When Tom Petty died, I did a post on my ten favorite songs by him. You can check it out here and see it as a companion piece.
“I always liked cowboys because they played the guitar.” – Tom Petty
Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville, FL in 1950, another baby boomer born into a post-war world who didn’t fit in with the norms of the time. His father Earl was a part-Cherokee Southerner in northern Florida who could – and did – go out in the swamp and wrestle alligators.
Earl was the kind of guy who was always trying to find some way to make a living. He tried to sell novelty items to stores. Took his son Tom out with him one time. Didn’t work out. Tom’s parents thought he might be gay but they probably didn’t use that exact word at the time.
Maybe it was that combination of things in Earl (failed career, disappointing son) that caused him to abuse his oldest son both verbally and physically. One time when Tom was five he shot a slingshot at a passing car. The driver was pissed, and old Earl beat Tom black and blue, covered in welts head to toe.
I was five,” Tom says. Doesn’t the Bible say something about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the son? Tom, for all his Southern laid-back attitude, carried that rage. “In so many ways,” says his son,” my father was like a man hiding out in plain view, afraid of being found out. (The Cherokee thing.) I think there was a lot of theater in his life, a lot of masks, a lot of acting. But I sure didn’t know this then. I just thought he was an asshole.”
Tom grew up and hung out a lot at the local music store where he met, among others, the Felder brothers. Don Felder was one of the first guys he knew that played guitar, jacked his electric right into the back of the TV. “Size of a washing machine,” says Felder.
There were two other brothers in town, Tom and Bernie Leadon. “I remember Tom saying, ‘My Dad’s gonna kill me,” Tom Leadon says because Petty had just gotten the world’s worst report card. The only subject Petty aced was English because he liked stories.
Tom got his first guitar in 1962 when he was 11 or 12. Earl paid 35 bucks for it which is something like 300 bucks in today’s money. Tom’s parents weren’t suddenly benevolent. He wouldn’t stop playing Elvis records, so they bought it to shut him the fuck up as much as anything else. It was the usual unplayable piece of shit every guitarist started out with in those days.
Tom screwed around with the guitar some, thinking that it would be cool to be a rock and roll star with absolutely no clue of how to make that happen. At that point, the only role models he had were untouchable gods like Elvis and Chuck Berry and maybe a few guys playing around town in fleabag clubs. But how do you go from being a kid in a Southern college town (University of Florida) to being in a band?
Tom’s question was answered on the night of February 9, 1964, when – along with 73 million other people – he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. And, like a lot of other rockers, he saw The Way. “I just didn’t understand how you got to be [a rock and roll star.] But the minute I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan …. there was a way to do it.”
And so, in typical teenager fashion, three guitarists and one drummer later they had a band called the Sundowners. “Wooly Bully” – a goofy 1965 hit – was the first song Tom learned. There was a scene in Gainesville. Maybe there was something in the water, don’t know.
Don Felder, older by a couple of years, formed another band with Stephen Stills, a military brat who spent some of his teen years in Florida. The Allmans formed in Jacksonville in 1969, a couple hours northeast as did Lynryd Skynyrd. (Duane taught Don Felder and later Joe Walsh how to play slide.)
When Felder split, Bernie Leadon replaced him. Bernie would, of course, eventually head west and, after playing in the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons, join the Eagles, bringing Don Felder in not long after. (And you thought nothing much was happening in Gainesville.)
At this point in time, Tom was playing bass and doing some singing. In my reading of him, no one at that point thought he would be the breakout star. He and his chums played the usual run of American Legion halls, school dances and the like. Eventually, he joined a band called the Epics who, Petty says, “would just play down and dirty fucking places, a whole circuit of hick towns.”
One of the things that distinguished Petty was that he was always focused, driven and ambitious. THIS was what he was going to do and that was that. Sure he was in it for the “chicks” but he was, like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, a real rocker, a true believer.
One of the best lines in a book I read* is that his bandmates didn’t mind Petty’s focus as long as it didn’t get in the way of being in a band. Right? There are guys who just want to “be in the band” for whatever social bullshit they think they can get out of it. And then there are the real musicians.
Tom left the Epics to go to school, rightly reasoning that it would keep him out of the Vietnam War. He went to school but didn’t show up too much. After a few shitty jobs, he made his way back to the Epics.
But in 1969, playing at places in like the now-defunct Dub’s Steer Room (topless dancers!) the Epics decided to change their name to Mudcrutch. Too corny. For a while there, they were a cover band that was – in Petty’s words – “just a big jukebox for a drunken crowd.” (Yeah, Tom, it’s called a bar band.)
The band at this point consisted of Jim Lenahan on vocals, Tom Leadon and Ricky Rucker on guitars, Petty on bass and a guy named Dickie Underwood on drums. Underwood’s tenure was short-lived as he left for the military. And even in this thriving Gainesville environment, Mudcrutch had a hard time finding guys willing to commit to playing music.
Through the music store, they met a drummer named Randall Marsh. One night hanging out at Marsh’s farm (later to be known as Mudcrutch farm) they heard his roommate playing in a back room. They asked the guy, Mike Campbell, to come out and play. When they heard him rip into “Johnny B. Goode,” Petty said, “You’re in the band.” Didn’t matter to him that Campbell was in school.
Petty had an amazing ability to overlook, ignore or work his way through obstacles that other people would have thought were showstoppers. He seemed to see his destiny so clearly that these things were merely speed bumps.
Campbell, too, had seen the Beatles and been blown away. From then on he played guitar from sunup to sundown, honing his chops for whatever may come. Rucker left the band and he and Tom Leadon started getting into twin harmonies a la the Allmans.
Mudcrutch kept playing and Tom started to realize that if they wanted to play places a step or two above Dub’s Steer Room – a place I imagine had the “World’s Finest Steaks” – he’d have to start writing his own tunes.
Petty had been trying his hand at writing songs for a while now, knowing that covers only take you so far. His gift was immediate and absolutely necessary as, at the time, no one else seemed to have it.
Mudcrutch hosted its own farm festival in 1970 or ’71 which also featured other local bands. Hippies of all stripes came from all over to hear them play. Even though Mudcrutch leaned towards the type of tight, crisp tune the Heartbreakers became known for, given that it was the early ‘70’s there was still a lot of free-form jamming.
And Lenahan, the singer, spent a fair amount of time standing around resentfully banging the tambourine. They wound up letting him go and Petty, continuing on bass, took over lead vocals.
Through a connection, they made their way to Miami’s Criteria Studios where Tom Dowd engineered Layla just a year before. They recorded a single in 1971 called “Up in Mississippi Tonight,” b/w the oddly-named “Cause is Understood.” You can hear that these guys were not just some amateur outfit but were actually pretty tight.
“Mississipi” is a fairly country-ish sounding tune and Leadon and Campbell get off some really nice solos. Through a lot of chutzpah and calling DJ’s in the area, the guys managed to get the song to go to number one in Gainesville. It wasn’t Ed Sullivan but it was a start.
Here’s the flip side, “Cause is Understood.” (Alas, no Spotify.)
*Petty: The Biography. Warren Zanes; Runnin’ Down a Dream (documentary), Peter Bogdonavich; Rolling Stone Tribute to Tom Petty.