Tom Petty: 10 Essential Collaborations
When you look across the 45 year span of Tom Petty's career, perhaps the most definitive constant next to the Titanic strength of his songwriting was his reputation as the quintessential creative partner.
The man loved to collaborate, especially with his heroes. And he wasted no time in constructing an arc of partnerships with some of biggest names in rock, pop, soul and country that crosses the majority of his life in music. So much so, in fact, that the last work released with his name on it was not a Tom Petty album but as producer for the new LP from his longtime hero Chris Hillman.
Looking through the credits in Petty's expanded discography online reveals just how much the singer loved to put other artists ahead of himself, be it in performance or as part of a songwriting team. But you always could recognize his fingerprints the second he strummed a chord on his beloved Rickenbacker.
Here are ten particular collaborations that showcase what a stellar foil Thomas Earl Petty has been to such a great variety of acts these last four decades. That his magic touch will never be experienced by another friend or acolyte makes it all the more harder coming to grips with his untimely passing.
Stevie Nicks, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (1981)
Tom Petty's final stage performance was beside his longtime cosmic sister Stevie Nicks performing the hit duet from the Fleetwood Mac vocalist’s 1981 solo debut Bella Donna that skyrocketed them both into the platinum stratosphere. Tom and Stevie did several other songs together, including “Insider” off the Heartbreakers’ 1981 LP Hard Promises and a wonderful cover of Jackie De Shannon’s “Needles and Pins." But the sultry chemistry between them on this crossover smash was the perfect tempest of their styles.
Del Shannon, Drop Down and Get Me (1982)
Petty first took the stage with hero Del Shannon in 1978. But it wasn't until 1981 that the pair finally entered the studio to put together Shannon's Drop Down and Get Me. Thor blurred lines between new wave and classic rock on which Petty balanced so gracefully are on full display as an outside producer, giving these songs an edge that helped Del cruise alongside such contemporary cats at the time as Graham Parker and Marshall Crenshaw. Petty was instrumental in trying to recruit Shannon as Roy Orbison’s replacement in the Wilburys before Del took his own life in 1990. It would have been something.
Bob Dylan, "Got My Mind Made Up" (1986)
The relationship between Charlie T. and Lucky Wilbury took shape in 1986 when Petty and the Heartbreakers served as Dylan’s backing group on the legendary True Confessions Tour. And somehow during the course of the 60-day trek across three continents, the Bard of Minnesota managed to bang out and release Knocked Out Loaded, highlighted by the 11-minute epic “Brownsville Girl."
However, on the other side of that tune was a raucous little co-write with Petty called “Got My Mind Made Up” that served as one of the highlights of an album once considered by legendary music critic Anthony DeCurtis in his review of the album in the September 11, 1986 edition of Rolling Stone to be a “conceptual mess” aimed at cashing in on his True Confessions Tour. Thirty-one years later, however, it’s a revelation to discover this killer little nugget deep in the chaos of this record.
Traveling Wilburys, "Last Night" (1988)
Tom got to have one exclusive co-write with Wilburys' patriarch Roy Orbison on Vol. 1, and it's the best song on the album after "Handle With Care." And while Petty wrote the lyrics, he saved the best lines for Orby, particularly the KO punch delivered in the fifth verse: "I asked her to marry me and pulled out a knife / 'The party's just beginning,' she said, 'Your money or your life'" against the current of a vaguely Latino shuffle. The story-song format served as the crux of both Traveling Wilburys records, but "Last Night" served as its high watermark.
Jeff Lynne, "Blown Away" (1990)
Only three years his senior, Jeff Lynne and Petty were the youngbloods of the Traveling Wilburys. And as the once and future leader of Electric Light Orchestra, Otis was just as instrumental as kid brother Charlie T. in creating that crucial conduit to the New Wave for Baby Boomers. The duo only shared one direct co-write as Wilburys on Vol. 3's "Poor House." But the power of their united forces are better felt on this deep cut off Lynne's 1990 solo debut Armchair Theatre, where the heavenly melodies of Out of the Blue met the soulful jangle of Full Moon Fever to set off an atomic blast of sweet harmony that should make you want to revisit the Jeff-produced third Tom Petty solo LP Highway Companion immediately.
Roger McGuinn, "King of the Hill" (1991)
The Heartbreakers' 1991 comeback album Into the Great Wide Open was a rather underwhelming affair, especially when it followed the heels of Full Moon Fever. However, it was clear the band had already achieved maximum inspiration for that year when they got to back up Byrds chief Roger McGuinn on his sixth solo album Back From Rio. If there's one man to whom you could attribute the inflection of Petty's vocal tone, it's undoubtedly McGuinn. And to hear those two voices go head to head on this album's prime cut "King of the Hill" is just as special as hearing their trademark Rickenbackers duel it out in real time.
Johnny Cash, “The Running Kind” (1996)
The involvement of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as the backing group and key collaborators for the Man in Black’s second installment of his American Recordings collection, Unchained, was one of the grandest strokes of genius ever conspired by Rick Rubin, who was working with both artists extensively at the time. But you have to wait for the Nov. 3 reissue of the currently out-of-print 2003 box set Unearthed to discover this magnificent duet between the two men on this 1978 single from Merle Haggard’s underrated classic A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today. The combination of Cash’s baritone and Petty’s distinctive pipes is pure magic.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, "Walls (Circus)" (1996)
For a few cult fans, the soundtrack to Ed Burns' 1996 rom-com She's The One stands as the best album Tom Petty has ever done with the Heartbreakers. One main reason why is "Walls (Circus)," the lead single off the LP and the only time we've ever heard Petty and Lindsay Buckingham sing together on record. The way their voices volley off one another in the chorus is pure Heaven for those of us who loved Out of the Cradle as much as Wildflowers. And while Petty's work with Stevie Nicks far outweighed that of her ex, this momentary union was the closest Tom ever came to writing a pure Fleetwood Mac track.
The Shelters self-titled LP (2016)
If Hypnotic Eye is the Heartbreakers' last stand, they'll be bowing out with their most electric LP to date, thanks to The Shelters' Josh Jove and Chase Simpson, two young bucks from the Los Angeles rock scene who helped the guys discover their inner Crazy Horse. Petty returned the favor in 2016 when he co-produced the eponymous debut from their band The Shelters' eponymous Warner Bros. debut, which amped up that age-old fusion of Heartland rock and power pop which helped make such 80s Heartbreakers LPs as Hard Promises and Southern Accents such American classics.
Chris Hillman, Bidin' My Time (2017)
On a recent Facebook post, music journalist Bob Mehr spoke of how a five-minute interview he very recently conducted with Tom Petty for a piece he was doing for MOJO Magazine about the new Chris Hillman album which Petty produced turned into a 35 minute conversation about the rocker's unshakable love for HIllman's history as a member of The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and how working on the record was a dream fulfilled for him. And when you listen to the gorgeous Bidin' My Time, you can hear every ounce of affinity poured into his crystalline production work, which is capped off with a stunning version of Petty's "Wildflowers" sung by Hillman with an equal level of respect and appreciation. It wasn't supposed to be a sendoff, but listening to the way by which it closes out the LP one could not think of a better fare thee well.