Tom Petty and Chess
[pullquote quote="If someone had taken our photo before the interview, it would have been formal and serious. I think you can tell by this photo that the picture was taken AFTER the interview." credit="Terri Hemmert"]Yesterday I wrote about Chess Records and Record Row here in Chicago. I promised a Tom Petty story. Here it is.
In 2002, Tom Petty released the album The Last DJ. Many of the songs covered his frustration with the big record companies and how they dealt with music and musicians. He was on tour that fall, and in November came to Chicago for a concert. The day before the show I met Tom in a room at the Four Seasons Hotel to discuss his new album. I have to tell you, I was very nervous!
I had never met Tom, and was not used to going to fancy hotels for an interview, unless it was with Yoko or Sir Paul. So I showed up with the best recording device we owned, and met Tom. I went from sort of nervous to really scared. He was very subdued. Not rude, but not the best demeanor for an interview. He seemed tired and down. I was correct in assuming that part of it was jet lag. He had just returned to the states from London. He was one of George Harrison’s friends that showed up to play at the legendary Concert For George. The concert was held at Royal Albert Hall on the one year anniversary of George’s passing. Tom and George were great friends and band mates in Traveling Wilburys. Tom was understandably drained physically and emotionally. I started the interview with questions about the concert. He seemed heartbroken about the loss of a dear friend. After awhile we talked about his new album and his frustration with the business of music. He became more animated but visibly agitated about the corporate culture. The interview was going well, but there was that mood of grief and anger hanging in the room. Then I brought up the fact that there was an emerging scene of small, independent labels, and some artists experimenting with the new technology and new ideas on music distribution. I reminded Tom that if we had left everything up to the big companies in the mid-50’s, rock and roll as we know it would never have happened. RCA Victor would never have discovered Elvis Presley if it hadn’t been for Elvis’ first album on Sun. James Brown would never have been the hardest working man in show business if it wasn’t for King Records. Little Richard would never have turned music upside down if it wasn’t for the Specialty label. And Chuck Berry would not have defined rock and roll guitar playing and songwriting if it wasn’t for Chess Records. I was on a roll, and Tom was perking up. We connected with our passion for this music. I told his Chess studios was open for tours, and that Willie Dixon’s family was working on making it a museum. Told him he should give them a call and go visit. By then his mood had totally lifted and I could tell he couldn’t wait to go. And he did! I didn’t get to go to the concert the next night, but heard that he did a whole speech about Chess Records and encouraged everyone to go visit that mecca of great blues and R&B.
This encounter with Tom Petty goes down as one of my favorite memories of my journey through this marvelous music. For all of the joy and pleasure I’ve received from his music over the years, I felt honored to help lift his spirits after a difficult patch. Any self-respecting Beatle fan would want to help someone George loved so much. If someone had taken our photo before the interview, it would have been formal and serious. I think you can tell by this photo that the picture was taken AFTER the interview. We had that experience of reminding each other why we got into this “business” in the first place.
Here’s Tom paying tribute to one of Chess Records’ finest, the great Chuck Berry. If you missed yesterday’s blog on Chess, check it out. And I’m on my knees begging you to take the time to watch the five segments of the documentary about Record Row.