been otherwise. I was gone so much but I made sure I was there when we were off the road”
But by 1982’s Long After Dark LP, the songs were reflecting the cracks in Petty’s marriage, especially in the song “Straight into Darkness”.
There was a moment when I really loved her / Then one day, the feeling just died
That’s a pretty bleak picture.
Said Tom: “I thought it was all my fault…I’d turned into a rock n roll star and turned my family’s life upside down. I knew I was gonna leave my marriage. I was just biding my time.”
Sadly Jane Petty was suffering from issues with her mental health. Petty blamed his extraordinary life for Jane “retreating to her bedroom” years before he left.
Adria Petty describes her mother as “soulful, gregarious and fun” but also someone who was “mentally ill for a long time” and she had “been really verbally abusive and cruel” a long time before they were talking about divorce. “My mother, who had lived him for such a long time, had started to abuse him”.
So the family were dealing with something very painful and difficult and perhaps something they were ill equipped to deal with, especially when work allowed Petty to go away on tour and leave the situation behind.
Petty lived through his parents’ unhappy marriage, having an abusive father and then, in his words, finding himself “in an abusive marriage”. His feelings of parental responsibility perhaps meant he stayed longer than was healthy for either him or Jane.
Part 6: Here Comes Success
Wildflowers wasn’t the first Tom Petty solo record.
Full Moon Fever developed from Petty’s friendship with George and Olivia Harrison, through whom he met Jeff Lynne.
Quick bit of background: by 1987 Petty was successful, but the Heartbreakers were arguing, their last album wasn’t their biggest seller, they’d been on a long world tour with Bob Dylan and they were all exhausted. The Travelling Wilburys – George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne – first offered Tom a temporary escape from the Heartbreakers, and that project scored a terrific hit single “Handle With Care”.
Lynne showed Petty a way to make records quickly, and they did so on a solo album for Petty in Mike Campbell’s garage, creating songs without working for days with a band to get the right “feel”.
“Free Falling” is the sound of Petty taking a breath. It also brings out that sense of melancholy and world-weariness in Petty’s voice, something Wildflowers would return to.
With that trademark Jeff Lynne sheen, it certainly doesn’t sound like it was made in a garage, but it really was.
Full Moon Fever was a huge hit. The follow up, Into The Great Wide Open, reintroduced the Heartbreakers under Jeff Lynne’s production and was also a success.
Petty left his record company MCA with a Greatest Hits compilation that sold 12 million copies, but schisms, particularly between drummer Stan Lynch and Petty grew.
Part 7: The Making of Wildflowers
In 1992 Tom Petty’s personal life was complicated. He had banned both his wife Jane and drummer Stan Lynch from the studio as he recorded his new album. Not entirely unprecedented perhaps until you learn the Wildflowers sessions lasted almost two years, between July 1992 and April 1994.
The studio was becoming a place for Petty to escape from, and perhaps not face up to, his problems.
In “It’s Good to be King” Petty sings of his need to retrench from his troubles, “Excuse me if I have some place in mind / where I go time to time”.
Rick Rubin told Petty about the Esher Demos – the demos for The White Album The Beatles had recorded at George Harrison’s house in Esher then circulating only on bootleg. An inspired Petty installed an eight track studio in his house, and made a set of demos in the same way.
The resulting songs reflected an inevitable parting from his wife, which had yet to happen, combined with his regrets and a determination to move forward.
1999 album Echo is the album people talk of as Petty’s “divorce” album, but Petty himself disagrees. Even though he and Jane were still together and didn’t divorce until 1996, the songs told a different story.
“(Wildflowers) – that’s the divorce album. It just came before I left”.
“Time to Move On” isn’t the sound of a man standing by his woman. It’s a description of a man realising his marriage has run its course. When Tom played it to his daughter Adria, she said she “knew the marriage was over”.
This is quite extraordinary – art reflecting life in quite a brutal fashion. Petty is writing about leaving his wife and family before he has done it. He may not have been the first songwriter to do this, but even John Lennon – seldom inclined to be a master of subtlety – tried to be a little bit discreet and obscure when he wrote “Norwegian Wood”.
“You Wreck Me”, based on a riff from Mike Campbell, shows Petty’s regret about the relationship he had kept going despite its destructive nature, and love for his wife:
“Rescue me, should I go wrong / if I dig too deep, if I stay too long….”.
In “Only a Broken Heart”, a song that might have fitted in quite nicely on The White Album, there’s regret
“What wouldn’t I give to start all over again / To clean up my mistakes”
but also an acceptance of the need for change and the pain to come,
“but I’m not afraid anymore / it’s only a broken heart”.
The word “only” doing a lot of heavy lifting there.
“Don’t Fade on Me” appears to be addressed to Jane: “you were the one thing I could count on / above all you were my friend” but a grim realisation of circumstances, “today you are too weary to even leave your bed”,
In “Hope You Never” – a song that didn’t make the final LP, but was saved for the “She’s The One” soundtrack LP, there’s a rebuke mixed with self pity perhaps as bitter as anything in Bob Dylan’s own divorce album “Blood on the Tracks”:
“I wish you well” he sings, but “I hope you never fall in love / with somebody like you”.
Finally, there’s the uplifting opening track – the title track of the album. Petty’s therapist heard the song and asked Petty who the song was addressing.
He wasn’t sure. “You belong among the wildflowers…you belong somewhere you feel free” he sings. Was this to his wife? His kids?
The therapist told Petty “That song is about you. That’s you singing to yourself what you needed to hear.”
“That’s me getting ready to leave.” said Petty later. “I don’t even know how conscious I was when I was writing it. It just took me getting up the guts to leave…I knew this was going to be devastating to the whole family. My kids knew a nightmare was coming. But staying there was finishing me off.”
It’s remarkable that an album of such specific feelings and difficult circumstances can hold such universal appeal. Wildflowers sold three million copies in a short space of time upon release. And that’s a result of Petty’s gift as a songwriter.
There’s no neat happy ending to Wildflowers. The aftermath of the album was divorce in 1996, the firing of Stan Lynch, Petty falling into clinical depression and heroin addiction and the later death of Heartbreakers bass player Howie Epstein to heroin addiction.
Petty got clean and found love again, however, and although he released more records with his Heartbreakers, Wildflowers remains his most affecting, and most impressive musical achievement.
Footnote: The original idea concocted with producer Rick Rubin was to release a double album. That Petty put aside ten tracks every bit the equal of the fifteen that made up the final running order is a reflection of the quality of the final album. It also means the 2020 deluxe reissue with its “Esher-style demos”, live tracks and additional ten songs is unimpeachable, including a superb “alternative versions” extra disc in the SDE version. Warner Brothers only pressed 5,000 copies of the original album on vinyl, and it remains scarce and expensive. But the new reissue, “Wildflowers and all the Rest” finally puts a vinyl copy of the album into affordable territory, and includes the extra 10 tracks originally recorded for the “double” album Petty original conceived.