Happy Birthday to Tom Petty, One Fine Florida Dude
Given his spectacular 35 year career that's placed him at the pinnacle of international rock 'n' roll success, it's easy to forget that Tom Petty is a proud Florida boy whose personal and professional roots were first nurtured in Gainesville.
Born October 20, 1950, Petty's budding interest in music came about when his uncle, who was working on the set of the Elvis Presley film Follow That Dream in Ocala, invited his ten year-old nephew to watch the proceedings. Petty also got to meet Presley, and in short order, he was hooked.
He allegedly traded his slingshot for a box of Elvis 45s.
Watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 further clinched his ambitions, and when Petty began taking guitar lessons, one of his teachers was none other than another Gainesville native, Don Felder, who would later go on to join the Eagles. Petty's first band, the Epics, was quickly overshadowed by Mudcrutch, featuring future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, as well as guitarist Tom Leadon (brother of another Eagle-to-be, Bernie Leadon).
Mudcrutch became the house band at a Gainesville dive known as Dub's Lounge before attracting the attention of the fledgling Shelter Records label, the same company that would eventually sign the Heartbreakers a year later. With that, Petty's ties to Florida effectively ended, albeit temporarily, when the group relocated to L.A.
Sadly, Mudcrutch's output at the time was limited to one single, "Depot Street," in 1975. However more than 30 years later, Petty brought the band back together, reconvening with Marsh, Leadon, Tench, and Campbell to record an eponymous album released in April 2008. Mudcrutch briefly toured in support of the album and later released a live EP, Extended Play Live, before disbanding once again.
Nevertheless, Petty's ties to Florida were eventually renewed when the newly rechristened Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit the road. The band -- Petty, Tench, and Campbell, along with new recruits, bassist Ron Blair and original drummer Stan Lynch -- made their formal debut and their first performance outside Gainesville at a nondescript club in West Palm Beach.
Yours truly was there, and as a representative for the group's record label, I witnessed the performance from start to finish. It was obvious to me that the band had the presence and charisma to qualify them for the big time, although that notion was unexpectedly dispelled when the band walked back to their makeshift dressing room and found the words "Heartbreakers suck" scribbled on the side of a refrigerator.
That incident sharply contrasted with the welcome home Petty and his compatriots received when they returned to Gainesville in 2006 to play a gig at the University of Florida, the first time they'd played their hometown in over a decade. (Petty never attended the school, but he was briefly employed as a groundskeeper, and a tree he planted is still referred to as "The Tom Petty Tree.") Appropriately, each member of the group was also given a key to the city.
While Petty did seem somewhat sentimental while revisiting the campus, noting the memories he encountered at every locale, he also managed a bit of humor while holding the key. "It's a lot nicer than the one we got in Chicago," he joked. Considering the fact that it was a coming home in the truest sense, that would seem somewhat appropriate. After all, Petty ought to still be considered one truly fine Floridian.
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