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On the Trail of the Hogtown Heartbreaker
By Kyle Kulish
Applause — February 11, 1983
Meet Tom Petty.
He fights big record companies, like MCA, to retain power over his contract.
Like a modern day Robin Hood he cuts from the big record companies’ profits to give his fans lower prices.
His style of singing and songwriting about everyday folks, mixed with good rock ‘n’ roll, has people comparing him with “The Boss,” Bruce Springsteen.
But most importantly, he is Gainesville born, bred, brave, bold, boisterious, and beloved.
What’s so special about Gainesville?
Why it has produced Bernie Leadon and Don Felder, formerly of the Eagles, the group AXE and Stephen Stills, to name a few.
They are all graduates of the Beatles era and have some of the finest degrees in music. And joining the ranks was Tom (Tommy to some of his friends) Petty.
Petty’s beginnings were not so humble and were far from music.
To start at the beginning, he was born into a white working class neighborhood along Northeast Ninth Street. But the family moved to the present residence at Northeast Sixth Terrace when Tom was 3.
Tom’s father wanted Tom to draw. “I encouraged him to draw. Anything he can see he can put on paper,” Earl Petty said. Earl has lived alone in Gainesville since his wife, Kitty, died in 1980. He has just come from Alachua General Hospital after a bout of pneumonia.
“There’s more to him (Tom) than getting started at Dub’s (a local night spot). He came from a good Christian family. He was a good kid,” Tom’s aunt, Evelyn Jernigan said. She works with her husband at their business, Jernigan’s Motion Picture Service in northeast Gainesville.
In fact, she is the person responsible for getting Tom interested in music and playing. “I’m afraid … I was the one that did it. If I had known that (he would be where he is now) I never would have done it. It has taken him so far out of the family life,” Jernigan said.
But she really doesn’t regret what she did. “He’s doing what he wanted to do.”
When Tommy was 10 years old Jernigan decided to take him to Ocala, about 35 miles south of Gainesville, to watch his uncle work on a movie. Part of the movie, Follow That Dream, starring Elvis Presley, was being shot in a downtown Ocala bank. Elvis was to enter the bank and bumble around while bank tellers got the idea he was trying to hold the bank up.
Tommy saw Elvis’ limousine and all the crowds that had turned out just to see Elvis and decided that was what he wanted, Jernigan said. “He wanted to be just like him. Just like Elvis. I think it was the hero worship that he saw. None of the family encouraged it,” she said. They were afraid that he would work very hard and not get anywhere with his music. “We thought it would bring more heartache,” she said.
To fulfill Tommy’s wishes, his family invested in a $28 Spanish guitar as a Christmas present.
One day Tom’s father, a former insurance salesman, had stopped at a filling station. He met a man trying to sell a guitar. It seems this guy used to play in a band, but he got married and his wife wanted him to give it up. Earl overheard the man and bought he Gibson EB2 for Tom. But the guitar neck was too long, so Tom traded it in for a Gibson EB1 at Liphams, a local music store.
At about the same time, Tom was active in sports. Well, sort of. “He was in junior varsity football. But he wasn’t much of a football player because he wasn’t big enough,” Earl said.
So Tom tried little league baseball. He was pretty good there except he couldn’t hit the ball. Every inning he’d play he would come into the dugout and the coach would send in someone else to bat for Tom. “He never got to bat,” Earl said.
Well, one day it came time for Tom to go to practice. He said he didn’t want to go because he knew he wouldn’t get a chance at bat anyway. Earl turned to him and said, “If I was young and felt that way about it, I would put my uniform in a paper bag and give it to the coach.”
“But what will I tell him?” Tom asked.
“Tell him you found something else you like better.”
“What will I tell him I found?”
“I don’t know. You’ll think of something.”
He thought of something, all right.
He came back and said he wanted to be a musician. Tom had his guitar, and Earl said he’d pay for some lessons as long as Tom kept his grades up.
Predictably, Tom’s grades started to fall after three lessons. “Well, we won’t have any more lessons,” Earl announced. But three were enough for Tom. In fact, he soon began teaching other people how to play, and he started rolling.
His first engagement was to play a birthday party with his first band, the Sundowners. He was 14. They were paid $5, Earl said. After that they followed the beginner’s band circuit, including the American Legion Hall and the Moose lodge.
“He was a very active, very busy kid. We thought it would pass. His family tried to discourage it to begin with,” Jernigan said.
When Tom was playing in the Sundowners and his next band, The Establishment, he wasn’t old enough to drive. His mother had to drive him and the band to many of their performances, Earl said. They didn’t want anyone to know Tom’s mother was driving them, so she would stop near one of their gigs, they would unload their equipment and walk to the performance.
At about the same time, the Rucker brothers, Rodney and Rickey, moved to Gainesville from Miami and founded The Epics with neighbor Dick Underwood. Along with Tom, they all went to Gainesville High School.
Tom was a sophomore in Rodney’s geometry class. “I think we both failed,” Rodney said.
While Rodney and Tom were professing their knowledge of right angles and tangents they were also meeting at “the hot spot of the century” — the old skating palace, Rodney said. The skating palace was located at the corner of North 13th Street and 23rd Boulevard, where the Shell station is now. The roller rink was shut down on weekends and some weekdays for dances because there wasn’t anything big enough in Gainesville to hold a dance in.
One night at the Palace, Rodney ran into Tom. Rodney knew the singer for The Epics couldn’t perform at a gig that weekend, and he told the rest of the group about Tommy. “He gave me the idea that he wasn’t the least bit happy (with The Establishment). And if I remember correctly, he was pretty well drunk,” Rodney said. So he asked Tom about his singing quality.
“He said, Yeah, he was the best. He’d do it.” The day before that performance Tom showed up for a rehearsal, sang with the band and left. “After he left we all said, ‘Oh my God, what a mistake,'” Rodney said. But they couldn’t do a thing. They were stuck with Tom. Well, when performance time rolled around they were surprised, His singing had not improved all that much, but the way he moved when he sang caught their attention and the audience’s.
Before Tom, the band would just stand around and play. “He gave our band personality and we started being noticed by people,” Rodney said. And Tom stayed on as lead vocalist.
The hottest groups in the state were The Tropics in Tampa, Ron and the Starfires from Auburndale and The Nation Rocking Shadow from Leesburg, Rodney said.
Thus began the Epics. It wasn’t a very dramatic start, but then neither was the band. “Our main band activity” was drinking beer, Rickey Rucker said. Budweiser was their favorite, but they drank anything that was on sale, he said.
In the late sixties, as now, a lot of good bands were coming into Gainesville, Dick Underwood said. So The Epics followed the lead of most other local groups and performed outside town.
They used to rent the American Legion Hall in Dunellon, about 43 miles southeast of Gainesville. They would charge $1 a head admission and pull in about $100 to $125 dollars.
They soon graduated to the bar and club circuit, but getting into some of those places wasn’t always easy. “We had to fake IDs to get into places,” Rickey said. Tommy was 16 then.
Nevertheless, they were able to play in bars as far away as St. Petersburg and Tampa and an old favorite, Sebring, about 160 miles south of Gainesville off U.S. Highway 27.
Actually, if you ask any of the band members, they may tell you how Haines City, 45 miles south of Sebring, was a favorite stop of their band van. Rodney bought a ’62 Econoline Ford Van that transported the band’s equipment, pulled a trailer and broke down. Regularly.
Tom doesn’t have to worry about ’62 vans breaking down on him anymore. When he tours now he travels with three buses, three semi-trucks filled with equipment and a road crew of 25. When he played with The Epics, the band was the road crew. Twenty people installed the scaffolding for yesterday’s concert and at one time 45 people were preparing for Tom’s second homecoming. He even has wardrobe women.
Luckily the band had a short trip on one engagement. “There’s a place in Ocala called the Driftwood and this guy called us up to play there,” Rickey said. They were scheduled to play from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Come 9 they were ready to play, but the “cavernous” lounge was empty, except for the guy who booked them a barmaid. The guy looked up at them and told them to play; after all, that was what he was paying them for. “He just sat there and looked at us play” through three sets of music, Underwood said. It seems this place was a bottle club. And around midnight the rest of the places in Ocala closed and this place opened for business and people flooded in, Rickey said.
Also at this “dive” Tom got “pretty drunk.” Petty got so sick and so drunk he slumped up against the microphone when he was singing. Rodney tried to hold him up, Underwood said, but he couldn’t. So they put him off to the side and played instrumentals until they were finished.
“We weren’t good worth a shit. But we were good enough to fool people,” Rodney said.
But the Ocala job was not the worst showing for The Epics, Underwood said. “The worst job we ever played was … in Sarasota. Nobody showed uyp except the doorman.” Everyone was at the coliseum next door attending an Up With People concert, he said.
The band used to rehearse in a cinderblock building behind the Petty home that literally had wall-to-wall and wall-on-wall carpeting.
During this time Petty and Rodney worked at Lipham’s music with Felder and Bernie Leadon. Plus Tommy Leadon, Bernie’s younger brother, had joined the group at this time. Well, according to Rodney they worked two years at the music store “on and off.” They worked because they got discounts on equipment and they got some extra cash. In fact, they were “on” during the week. But when the weekend rolled around they were usually “off.” If the group had a performance they had to play somewhere around the state they needed to leave work by noon. And they would, and Buster Lipham would fire them. But every Monday they’d get a call saying they were hired again.
During one of these weekend trips the inevitable happened. The Econoline van coughed its last. “I spent more time underneath it and pushing it instead of riding it,” Underwood joked. The van kept breaking down around at Haines City junkyard, and there it received last rites before the band rented a U-Haul to return to Gainesville. After that they used a car with the trailer.
Now, there are rumors that Tom never graduated from high school, but they’re untrue. Tom just skipped his graduation, Rickey said. The band was scheduled to open a gig and Tommy opted for the performance instead of the pomp. “We weren’t what you would call serious students,” Rickey said.
They were serious about their music for awhile. But in 1968, something happened to Rodney.
“I lost my interest in music,” Rodney said. He quit and got married.
A couple of years later Dick and Rickey lost their interest too. One day he and Rick were riding some motorbikes they had recently bought when they got a call from Tom asking why they weren’t at practice. “We said forget it. We quit,” Dick said. Tom was a little bit shocked, he said.
But all three said they knew they couldn’t go anywhere, but they knew he had the potential.
“He was excellent,” Underwood said. But did he think Tom would make it big? “No. To be honest, no. I always thought he had a lot of talent, but not enough to be where he is right now.”
“We always knew Tommy could do something” Rickey said. “We didn’t think we could. He was just a rock ‘n’ roll kind of guy. He lived and breathed music. He was the driving force behind us (The Epics). It surprised us he did as well as he did,” he said.
After Underwood, Rodney and Rickey left. The Mudcrutch — a name Tommy dreamed up — the new Petty band continued with some of the same gigs at the same places. But there was one difference. The band was rehearsing/performing for free in a little house behind Dub’s, off Northwest 13th Street, Dub Thomas, Dub’s owner since 1965, said.
He talked with Tom a lot. “Tom was just a real nice kid,” Dub said. Well, after talking with Tom for awhile, Dub invited Mudcrutch to play in the lounge club about once every six weeks. For about five or six months they were the house band and played for $275 a week. Gainesville had taken Mudcrutch under its wing just as it recently had with the Dixie Desperados and The Nancy Luca Band, Dub said.
As Tommy kept performing, his father kept urging his son to get back to drawing. “I encouraged him to learn a trade to fall back on,” Earl said.
Tom did continue his school after Gainesville High School. He went to junior college in Tampa, transferred to St. Pete and then transferred to Santa Fe Community College here. And Earl kept reminding Tom about an art career. But one day the reminders stopped.
“He said, if you leave me alone I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 35. I said you’ll be starving by the time you’re 35. I guess he made a liar out of me,” Earl said.
Earl said he doesn’t know when Tom and the band Mudcrutch decided to make the move out to Los Angeles. “All of the sudden they were talking about it,” Earl said.
One night the band got a call from a record producer who said he would be in town to hear them play, Earl said. Well, they waited and the producer never showed. He had a previous engagement.
But that night the producer called the group and offered to fly them to his recording studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma while they were on the way to L.A. They came, he liked and they did some work for him in his L.A. studio.
But the work wasn’t all that easy, according to Thomas. “He was having a hard time out there at frist. He had two jobs and played at night. He was burning the candle at both ends to get ahead,” Thomas said. Tom had problems for 18 months until his first album came out.
When it did, Tom called Thomas and asked if he could play there. “I said heck, I can’t pay you now, you’re a star.” But Tom didn’t want much in the way of monetary payment, just a couple of cases of Heineken. Thomas also couldn’t advertise the appearance. He didn’t, but 1,400 people attended the 1974 performance.
Before Tom broke west for tame, he still was having his singing problems here, Thomas said. But Thomas encouraged him not to quit and to seek the help of a voice teacher. It worked. But Tom was still shy. Dub’s used to sponsor a bikini contest and topless dancing, and Tom wouldn’t look at any of the women. “I used to laugh because he’d get so embarrassed.”
But apparently Tom lost some of his embarrassment in the rise to his overnight, 18-month, success. He was out there with his high school sweetheart Jane, who he now has married. They have two children.
When Tom left, he took with him Benmont Tench, keyboardist; Ron Blair, bassist; Mike Campbell, guitarist; and drummer Stan Lynch all came from Gainesville.
Listeners hearing Tom’s new album and seeing the band perform may notice Ron Blair isn’t playing the bass anymore. Like Rodney, Rickey and Dick before him, Ron decided he didn’t want to tour anymore and he wanted out of the music business.
He has bought a clothing store in California. Rickey is 35 and teaches social studies at Vanguard High School in Ocala. Dick, 34, is a union electrician. Dub Thomas, 51, still works at his place. And Tom ….
Well, Tom has been making news and not just for his music. When his record company, ABC, was bought out by MCA he said he was no longer under their contract to them and got involved in a nine-month court suit. He finally signed with Backstreet Records, a subsidiary of MCA and became their label leader. Later, in March 1981, he was arguing with MCA again. This time they wanted to raise record promises from $8.98 to $9.98, initiating the increase with one of his records. He threatened to hold back the Hard Promises album and asked fans to write letters. He won.
When he visisted Gainesville in October 1981, he was on the last leg of his tour. He was given the key to the city. He had to bow out of his last two tour dates because he could have developed lymph nodes on his “road-ravaged vocal chords.”
Earlier this year Tom took some time to go back to school. He was the guest lecturer at UCLA and talked to 2,500 students about his music and generally shot the breeze.
Incidentally, Tom has written a few songs about Gainesville. On one he mentions Depot Street, which is actually Depot Avenue. And the song “American Girl” is about a UF student who commited suicide by jumping from Beaty Towers.
Ask anybody. Tom Petty is an all-Gainesville, all-American boy. He started playing here. Dub’s, which threw a party in his honor Wednesday night, is called “the place where it all began.”
He likes a private life and shuns a lot of press attention.
And like any city’s favorite son, he comes home once in awhile.