It was 1976 and a pleasant fall evening. The locale was otherwise inconspicuous, a long-defunct club in West Palm Beach, Florida, the name of which is long forgotten. Indeed, its most distinguishing feature seemed to be the piles of peanut shells that littered the floor, as if its disheveled appearance might somehow pass for ambiance. And yet, within those somewhat shabby environs, history was about to be made.
You see, this would be home to the official launch of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a band that gained hometown notoriety in their native Gainesville under the name Mudcrutch, prior to moving west, signing a contract with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records label and redubbing themselves in anticipation of national attention.
I was the Florida promotion representative for Shelter’s parent company, ABC Records, at the time, new in the business and about to experience my first artist encounter as a record rep. The band’s eponymous debut album had recently been released, but like most of those who happened to be in attendance that night, I didn’t know what to expect from their live performance. My job description dictated that my presence was required so I dutifully made the trip from my home, approximately an hour and a half away, to show the company’s support.
I was initially introduced to Mr. Petty by his British manager, Tony Dimitrades, a music biz veteran whose involvement gave the band instant credibility. Petty was short in stature and a bit reserved, but he emitted an unmistakable charisma and star-like quality. The members of the band were personable and exceedingly friendly, particularly their then-drummer Stan Lynch, and they seemed all too eager to share their wares in the dimly lit recesses of the parking lot prior to the show.
If anyone was nervous, it wasn’t evident at all during their set, even though this would be their first show that found them officially billed as the Heartbreakers. Petty and company performed their first album in its entirely, including a commanding take on their initial now classic “Breakdown,” a haunting rendition of the dreamy ballad “Luna” and a lively take on another tune that would eventually become their signature song, “American Girl.” The crowd appeared to be clearly entertained, and if they weren’t rapt with attention, they certainly gave the impression of being impressed.
Consequently, the group was in good spirits as I accompanied them way back to their makeshift dressing room, a dingy-looking room that normally served as the club’s kitchen area. Unfortunately, the sight that greeted us on arrival caused those good vibes to dissipate instantly. A rude remark was scrawled on the refrigerator, one that read as follows:“Heartbreakers suck!”
Who had written it – and why – remains a mystery to this day. One thing is certain though; as the band’s career ascended, this blatant Petty putdown would never repeated.