“There’s nothing like being friends and being in a band,” said Tom Petty. “That’s the most attractive part of it to me. When I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I’d think, ‘Those guys look like they’re all friends and they’re having such a good time.’ And that’s really important to be a good band.”
As he was telling me this in 2014 at his sprawling home in Malibu, Calif., I thought back to 2008, when I watched Petty rehearsing with his recently reassembled second band, Mudcrutch. Petty beamed as he and a group that had broken up 32 years earlier — though two of its members, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, continued to play with him as the core of The Heartbreakers — bashed through a version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in his Van Nuys rehearsal space. A few months earlier, Petty had headlined the Super Bowl halftime show, but right then he looked content with the simple pleasures of playing bass and singing harmony in a rock’n’roll band.
Petty never seemed to lose the joy and wonder of being part of a musical group. With his death, so much of the focus has (rightly) been on his extraordinary songwriting, but Petty was also one of rock’s great bandleaders, maintaining the airtight versatility of The Heartbreakers for 40 years while also juggling the reunited Mudcrutch and, of course, The Traveling Wilburys.
Campbell spoke of Petty’s talent as a frontman when I interviewed him in 2014. “At the end of the day, it’s always Tom’s choice,” he said. “With the label or management, he has good antenna for weeding out bullshit and phoniness and keeping everything honest.”
Not that it was an easy role. As explored in Warren Zanes’ excellent Petty: The Biography from 2015, the pressures of fronting a band weighed heavily on Petty, particularly the departures of drummer Stan Lynch, who quit in 1994 over longstanding personal and artistic differences; and in 2002, bassist Howie Epstein, who was fired in part due to his heroin use, not long after Petty kicked his own addiction to the drug. (Epstein died from an overdose in 2003.)
“I never really wanted to be up front,” Petty said in 2014. “[In the beginning] I was the bass player, but I was the one with the record deal, and the record company wanted me up front … I didn’t really understand all that entailed at the time, but that’s the way it went.”
Despite the departures of Lynch and Epstein, Petty’s leadership kept the Heartbreakers a stable unit. Its latest iteration looked a lot like its first, and even its newer members — drummer Steve Ferrone, who replaced Lynch, and utility player Scott Thurston — had been with the band for over 20 years. And Petty replaced Epstein with original Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair.
“They’re very quick to tell me if they don’t agree with me or if they have a better idea,” Petty said of the group in 2014. “So in our minds, we don’t really see a difference between us and a band like The Stones.”
Putting Mudcrutch back together, Petty said in 2010, sprang from “a random thought: ’I really liked that band. I wonder what it would be like to get them together.’” He would later express delight about this unlikely reunion that included co-founder Tom Leadon, with whom Petty had formed his first band, The Epics. “I love being with those people,” he said. “A very happy bunch of people and old, old friends.”
He even described The Traveling Wilburys — which saw him collaborating with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne — as having a genuine band dynamic. “We were all in the same circle, and the group just naturally materialized,” he said in 2007.
Petty was never shy about fighting for his vision in the studio or with the music industry. His reward, then, was that feeling of camaraderie and collaboration, whether with his old crew from Gainesville or his new peers in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.