Musician Benmont Tench

One of music’s great session men talks about segueing to frontman with his debut solo album, “You Should Be So Lucky.”

A highly respected instrumentalist, Benmont Tench is the longtime pianist and keyboard player for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. He's also been a much sought-after session player for a variety of artists—from Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones to Ziggy Marley, Bonnie Raitt and U2. After nearly four decades in the business, he's put the finishing touches on his first-ever solo album, "You Should Be So Lucky." Tench first met the then-up-and-coming rocker Petty as a teen at a local music store and later left school to join Petty's group, Mudcrutch, which evolved into the iconic Heartbreakers.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Benmont Tench has more than 40 years of recording to his credit, playing on records for Johnny Cash, U2, Bob Dylan, and of course as a member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

He’s also an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and after all those years is one of music’s great session men. He finally has come out with his own CD. It’s called “You Should Be So Lucky.”

It features some of his friends, as you might imagine, people like Ringo Starr. Let’s take a look at a cut from “You Should Be So Lucky” called “Veronica Said.”

[Clip]

Tavis: Benmont Tench, good to have you on this program, sir.

Benmont Tench: Great to be here.

Tavis: We’ve had Tom Petty here, your bandmate, on the program before. But our first time having you here, so it’s good to have you.

Tench: I’m thrilled to be here.

Tavis: What took so long, man?

Tench: You know -

Tavis: No for being on the show. (Laughter) For the album.

Tench: I didn’t see any reason to make one. It seemed like everybody was making records, and eventually, though, I had enough songs, and I started to get some confidence in the songs.

I think it’s kind of intimations of mortality. You figure if I don’t do something with these songs, they’ll be gone when I’m gone. I thought highly enough of the songs that I thought they deserved to have a chance.

Tavis: You said something fascinating now, which is this notion of finally getting to a place where you felt secure enough in the songs. After all the years you’ve been doing this, one would think that the last thing you suffer from is insecurity.

Tench: Well you got to remember, I started sitting in with Tom Petty and Mike Campbell when I was about 17, and he was already writing great songs. So I’d been around a top-notch songwriter since I was a teenager.

Then when I started doing sessions I got to work with people like Bob Dylan and people like Willie Nelson and people like Johnny Cash. So it can be a little bit daunting, and then I started to get good enough feedback on the songs, and I went damn it, I believe in these songs, so let’s give them a shot.

Tavis: Speaking of Tom Petty and you were hanging out with him when you were just a 17-year-old kid, barely 17. There’s a great story of what Mr. Petty had to do to convince your father to let you hang out with him.

Tench: Yes.

Tavis: You want to tell the story? I love that story.

Tench: Well I quit college and neglected to tell my dad. (Laughter) And my dad was a judge.

Tavis: “Neglected to tell your dad.”

Tench: My dad was a good man, great man, he was a judge, and he was not mean-spirited in the least. But he was like well, you be honest. So when he finally figured out – all my sisters had gone back to school and I hadn’t gone back to school.

I was just working up the nerve to tell him, and before I got the nerve to tell him he busted me on it. He said, thoroughly reasonably, “Well if you’re not going to school and you don’t stay at the house when you aren’t in school, so go find your own place to stay.”

Tom talked to him, convinced him that we had a shot, that it was worth my doing, and also I think probably out of great fear on Tom’s part that if I didn’t stay at my parents’ house I would crash on his couch.

Tavis: Right. (Laughter)

Tench: He probably didn’t want that.

Tavis: So how long did your dad live after that? Did he get a chance to see any of this success?

Tench: My father only passed away about 10 years ago.

Tavis: Oh, wow, well that answers my question, then.

Tench: If even, if even, maybe six or seven years ago.

Tavis: Yeah. He saw a whole lot of this.

Tench: He saw a lot.

Tavis: A lot of the success.

Tench: He was concerned that I was – you know, you say you’re going to go to California from Florida and be a successful musician or just be a musician of any kind; it’s a long, long, long shot. So I understand his concern.

Tavis: How did he come around years later when you guys are on tour around the world and selling records like crazy?

Tench: He was really proud. He knew that I loved music from really early on. My parents always knew that I loved music. They just didn’t think I’d try to make it a career. They thought I’d be a painter or an art teacher or something like that.

Tavis: So he made peace with Tom Petty.

Tench: Oh, they made peace.

Tavis: Tom kept his word.

Tench: Yeah, the whole band was really close with my folks. We rehearsed in my parents’ living room.

Tavis: Oh, cool. So there are 12 tracks on here, 10 original tracks, 10 new pieces of material, which is great, and two covers, and both of the covers happen to be Dylan.

Tench: They do.

Tavis: So obviously, everybody knows your work, we all know you’ve worked with Dylan in the past. But when I say the name Bob Dylan and the fact that you only have two tracks that are covers and both of them are Dylan’s, what is it, what has it been, what is it for you specifically, about Bob Dylan?

Tench: That’s a hard one to pin down, because he goes back so far. When we would rehearse with him, sometimes he would just be messing around between songs and play a ballad from the 16 or 1700s.

He knows so much about music, but he also knows a lot about rhythm. It’s not just the rhythm of his words, it’s the rhythm of his guitar playing, the rhythm of the grooves that he chooses for his songs, the way that he combines them.

So he has the brilliant imagery, but he’s a direct line back to the kind of guitar playing, to the rhythm that you hear on old records by somebody like Robert Johnson.

Or Hank Williams. There’s a certain kind of rhythm that used to get played before the machine age, before the musical machine age, and Bob goes back to that, and it’s very primal and heart-centered.

I think that that, as much as his lyric gift and his melodic gift, is what draws me to Bob.

Tavis: I was just about to ask before you went there what you make of his lyrical genius, his songwriting ability.

Tench: I think, and I’ve said it before, I think that with Bob Dylan around, we’re living in an era where we have Whitman presenting new work, we have Dickens presenting new work, we have Yeats and Shakespeare presenting new work. It’s that level.

Tavis: That’s high cotton.

Tench: It is high cotton. There’s none higher. There really is none higher. It’s not a hype. Bob Dylan’s not a hype and a haircut, he’s the real thing.

Tavis: Yeah. Well, you would know. I think all the rest of us feel that way, but you would certainly know.

Tench: Well that was – playing with Bob, we were his band, the Heartbreakers were his band for a couple of tours in the ’80s, and how much we learned and how much we grew just from playing with him is astounding, and how much fun we had as well.

Tavis: But you have to be – set your modesty aside for just a second – but you and the guys in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have to be really, really pleased, though, with your own contribution.

You’re Hall of Famers yourself, but contributions have been so significant that you guys have made musically.

Tench: That’s kind of you to say and I’m not being false -

Tavis: It’s a fact. I’m not trying to be kind, yeah.

Tench: The contributions that we have made, I think the songs, and I see us more as continuing a certain kind of music than consciously trying to break ground, because it’s not a conscious retro kind of thing that the Heartbreakers do.

This is just my take on it. We don’t go, “Let’s sound old-fashioned.” But there’s a certain thing that resonates with the whole band, a certain kind of songwriting and a certain groove.

Somebody’s got to play that. Somebody’s got to play it or it’s going to go away, and it’s really, really good. The songwriting craft, the arranging the groove, all of that is something we really pay a lot of attention to.

Tavis: Back to “Veronica Said,” took you decades to get around to finally doing this, but now that you’ve done a solo project, did you enjoy it enough to consider doing it again?

Tench: It was a wonderful experience, and I would like to do it again. I don’t know if I can get lightning to strike again in the sense of the way that it was a joyous experience.

We had 11 days to do the thing. A dear friend of mine produced it, it was all recorded old school to tape, and it was all friends of mine in a room making music at once.

So it was basically like a house party, but we were serious about making good music.

Tavis: You can always do another house party.

Tench: Well I can do it at my house.

Tavis: The party ain’t over.

Tench: I could do it in my house.

Tavis: Yeah, the party ain’t over.

Tench: I hope not.

Tavis: My time is up with you. I’ve been hearing a little rumor that, speaking of Tom Petty, you guys are doing another project? Is that true? Can you confirm that?

Tench: Is this wood? I don’t know if this is wood.

Tavis: Yeah, it’s wood, yeah, it’s wood, yeah, yeah.

Tench: We’ve got it done, I believe.

Tavis: You think it’s done?

Tench: I believe it’s done, I believe that it is done.

Tavis: Am I to -

Tench: I believe that the opera singer has sung. I think we’re, we’re there.

Tavis: And might there be -

Tench: We’re very, very happy with it.

Tavis: Might there be a tour behind this?

Tench: I hope so.

Tavis: Yeah.

Tench: I got my fingers crossed on that, because that’s what I love doing, is going out and playing.

Tavis: Yeah, wow.

Tench: It’s different every night.

Tavis: Well I’m glad to hear that, that it is (knocking on wood) done, (laughter) the next project from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. We all are waiting for that.

In the meantime, why don’t you groove to this? It’s Benmont Tench’s first solo project all these years later, “You Should Be So Lucky,” and we should be so lucky as to have had you as a guest on our program, so thank you so much, Benmont. Good to have you here, brother.

Tench: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • T.V.

    IVE BEEN GOING TO SEE THIS GUY WITH THE HEARTBREAKERS FOR MORE THAN 35 YEARS.IM NO EXPERT BUT HE IS NO DOUBT ONE OF THE BEST.

  • sandra herringsj

    Have always loved TP & the Hearbreakers, glad to see Benmont getting the love he deserves. Also I am soo glad I have discovered You Tavis, can’t get enough of your show. Best interviewer
    EVER, you let the person talk , ask great questions, and one can feel your genuine interest in the person. Plus your choice of guest continune to amaze and entertain me, especially the musical guest. Please keep up the great work Tavis.

Last modified: March 26, 2014 at 3:01 pm