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Neil Portnow on Tom Petty: 'He Burst Into Our Musical Consciousness and Never Let Go'

Neil Portnow
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Neil Portnow poses in the press room at the 57th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. 

Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow grew up adulating Tom Petty from afar, and though he had a few interactions with him, it was with this past February's MusiCares pre-Grammy dinner that he got to know the late rocker. Raising $8.5 million for the charity that night with Tom's help, Portnow now looks back on how Petty timidly stepped into the spotlight and reflects on his legacy in rock n' roll.

I was a musician as a kid so I started playing guitar when I was seven and growing up with the music of the Beatles and whatever was transformative at the time. Being a guitar player originally and a bass player, I was always interested in the music of bands. Not all, but back at that time, I was a fan but I wasn’t a fanatic. I think what happened to me interestingly over the years was I became more of a fanatic because I appreciated more deeply the contributions [Tom] had made and the artists involved and the consistency over time that he was always a dependable source of brilliance and innovation and kind of made you think about some of the things he was talking about. I think that would be my historic relationship with he and his music. And then of course, the… how do I want to call them? The Mt. Rushmore of super groups, Traveling Wilburys. When that happened, in addition to his own career and the Heartbreakers and so on, you almost get whiplash when something like that happens because you have all these iconic incredible musicians together and that was undeniably special and wonderful and you couldn’t miss that if you were a musician on the planet in terms of the significance.

I’d met Tom along the way under one circumstance or another but never in a particularly intimate or close way. When we came up with the idea and the wish to be able to honor him as our person of the year for MusiCares last year, I got very involved there and I’ve known his manager personally, Tony Dimitriades, for many years and have tremendous respect and admiration for him. In all the conversations of putting that together, it was subsequent to Tom graciously agreeing to have us honor him that I got to spend a little bit of time there. My closest and fondest memory of that is only months ago. It makes this even more difficult to fathom because you couldn’t have met anybody more vibrant and alive and committed and involved and passionate and energetic about his music and music in general and for our good fortune, about MusiCares and what we represented in terms of his world of philanthropy and charity and doing good for others.

Putting [MusiCares] together is a very interesting task and opportunity for us. Many artists are very humble and in some cases even shy about being honored in the first place. That’s not why they do what they do, it’s not their motivation. Secondly, even more so, they’re typically modest and pretty close to the vest in terms of what they do with their own philanthropy and charity. They don’t do it for public acclaim but because they believe in it and it comes from the heart. 

I would say that it was a little bit of a journey for Tom to feel comfortable in allowing us to honor him. He’s someone who’s not big on these kinds of things, he’s kind of shied away from it. It was a little bit of a journey getting to a place where he was accepting of it. The pivotal element about our honoring him is the fact that the mission of the charity, the mission of MusiCares, really is something that’s close to his heart and had personal experience with. He’s an artist who could say, and did say, "I know what your service does in the community and I know people whose lives have been saved." Particularly on the substance abuse and recovery part of the work that gets done from MusiCares. That is a motivating factor. Any organization that can do that kind of work is one that deserves my support. So I do remember that dialogue. Then, in terms of building the night, Tom had a lot of creative input in opinions and recommendations and ideas that he wanted to see integrated into the evening and we were absolutely able to do very much of that in collaboration with our own thoughts and ideas, because we do know a bit about what our audience will enjoy and is looking forward to seeing, so it was a real collaboration but Tom had a real vision about a lot of what happened that night.

Tom burst into our musical consciousness and never let go. His music is rooted in a celebratory rebelliousness, infectious rhythms and unforgettable lyrics that are etched in our imaginations. I think that’s kind of a universal description of what he has meant to his fans and musicians now in the present, but I have every reason to believe that you could make that same statement and use those same words decades to come, because he really did have … he marched to the beat of his own drum, to use a sort of idiomatic expression. When an artist has a singular unique and authentic vision like that, those are the ones that carry on and last forever.


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