Farewell Tom Petty (1950-2017)

Tavis remembers Tom Petty. Original air date: June 15, 2010.

Former Frontman and songwriter for The Heartbreakers rock band, Tom Petty has enjoyed success as a solo artist. He hosted his own XM Radio show, on which he shared tracks from his personal record collection, and made appearances in movies and on TV shows, including The Simpsons. Born and raised in Florida, Petty began playing music in high school and later moved to Los Angeles in search of a recording contract. He was a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and recipient of the Billboard Century Award for his lifetime achievements.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, we remember legendary rocker, Tom Petty. Just days ago, he and his band, The Heartbreakers, closed out their 40th anniversary tour here in Los Angeles to three incredible sold-out shows. Best known for his roots-infused rock music, Petty was a widely lauded songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist. He leaves a legacy that will never be forgotten.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A reprise of our conversation with Tom Petty coming up right now.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Tom Petty to this program. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has re-teamed with his band, the Heartbreakers, for their first CD in eight years. The new disc is called “Mojo.” From the project, here is some of the video for “I Should Have Known It.”


Tavis: You’ve been rocking for a long time. You having fun yet?

Tom Petty: [Laughs] I’m always having fun. Playing is fun. Music is fun.

Tavis: After all these years, still?

Petty: It has to be. I love the music. I’m never, ever tired of playing it. Now traveling, some of those things get a little wearing, but I love to play. I love the audience and it’s still just as much fun, I think.

Tavis: No matter how long you are around, there are certain classics that the audience always wants to hear. You ever get tired of playing those classics?

Petty: Well, not if I can play something new as well. I think it’s important to always offer something new, because I don’t feel that we’ve come to a point where we just want to rest on our laurels. But no, I don’t get tired of them. If 20,000 people start to sing, you tend to go along with it [laugh].

So I don’t really I wouldn’t want to get stuck being an oldie-goldie group, but I don’t mind. I think all the trouble you go through these days to go to one of these concerts, I think I owe them a bit of what they came to hear, yeah.

Tavis: Your point now reminds me, I think back in 1981, if I recall this correctly, you had a little spat with your record company at the time, speaking of the difficulty again, we go to see these artists and the money we pay to get in.

Back in ’81, they were raising the price of records by a dollar and you had a problem with that. You remember this?

Petty: Yeah. I thought I had a much-anticipated album at the time. I found out just before it was going to be released that they were going to raise the price a dollar. Now in those days, it would have been $8.98, which would seem good now.

I didn’t feel that I needed the extra buck and I thought this was going to set a trend of pricing the music out of the normal consumers’ range, so I refused to deliver the album unless they lowered the price. Eventually, I got my way and I think it held down the price of records for a long time.

When they wanted to go to $9.98, I wanted it to stay at $8.98. Now looking back at it, I feel more right than ever because I think that part of the bullet that shot the music industry in the foot was price. A CD was over $20 and I think, since then, they’ve reduced the prices, but you can’t make music an elitist game. I think it’s for the people and should be affordable.

Tavis: Your answer now, Tom, raises two questions for me. Let me put this one first. That was in ’81. If Tom Petty were to walk into a record company today and try that, what would happen?

Petty: Well, they’d throw him right out [laugh].

Tavis: You’d be on the sidewalk like “Beverly Hills Cop,” through the glass window, huh?

Petty: Yeah, I don’t know if they want to know what I have to say. They didn’t want to know then [laugh].

Tavis: So that stunt wouldn’t work today. The second thing is if your music is that good, if Tom Petty is all that and then some — and obviously he is — and you can get the extra dollar for your record and Tavis and his friends will pay you the extra dollar for the record, your art deserves that. Yes? No?

Petty: I deserve to be paid fairly, and I’m paid well. That was my position at the time, was we’re certainly making a lot of money. Maybe part…

Tavis: But the American way, Tom, is to always want to make more money.

Petty: Yes, but that’s – really, if you look around at America, that’s one of its biggest problems is you have corporations that can never be pleased at a profit. No matter what they make, they reckon they should still make more.

If you come up with, you know, the human being that can feel satisfied at what he’s making, and that’s not many people, but the people in, say, the top 1% that Obama wants to tax —  and rightfully so, I think — this idea that any dollar that’s my dollar is a good dollar is a great deal of the problem we face right now.

I think that listen, I like making money like anybody else, and I’m paid well, but I think there is a point at which you can out-price your audience or your base. These corporations are finding that out now, and I think it’s a dangerous way to live. It’s a dangerous way to think.

Tavis: I was talking to some kids the other day, Tom, and one of them was asking me how I recommend that he go about trying to discover what his gift was, what his talent is, what his purpose in being here on planet Earth is.

And I said to him and all the students in the classroom that my sense of it is that if you can answer this one question, you can figure out what your purpose is, and the question is this. What is the one thing that if I had to do it for free for the rest of my life, I would?

I like getting paid like anybody else, but if I had to do this free for the rest of my life, I’d still find a way to do it. That’s your calling, that’s your purpose, that’s your passion.

Petty: That’s dead on the money.

Tavis: I raise that because I want to ask whether or not, since we’re talking about money, if you weren’t paid anything back in the day, you still would have been playing somewhere, wouldn’t you?

Petty: I actually have said the very same thing to people that asked me, “Should I go into the music business or should I go into, say, law school? I’m kind of interested in both.” I say, “Well, if you have a choice, you shouldn’t go for music.” [laugh].

Tavis: You’ve got to be pulled all the way in.

Petty: This has got to be something you’ve got to do, and you’ve got to do it. When I decided to be a musician, I reckoned that that was going to be the way of less profit, less money. I was sort of giving up the idea of making a lot of money. It was what I loved to do. I would have done it anyway. If I’d had to work at Taco Bell, I’d have still been out at night trying to play music.

I always tell my kids, “Find something that you love and, within that, you’ll find some job that you can do and you’ll always be happy. You’ll go to a job that you want to go to.”

Tavis: How did you know that music was your gift?

Petty: It just hit me over the head one day. Around the age of 10, I just fell in love with record collecting and listening to really old ’50s records. This would have been around 1960, ’61. It took me a few years of just being an avid record fan.

And then I think when the Beatles came on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time, millions of garage bands came from that and I was one of those guys that got a guitar and learned to play. It was just like being addicted to it. I had to do it and it became my whole life and still is, pretty much. I didn’t ever have a choice. I was just taken over by it.

I was infatuated with music and that’s what I wanted to do. Didn’t know if I’d be any good at it or not, and probably wasn’t, I’m sure, when I started, but you work and work and work and people say, “Well, how do you make yourself work so hard?”

It doesn’t really seem like work when you’re doing it because you’re so caught up in what you’re doing, so I’ve been very fortunate.

Tavis: After all these years, do you have any idea of what it is about your style or about your substance that has connected with your audience, that’s created such a loyal fan base for you? Do you know what that is at this point?

Petty: Really good luck, I think [laugh]. I don’t know. I think we’ve never really kept an eye on what was current or what was going on at the time. We just tried to make music that we felt was honest and that it was it had a fairly timeless quality to it. We never really wanted to sound like we were on a particular bandwagon. Maybe that had something to do with it.

But we try really hard. Every show, we always go for it and give it all we’ve got and I think we’ve stayed together, the Heartbreakers and me, has been a big part of building a big fan base over the years. But I’m asked that and I really can’t be sure. I’m just so grateful that they’re still out there and want to hear us.

Tavis: When one digs into your past and to the start of your career, I didn’t realize that you were actually a big hit overseas before you caught on here, which is kind of weird because there are all kinds of artists in countries around the world who make it big in their own country, and then the big deal is, “Can I make it in America?”

Here you are, an American who makes it big in Europe before we really caught on here back in the States.

Petty: Yeah, we had probably a good year where England and Europe were paying the bills. You know, they were the first people England, really. The press took great notice of us, and it really helped us break America because of the press coming back across the ocean. So, yeah, it took a little time to get off the ground, but there you go.

Tavis: Tell me about the new record, “Mojo,” the new project.

Petty: “Mojo”, we’re really proud of. This is our first Heartbreakers album in eight years.

Tavis: Where you been?

Petty: Well, we’ve been busy [laugh]. We’ve been busy. We’ve been on the road a lot. We did a film with Peter Bogdanovich, we did the Super Bowl halftime, we did our 30th anniversary tour, we put out a seven-record live box set, so we haven’t been sitting around.

But we got into the studio with this one, had a ball. This album is really who we’ve grown into being, I think. It’s a more blues-based album. I’ve always had a great love for the blues. We’re very proud of it. I hope people get to hear it.

Tavis: When you stay out of the studio that long, what happens when you go back inside? I ask that against the backdrop that to my ear, at least I’m a music lover and to my ear the music business can change with the speed of light. It can change with the speed of sound.

It’s fascinating because when once somebody comes out with a sound that hits, every record label wants to emulate or copy that sound, but once that sound is played, they move on to something else. But it really changes really quickly at times, so when you stay out for eight years, you go back in, the experience is like what?

Petty: It was a heavenly experience. I mean, we’re not caught up in the music of the moment. We’re just doing what we like, and that’s always been my strategy, is let’s make this record for us, what we would like to hear today and what would move us. If you move yourself, then the odds are there’s going to be quite a few people that hear it that way too.

Tavis: I was about to ask, how do you know that what you and the band think sounds good is going to resonate with your audience?

Petty: Oh, we don’t [laugh].

Tavis: It’s a gamble, huh?

Petty: We don’t. I’ve never had any idea that what I like would resonate with the audience, and I’m pleasantly surprised when it does. This is about a journey. It’s about a long musical journey and I think sometimes maybe you’re going to connect with the audience more than others, but the journey is about getting all there is to get out of this group of people.

I feel like we’ve got a great deal more music in us. I think that when you hear this album you’ll say, “Wow, they’re getting better. They’re getting better as musicians and the songs are good.” But it’s truly just what we love to do. We’re not we never really worry too much about what other people are doing.

Tavis: When you’ve been doing something as long as you can do it, is that humility speaking that we can get better, we’re getting better, or do you really believe, after all the years you’ve been doing this, that you’re still getting better?

Petty: I absolutely do believe that we’re getting better. I believe we’re refining what we do. I believe we’re getting our art is becoming more refined and I’m interested to see I don’t think that I have to I’m going to be 60 this year. It’s a little bit intimidating. But I think that the job can still be done and that I have still a lot to offer, and I’m trying all the time to get better at it, yes. I’m not being too humble, no.

Tavis: 60 is intimidating for you why?

Petty: Well, it’s old [laugh].

Tavis: But why is 59 not old and 60 is old?

Petty: Oh, yeah, you’re right. You’re right, it’s the same, and if you’re not getting older, you’re dead. When I was a kid and I thought of someone 60, I thought, well, it’s pretty well wrapped up for them [laugh].

Tavis: That’s ancient, yeah [laugh]. Now 60 is the new 40?

Petty: Yeah [laugh]. 60 is the new 40, yeah. Yeah, that’s the baby boomers for you. They refuse to die.

Tavis: When you’re onstage, since you raise the issue of being 60 this year — and happy early birthday — when you’re on stage, do you – in terms of your instrumentation, are there things that you have adjusted? This is really inside baseball, but in terms of the way you play, your style, your stage presence, are there things that you have finally found yourself adjusting because of your advancing age?

Petty: Well, I don’t leap off the piano anymore [laugh].

Tavis: Stopped doing that, huh?

Petty: Stopped taking long jumps, yeah [laugh].

Tavis: But in terms of your playing, though, you’re not…

Petty: I’m actually better on the guitar than when I started, I think, because I’ve had so much time with it and I still practice and I love to do it and I love to sing. So, you know, I don’t think we’ve lost a lot there, no.

Tavis: When you are and I’m always amazed at this — it’s one of the things I love about going I love music, as I said earlier, and I love going to concerts for all kinds of people, and one of the things I always love, I may appreciate the artist and I want to go see them perform, but I’m not like a diehard fan. I respect their craft. I’ve never heard them in concert, so I want to go see them.

But every time you go to a concert, there are these diehard fans of that particular group, and I’m always blown away by how the hardcore fans know everybody in the group. They know them by name, they know their back story.

You guys are laughing because you know how this works. They love everybody in the band. Tell me about this group of guys you’ve been playing with for years and how that group stays together for so many years.

Petty: The core of this group started playing together around 1970. I think, first of all, we’ve stayed together because we really respect each other’s ability. It’s very much like a family. They become your brothers when you’ve spent as much time in each other’s pockets as we have, as many rooms and airplanes.

We’re always together. Maybe we don’t hang out as much together, but I was just telling this to someone like about, say, Saturday night we took a five-hour plane ride together and we had a lot of time to talk. I think we’re friends, basically.

I think we’re friends and the big reason, I suppose, that we don’t break up is I personally there’s nowhere I think I could go and things would be better musically. I’m really satisfied with the people I play with and I’m very in awe of like Mike Campbell and Ben Tench. You’re not going to find anything better than that.

I was just very lucky. I think to be successful, you have to work really hard, but you also have to have a little bit of luck. And I think I was very lucky that these two pals of mine just happen to be now some of the greatest musicians in the world.

So I’ve been very lucky that way, but we still have our spats and stuff, but I don’t think there’s anything in a way, the band to us has become bigger than us in that we all respect it, and I don’t think we want to do anything that would tear it down.

Tavis: When you first got started, Tom, was it your dream then, your goal then to be a front man or did that happen in some unique way?

Petty: I have never been comfortable being the front man.

Tavis: Never?

Petty: Never.

Tavis: You’ve been doing it for a while. You might want to settle into this [laugh]. You might want to settle in, Tom Petty.

Petty: No, I got stuck with the job. First of all, I started playing the bass because nobody else would play the bass, and then [laugh] I got bumped up into singing because no one else really wanted to sing. So I learned how to sing and I wrote the songs, so I tended to get the most attention.

But I’ve always felt like a team player. I don’t treat the band like I’m above them or that they’re a hired hand for me. We’ve never worked that way. So I’m a team player. I would be very uncomfortable having to do this alone.

Tavis: You mentioned that over the years, you all have become better musicians. You think you play better now than you did back in the day. On this new project, “Mojo,” has the sound changed, or when you hear this, you know it’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers?

Petty: I think you’ll know it’s us, but I think the sound has changed, yeah. The sound I think we’re leaning more to the blues side of things, that that’s what we really listen to all the time and music that has greatly inspired me, and I think you’ll notice that we’ve grown.

We’ve found some ground, I think, that we can work for a while now, and that’s always exciting. Every now and then. something will happen musically where you go, “Ah, we found a really good area.”

Tavis: Can you describe what that is?

Petty: Well, it’s basically we’re I don’t want to get too technical for the audience, but we don’t overdub as much or, say, rather than like when you do a record and you’re adding track after track after track, that’s more to me like oil painting. What we’re doing now is more like Polaroids. We’re trying to capture it quickly and in the moment, and it’s all about the feel.

I didn’t worry about much making this record other than first the songs, which I worked really hard on for a while because nothing’s going to happen if you don’t have a song, and then it was all about feel. How does this feel? Does this move me? That was the criteria. I didn’t care if somebody made a mistake.

Tavis: Finally, when you walked in this is our first time meeting and when you walked on the stage, there were a bunch of guys that walked in with you. It’s a bit of a distance from here to where you walked in, but I could see across the studio and I immediately knew it was you because I saw the sunglasses [laugh].

The third guy, that’s Petty [laugh] This has become a trademark for you. If you walked in without your sunglasses, I wouldn’t know who you were, probably.

Petty: You know, I’m not trying to be cool. I have a problem with lights. I have one eye that’s become super-sensitive to lighting, so I do wear sunglasses quite a bit.

Tavis: They’re cool. I mean, they’re cool. I just…

Petty: Well, it’s a lucky kind of thing [laugh].

Tavis: We’ll call that lucky cool?

Petty: Lucky, yeah.

Tavis: Lucky cool.

Petty: Just lucky.

Tavis: No, I think Tom Petty is just cool, period. He’s always been cool and he’s still cool, with or without the glasses. The new project from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is called “Mojo.” Tom Petty, an honor to have you on the program.

Petty: It’s an honor to be here. Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Oh, man, thank you so much. That’s our show for tonight. Catch me on the weekends on PRI, Public Radio International. You can access our radio podcast through our website at pbs.org, and I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from L.A. 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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Last modified: October 4, 2017 at 2:29 pm