I only worked closely with Tom Petty once (yet in an odd way from afar), but it confirmed for me who he really was as a man and as a true musician, and that brought me a big smile.
In 1991 Columbia Records released an amazing eclectic blues/rock album by a new gifted artist named Chris Whitley. It was titled Living With The Law. For those who know, Chris was an extraordinary talent, reminiscent of artists like Robert Johnson and the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in that he had a minimalist approach to his music. He played excellent slide on authentic Dobro guitars.
Authenticity of this kind was, and continues to be, very hard to find because it’s pure, only to do with music with no concern for marketing, celebrity, etc. Because of this, Chris made a big hit with the press and with some radio programmers who were excited to play a part in his early career. I absolutely loved his stuff and he and I became friends. Besides music he sculpted in metal and I used to have fun bringing him old stove pipes and odd metal pieces I’d find in someone’s trash or laying in the road that I knew he’d love to use.
We’d gotten word that in the fall of 1991 Tom Petty was going on tour and was looking for an opening act. Usually the way this works is that the headliner’s artist manager looks for an up-and-coming act that is already established and therefore can help sell tickets on their own—especially needed when you are playing large arenas. I was the head of Columbia’s Artist Development Department at the time and I knew if somehow I could get Chris on the Tom Petty tour that it would be a big leg up for him in getting thousands of people to know who he was. My only shot was to get Tom Petty a copy of Chris’s album in hopes that he would be so blown away by this new artist’s music that he’d choose Chris even over a sure bet of someone who was in a better position to help with ticket sales. I was banking on the fact that Tom was a musician and lover of music first, and that the commercial concern would be a second consideration.
I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, and was able to get the album to Tom. You can imagine the pressure that Tom and his manager, Tony Dimitriades were under by the many agents and record company presidents in the music biz for Tom to take out one of their priority artists. But low and behold, Tom heard the record and was so moved that he chose Chris Whitley as his opening act. That takes guts, resolve, belief, and most important, putting the music first. The decision blew minds in the music business and in the artist community—it was a great positive message about music and art.
In the recent New York Times article by Jon Pareles, Jon reports on this event that even further solidifies Tom’s understanding of music, his fans, and doing what’s right. In 1979 Petty released the now iconic Damn the Torpedoes album. With the singles, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee,” the album reached No. 2 on the Billboard album chart and sold over 3 million copies. Because of that Tom’s label, MCA Records planned to make his next record the flagship for a new pricing policy. They were going to up the price of the next album from $8.98 to $9.98 and call it “superstar pricing.” Having worked for a record company my whole adult life I am no stranger to these antics, which I always hated (you just can’t keep raising the price of music for no real reason other than greed). To stop this Petty threatened to title it “The $8.98 Album”! Ha—brilliant! The company balked and that was that, the price didn’t rise. Tom said, “MCA has done a great job selling our records, but they couldn’t see the reality of what it’s like on the street. They couldn’t see that raising the album’s price wouldn’t be fair.” You gotta love an artist who’s looking out for the fan and the much larger overall picture for everyone.
My last story was told to me by Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I was doing a TV show with Don Henley and Stan was the drummer for his band then. I asked him to tell me some fun Tom Petty stories and he picked this as his favorite.
When Tom formed the Heartbreakers in 1975 the first label that showed any interest was Capitol/EMI. Tom managed to wrangle a meeting with the label higher ups and the band asked Tom how they should act in the meeting to ensure getting a record deal. Tom said he had a plan. The next day before the meeting Tom told the guys to all go out and buy sunglasses. He told them to wear them to the meeting and not to say a word, that he would do all the talking. Lynch looked at him in amazement, “That’s the plan?? That’s IT? Sunglasses??!!! Are you kidding me???”
So the band walks in, the guys looking cool and aloof, all in their new sunglasses. Tom crosses his arms and speaks first. “I understand you are interested in signing us. And we would love to sign with you. And you can have us for the price of one million dollars.” Silence. The label heads look at each other, and then burst out laughing—huge belly laughs. This went on for a good two minutes and then Tom and the band were promptly thrown out of the building! Ha, ha! The band was eventually signed by Shelter Records, but Stan said that scene at Capitol was just hysterical!
So what can we say? The passing of Tom Petty is just on a mega scale given how much of his music is on our collective DNA, from Heartbreakers albums to solo albums, to the Traveling Wilburys and more. He was a giant in the music business and in our hearts, and we’re all gonna miss him BIG time.
My favorite collection of his songs is on a double CD called Anthology: Through The Years. It’s a lot of his best work, one great song after another, and I highly recommend it, especially for long drives in the car. I leave you with this live version of “Learning To Fly” with Stevie Nicks. It’s very touching and with the fans singing at the end shows how much we all truly loved him.
Until next time, hopefully under happier circumstances.
All the best,
© Paul Rappaport 2017