From DRUM! Magazine’s December 2017 Issue | By Joe Bosso | Photo By Andy Tennille
The world looked very different to Steve Ferrone when we sat down with him last February, and asked him to reflect on his favorite onstage and studio memories of Tom Petty.
He almost seemed puzzled by the question. “Let’s talk about every moment playing with The Heartbreakers,” he countered. “Making records is creative and fun, and the live shows are a blast. There’s a hell of a lot of energy that goes into everything we do. I really appreciate all the love and passion this band puts out. Every moment I have with them is special.”
After nearly a quarter century as a Heartbreaker, Ferrone is now an integral part of their deep musical brotherhood, yet, he added with a laugh, “I’m still the new guy in the band. I’ve done all these records and tours with them, and they still treat me like I just got there.”
Ferrone was in a joking mood. We caught him at an exciting time. He was poised to begin the band’s 40th anniversary tour, which was destined to be a celebration of Petty’s legacy and a testimony to the Heartbreakers’ long-lived chemistry. It was a historic moment and the summer tour season’s hottest ticket.
After ending the run with a triumphant three-day stand at The Hollywood Bowl, Petty announced it would be their last major tour — but reassured that they’d still play in concert. Then came the morning of October 3. Following a confusing series of contradictory reports speculating on the condition of the great American singer-songwriter the night before, it was confirmed: Tom Petty had died at the age of 66 after suffering cardiac arrest.
Suddenly Ferrone’s words took on so much more meaning as he described his three most memorable moments as a Heartbreaker.
Getting The Gig
“I got a call from a session booker, who asked about my availability for the following week. I said I had some time, and he said, ‘Can you come out to Los Angeles?’ I said sure, and I asked what for. He said, ‘Oh, we can’t tell you. It’s top secret.’ I thought, ‘Wow, it must be something big. Okay.’ So I went out, and as I’m walking into this studio I saw Kenny Aronoff’s drum kit being taken out. I didn’t think anything of it, really — you see that kind of thing quite a bit.
“The Gretsch people had set up a beautiful kit for me. I walked into the studio, and I see Tom Petty sitting there with Mike Campbell. I said, ‘Oh — this is what it is.’ And right away, we just started working on some songs, recording. We did some stuff that week and a little bit into the next week, and a short while later I got a call to come back out and do a little more recording. This was for the Wildflowers album. I did that and we hung out, and that was that.
“I had been touring with Bryan Ferry, but I decided that I didn’t want to keep doing it. Not to take away from Bryan’s musicianship, but he just wasn’t a great fit for me. The way he worked was a little difficult for me, because I was more used to being in a band situation. Bryan had these advisor guys who didn’t play anything. They’d come up to me and say, ‘Love Is The Drug’ is too fast. And I’d say, ‘I don’t start it — go talk to somebody else!’ [laughs] I really didn’t want to do that anymore. They asked me about touring some more, and I declined.
“My girlfriend asked what I wanted to do, and I told her that I really enjoyed making the album with Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. It was all about the music, getting the songs right, and feeling the energy. They had a band vibe that I liked, and they seemed like they were great people. But it was Stan Lynch’s job, so I didn’t think too much about it.
“The next day she told me that Tom Petty had called and he wanted to speak with me. I called him back and he said, ‘What are you doing next year? Do you want to come out on the road with us?’ I was surprised: ‘What about Stan?’ Tom told me that they were having difficulties — he didn’t go too much into it. I asked him if he’d spoken to Stan about this, and he said no. So I said, ‘I’m totally honored, and I’d love to play with you. I’ve been in bands and I know how this stuff goes. If you speak to Stan and things work out, I’ll totally understand.’ I made sure he knew how grateful I was that they were thinking of me.
“A little while later, Tom called me back and said, ‘You’re working next year.’ He’d called Stan and sorted stuff out. I was elated. It was funny, because I really didn’t think it was a possibility that I’d be in the band. I was happy just to do the recording with them. They’re a great band, one of the greatest ever, and I’m so honored to be a part of them now.”
The Super Bowl
“This was one of the most impressive gigs I’ve ever played, to say the least. I rarely get nervous before a show, even if it’s a big crowd. Tom always gets nervous. We had a great week preparing for the show, and all during this time people would come up to me — ‘It’s going to be a billion people watching you. That’s got to be messing with your head.’ At first I didn’t let it get to me, but then I thought, ‘Wow, if I screw up in front of a billion people, I’ll never work again!’ It’s not like some club show. This is the Super Bowl. It’s a pretty big deal.
“I have this little ritual when I warm up. I take a shower and I ask the talents that I’ve been given to serve me well. It’s sort of a meditation that I do, because I really want the people in the audience to enjoy the show. During this particular day, I was kind of visited by my mother, who had recently passed away, and she told me, ‘Relax. This is supposed to be fun.’ And that made all the difference. I said, ‘Hey, you’re right.’ It was a bit sad, but it also helped me.
“We had rehearsed the thing into the ground. There’s no room for error at the Super Bowl, so I just had to remember what we’d rehearsed and get out there and do it. First we were supposed to ride out to the stage in a truck, but that changed and we ended up walking out. That was kind of strange, really, because you could kind of feel the energy from the two teams that had just left the field. We got out there and climbed up on the stage. I put on my earpieces and thought about what I had to do, and I looked over at Tom. He was adjusting some things on his amplifier, and his hands were shaking.
“I called out to him and I yelled, ‘Hey! Come on, man, this is supposed to be fun.’ Which is what my mother had told me. He looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re right. Okay, here we go.’ I started the countdown and off we went. After that, everybody was fine. Everything was cool and it was a great show, one that I’ll always remember. I think the guys would say the same thing.”
Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
“This is one of those performances that sort of grew in importance after we did it. Now it’s become something rather iconic — people are watching it on YouTube and sending it around all the time.
“This was back in 2004. George Harrison was being inducted into the Hall Of Fame, as was Prince. We were all asked to play ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ as a tribute to George, and we were joined by Jeff Lynne, Stevie Winwood, and George’s son, Dhani, along with a few other guys. We rehearsed for a few days in Los Angeles, and then we went to New York to do the show.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know Prince was going to be playing with us. No one told us anything about it, to my knowledge. We did the sound check, and then this guy came up and set up his stuff. Steve Winwood was sitting next to me and he said, ‘Hey, there’s Prince!’
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. He’s playing with us?’ So I went over and said hi, and I kind of introduced myself — or reintroduced myself. He said, ‘I know who you are.’ I had played on Chaka Kahn’s ‘I Feel For You,’ but I just didn’t know if he remembered me. I don’t have a big ego about that sort of thing. I went back to my kit and Winwood said, ‘What’d he say to you?’ I said, ‘He was cool. He seems very nice.’
“So then we kind of ran through it again, and Prince played it a bit to familiarize himself, he didn’t go full-out or anything. When we were done, I heard the guitar riff to ‘School Boy Crush,’ which is a song I’d written with the Average White Band. I didn’t know who was playing it, so I looked over and saw it was Prince. He was looking right at me. I laughed — he did know who I was!
“Later that night we played the show, and it was incredible. Prince came out to play the big solo, and it was like he was doing the whole thing for us in the band. I mean, you know the guy can play, but you don’t know he’s that good. He went for it — kneeling down, falling back. He had some big guy in the audience ready to catch him. At the end Prince threw the guitar up in the air and didn’t even wait for it to come down. I went out to see what happened to it.
“We were all stunned. It was one of those things you’re just not ready for. I’ve seen a lot of guys play a lot of great guitar solos, but that was spectacular. I wish I would’ve run into him afterwards. I never saw him again — that was it.”
For more about Steve Ferrone’s tenure in Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, read “Steve Ferrone: Tapping Into 40 Years Of Groove” from DRUM! Magazine’s August 2010 issue:
Visit Steve Ferrone’s website at steveferrone.com.