Conversations With Tom Petty

Paul Zollo conducted a series of in-depth discussions with Tom Petty about his career, with special focus on his songwriting. The conversations are reprinted in this book -- the first authorized book


So you went to California with the intention of getting a deal?

tp: Yeah. We sent tapes out to L.A. from Florida. And most just got rejection after rejection. And all we knew about record companies was that in Rolling Stone magazine, there were addresses of companies, so we would just send a tape to that address. And Playboy had a record label in those days, called Playboy Records. And we got a response from a guy named Pete Welding, who was actually a really respected writer, I found out later. He was really respected in the jazz field, and he was A&R for Playboy. He rejected us, but he was nice enough to send us a song-by-song analysis of why he was rejecting us, and what could be better, and what we should work on. So I took this to be really encouraging. And we drove out to see Pete Welding in L.A.

We drove there. Me and our roadie, Keith McAlister. And Danny Roberts had a van, so we drove. Tom Leadon was already out here. He had left our group. The idea was to come out here and see him, and try to hook up with something. It was the greatest trip of my life, really. It was this incredible journey through the country. I had never been west of the Mississippi. To suddenly see cactuses, we would pull the car over and get out and say, 'S*** -- look at this!' We were so naïve.

We got here, and we had to sleep on the floor of a friend of a friend. And I could see that we really weren't welcome. [Laughs] And it was kind of really uncomfortable. I don't think they thought we would really come, but we did. So they let us sleep on their floor for a couple of days. In their living room.

We drove in to Hollywood. And then it seemed really easy to me, because we went down Sunset Boulevard, and in those days, there were record companies everywhere! Everywhere you looked, there was a record company. There was MGM Records, and of course, there was Capitol. I just thought, 'Well, all we've got to do is go in to every one, and we'll get a deal.'

And we fell in love with L.A. within an hour of being there. We just thought this is heaven. We said, 'Look -- everywhere there's people making a living playing music. This is the place.'

A lot of people who arrive in Hollywood expecting glamour are disappointed or confused by the reality of the place. Was it that way for you?

No. To me it seemed like everything I wanted it to be. There were literally record companies all down Sunset Boulevard. You could see them, with their names on them. There'd be A&M, MGM, RCA. You just saw them down the road. So we would just go in the front door of every one with a tape and say, 'Hi, we just got here from Florida, can we play you this tape?' We didn't know that that just wasn't done. So I think just having the balls to do that got a lot of people to listen to us.

The only addresses we had, we'd written down from record ads in Rolling Stone. And I was trying to find some more, so I went into this diner, I think it was Ben Frank's on Sunset, and I went to a phone booth to look up record companies. And on the floor of the phone booth there was a piece of paper. And I picked up the paper and it's a list of twenty record companies, with their phone numbers and addresses. And at the same time, I kind of went, 'S*** -- there's a lot of people doing this.' But I swear to God it was there. And that's how I got the number of Shelter Records. Which was out on east Hollywood Boulevard. And we drove out there with a tape.

Did that hurt your enthusiasm at all, the thought of so many others vying for a record contract?

No. We were young and the world was at our feet. At that age, anything seems possible. We'd get turned down, but I just kept thinking that there are so many of them, we're bound to hit one that's gonna take us. And that's what happened. We hit paydirt at MGM, where they wanted to do a single. The first day out. And the next day London Records. Which was a big label then. And they wanted to sign us right away.

Then Capitol Records had a great interest in us. And wanted to book demo time in their studio. We were so silly and indignant that we didn't want to do a demo, and we didn't know there was a difference between record companies. We were really green. We just felt that if they put out records, that was fine with us. We didn't know there'd be any difference between Shelter Records or Capitol Records. They all put out records nationally, or internationally. That's all we were interested in.

Yet Capitol had their big building on Vine, and was the label for The Beatles. Didn't that impress you?

Yeah, that impressed us. London Records impressed us. They had the Rolling Stones. 'Any of them will do.' That was how we thought then. We turned down Capitol because we didn't want to do a demo. I think we had, in the back of our mind, this idea that if we had to, we would come back and do a demo. But the truth is that we've got another label and they're willing to sign us, so why would we go back to Capitol and do a demo? We didn't know the difference. We didn't even know what music publishing was. We had no idea what it was. We thought it was songbooks. We didn't have any idea.

Were all of you bringing in tapes, or were you the main guy doing that?

Yeah, I was the messenger. [Laughs] We went to Playboy Records to see Pete Welding, but he no longer worked there. We walked in, and we said we'd come all this way, and they put the tape on, and the guy turned it off in thirty seconds, didn't even hear the whole song, and said, 'No, we pass.' I thought, 'S***. This is going to be a little trickier than I thought.' He didn't even hear the song. So we just kept going to record companies and walked in. This is how different it was then. We'd just walk in and say, 'Hey, we just drove here from Florida. Would you just listen to this?' And some of them did. They would say, 'Oh okay. Let's hear it.' That first day MGM liked the record. And the guy said, 'Well, you know, we'd like to make you a singles deal for your first single.' And we went crazy.

He said, 'Who is your manager?'

And we said, 'We don't have no manager.'

'Well, who is your lawyer?'

'Lawyer? We don't have no lawyer.'

And he said, 'Okay, we can fix you up with all that. Come back, and we'd really like to make a single.' And I told him a single wasn't really what we wanted to do. We wanted to make an album. He said he'd be interested in cutting this one song, but he didn't know about an album.

And then we went to London records. And there they showed some real interest. The guy said, 'Yeah, I'm really interested in signing you.' That was the first day we were here. I remember calling Mike that night and saying, 'Hey, we got a record deal, you ain't going to believe it.' And I don't think he could believe it. He said, 'Are you kidding?'

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, who became a lifelong friend of mine. 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 it was him, 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.'

Leon Russell had a place in Tulsa, and Shelter was built around Leon. And there was a whole scene of Tulsa musicians there -- there was J.J. Cale and Carl Radle. Jim Keltner. Lots of really great musicians. So we stopped in Tulsa, and we met Cordell in the middle of this windstorm on the street. He took us to a little café and talked to us, and then he took us over to the studio they built in a church. It was called the Church Studio. It was a really nice studio. He said, 'So 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 night, and 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. We liked Denny a lot, so we said, 'Okay, we'll go with you.'


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