Perhaps it was because the band was on tour celebrating their 40th anniversary, or maybe because his marketing team came up with a ticket giveaway concept called #HeartbreakersHistory, but Tom Petty was feeling nostalgic onstage at the Hollywood Bowl the week before he died. On each of the three sold-out nights -- Sept. 21, 22 and 25 -- he shared with the audience the story of how the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came to be, the result of a fateful night’s jam session at the Village Studios in West Los Angeles.
It was a little-known tale, at least insofar as the specifics were concerned; while the basics were sketched out in Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007), the name of the studio was never mentioned. Probably for the same reason recording studios never have signs on the buildings: they don’t want casual visitors just showing up. Petty was passionate about his studio time. “To go into a studio and hear a band play [one of his new songs] for the first time is always exciting,” Petty told The Los Angeles Times reporter Randy Lewis in what was to be his last interview, published Oct. 4. “And usually when they play it, it became something I hadn’t even pictured. Yes, I love the studio. I love the studio as much as I love playing live, easily. I’m pretty much in one every day, and I’m still at that.”
The Village Studios CEO Jeff Greenberg and operations manager Tina Morris recounted for Billboard the fabled sound facility’s role in Heartbreakers history and shared memories of Tom Petty. Greenberg, who joined the Village in 1995, said he’s seen Petty in concert “many, many times, in the ’70s and ’80s,” but the live venue recollection that left the biggest impression happened before the performer took the stage: “When I was a talent booker for Nederlander in the early ’80s, and we were setting up at the Greek [Theatre], before the audience came in, we’d blast Damn the Torpedoes to test the sound system. It’s a signal record for me from that time. I’m into all kinds of great music, and to have this loss hit so hard shows how deep Tom was in a lot of people’ lives. It was especially difficult after what happened in Vegas.”
Petty recorded work for three albums at The Village: From 1983-1985 Petty and the Heartbreakers laid down tracks for Southern Accents in Studio D, the room designed to specifications from Fleetwood Mac for Tusk. The band recorded there for the soundtrack to the 1996 film She’s the One, directed by Ed Burns, with Petty, Rick Rubin and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell producing. No one could accuse him of slacking off; in addition to writing most of the songs, singing and wielding a guitar, Petty played harmonica, piano, harpsichord and tympani for the project, which is commemorated with in photo of Petty, Burns and Rubin on the Village wall of fame.
It was immediately followed by Echo, the band’s tenth studio album, recorded from 1997-1998: “It was Rick Rubin, Tom Petty and the band, working very, very hard,” Greenberg recalled. “It must have been recorded in Studio A, because Rick Rubin loves the console in that room. It’s a vintage Neve. One night, while they were working, there was a record company party in Studio D, and Dana York, who was Tom’s girlfriend at the time -- it was right before they got married -- wanted to see what was going on. There was a very officious person at the door who wouldn’t let her in, and was like ‘Who are you?’ And when she said ‘Tom Petty’s girlfriend,’ you should have seen the look on the woman’s face.”
But the most important drop-in in Heartbreakers history occurred when Petty stopped by at an informal jam session orchestrated by keyboardist Benmont Tench: “Benmont and Tom grew up in Gainesville, Florida, together, and had formed a couple of garage bands before deciding to come out to California to get famous,” Morris recounted. “A couple of other guys came out with them too, and they were playing as Mudcrutch. They tried to release a record, but it didn’t do very well and Mudcrutch split up, but Tom Petty didn’t want to pursue a solo career. One night in 1975, Benmont, who had gotten some free studio time from the previous Village owner, Geordie Hormel, put together a jam session and said, ‘Hey, Tom, we’re recording, just kind of jamming with some friends if you want to check it out.’ And Tom came by and said, ‘I have to have these guys!’ They decided to call it Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and they recorded their album and off they went.”
The story was news to Greenberg, who purchased the studio from founder Geordie Hormel, and Morris, who in addition to operations oversees marketing. “We just learned this within the past couple of weeks,” Morris said. “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were finishing out their big tour celebrating 40 years of the Heartbreakers, playing their last dates at the Hollywood Bowl. Evan Bright, from Tom Petty’s management firm, East End, contacted me because he wanted to use our facility to stage a ticket giveaway. The first night, Tom told the story of how he met the band and it inspired Evan to contact us for #HeartbreakersHistory. Evan emailed me on Sept. 22 and said, ‘Hey, Tom told this great story! Can we use your space for this ticket give away?’ And they did, later that day. They had also used McCabe’s Guitar Shop and the Fonda Theatre. For the Village, they said, ‘Be one of the first three fans to come to this legendary recording studio in West L.A. where Tom and the band recorded Southern Accents and you’ll win a pair of tickets to tonight’s sold out show at The Hollywood Bowl and see the studio where it all started for the band.’ So they gave that hint and they showed a picture of Studio A, which is where they met.”
Studio A, where Steely Dan recorded Aja, is a long, deep room, with a wide control booth fronted by a relatively small expanse of glass, affording a rather limited line of sight between the two. There are plenty of shadows to lurk about in. “Andy Tennille, the photographer from Tom’s team, came in for the giveaway, and when he walked into Studio A he said, ‘I can totally see it happening in here,’” Morris shared. “And he told us the story that Tom had described so vividly onstage. He said, ‘Yeah, he said he snuck into the studio and was standing out of the way, so no one could see him, just listening to the band in the control room. And said, ‘This is my band.’ We’re honored to have been part of Tom’s journey.”