Four years Petty’s senior, the former Eagles guitarist was the one he went to when he wanted to learn to play guitar. Felder showed him some of what he knew, starting Petty on a path to a style that blended Merseybeat and Byrds-y jangle, R&B and rockabilly rhythms and even the occasional moment of shredding. Mike Campbell may be the Heartbreakers’ not-so-secret six-string weapon, but Petty certainly covered a few bases himself.
Following Petty’s death on Monday, Felder shared the following statement: “It is with a shattered heart that I write this post. Tommy’s passing feels like I’ve lost a little brother. Growing up together in Gainesville and seeing one of my students blossom as an incredibly gifted musician and songwriter has been one of my most fulfilling experiences in this life. It was obvious very early on in his career that his talent, magnetism and charisma were a very special gift that few souls in this world are given. He has given this world so many wonderful memories and touched millions with his magic. Gone far too soon. May he rest in peace knowing how much he is loved and appreciated by all of us that are left behind.”
Over the years, meanwhile, Felder has talked at length about those early days in Gainesville and about how Petty became his most famous guitar student. Speaking with Billboard last year, Felder remembered that truly special time spent in a special place with a certain long haired kid who would go on to become one of rock’s greatest artists. Read his comments in full below.
“I had taught myself pretty much how to play guitar, how to read music. There was no ‘music school’ in Gainesville in those years, and I spent so much time at the music store after school. I would sit there and play every guitar I could get and I would polish guitars and finally they gave me a job there, teaching. So everyone they sold guitars to for Christmas, these kids would come in with sore fingers and crying, ‘I want to learn how to play guitar,’ and I’d teach ’em. I would make 10 bucks an hour. I didn’t get paid cash; I had credit on the account there that I’d build up so when I finally had enough money I could get new cords or guitar strings or an amp or whatever I needed to continue with my career.
Tom Petty came in one day, gosh, he must’ve been 12 or 13. He had been playing bass in a band called the Epics that I knew as the Rucker Brothers Band and he wanted to play guitar. They had these two guitar players who both just flailed artlessly on the electric guitar and Tommy was playing bass and singing and fronting the band and he really didn’t want to be the singing bass player, so I started teaching him to play and went over to his house a couple of times and hung out and heard him play and went over to two or three of the Rucker Brothers’ shows ’cause it was a bit of a train wreck. I kind of helped put them together in the sense that one of them would play rhythm and one of them would play lead while Tommy was playing bass and just help sort through their band to help these kids put their garage band together.
And Tom was just absolutely fearless onstage. I remember standing in the audience at one of his early shows when he was about 14 and there were these girls going, ‘Oh my god, he’s so great! He’s so great!’ and Tommy was flipping his long blonde hair and shaking it. And I was listening to him sing and going, ‘Are you listening to the same guy? He’s OK…’ But he just had such charisma and such a power and energy on stage that he sold you on what he was doing. And in those days he was playing covers, he wasn’t even writing his own songs yet. But he had a fearless approach to his delivery of what he was doing on stage and everybody bought it.
He went on to be a really great songwriter, in my opinion. I think a lot of that just really deep commitment to what he’s doing, whether it’s writing a song or making a record or on stage really comes through when you hear his music. There’s no sense of reticence in his lyrics or his vocal performance or his delivery on stage. It’s very powerful.
I really don’t know if it was something in the water or something we were smoking at the time, but between the Allman Brothers, Petty, [Stephen] Stills, Bernie [Leadon], myself, an unusual number of people came out of that small little north central Florida town that went on to become platinum-selling recording artists and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The closest thing I can draw it to is the same sort of phenomenon that happened at Motown or around Memphis or in Nashville, where in certain areas there were so many people that kind of influenced each other or developed a similar style and that same group of people went on to stay involved in music because of that love and excitement in music. The challenge of having a musical career can be really overpowering for most people. It takes a certain personal commitment to what you’re doing to really suffer through the years of hard work and aguish and or reward and no recognition and no pay to finally get to a point where you have success. But the real reward of doing it is the joy you get out of doing it and that’s what all of us had.”