It was Sept. 25, 2017, and legendary, shaggy-haired, smoky-eyed frontman Tom Petty was onstage with his band, the Heartbreakers, in front of 18,000 fans at Hollywood Bowl.
In the middle of the set, according to Petty’s longtime associate and pal Jon Scott, the rocker said, “There’s one particular friend I want to dedicate this next song to: This is for Jon Scott. Six weeks before we were going to be dropped from ABC Records, he went to the radio stations... and he got that sucker played and on the charts, and we’re forever grateful to him.”
Then he and the band swung into a rousing performance of “I Won’t Back Down.”
It was Petty’s last concert.
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A week later, Petty died of sudden heart failure caused by an accidental overdose of painkillers he was taking to mask the pain of performing with a broken hip, according to his family.
Now Scott, who divides his time living between Sherman Oaks and Cambria, has written the story of what was behind that heartfelt dedication.
The book, “Tom Petty and Me,” is “about the 40 years I worked with Tom as a record promotion man,” Scott said in an email interview. “I have been credited with ‘breaking’ the career of Tom, as I saved him from being dropped by his record company in 1977.”
Then Scott went on to successfully promote the rocker’s first album and beyond.
The book details how Scott helped to launch Petty out of obscurity and into the rock ‘n’ roll stratosphere. It covers the chronology of the long friendship between Petty and Scott, plus intriguing snippets about the bands Mudcrutch and the Traveling Wilburys, tales about meeting Elvis, celebrating Easter and Christmas at the Petty household, and such quirks as the combined hilarity between the two non-tech buds wrestling with their first fax machines.
But first, John Mellencamp
Before Petty, Scott had had a single-focus dedication to the career of heartland rocker Johnny Cougar, who became the iconic John Mellencamp.
That’s where the Scott saga really began. Mellencamp wrote the foreword for Scott’s book.
“Back in the early ‘70s, radio was a magical place, and music meant everything to so many people,” he wrote. “Everyone was in a band or wanted to be in a band, or wanted to be a DJ, or just anything to touch the music somehow.
“There was a line of work that the general public never knew anything about. The guys that did this line of work were called promo men,” guys obsessed with music who were “willing to do anything to get what they loved on the radio and then, through radio, reach the general public.”
Scott was raised in Memphis, Tennessee, which he defines as “the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, the home of the blues, and the cradle of soul. He said his music dream was born at the age of 16 when he heard the Rolling Stones song “Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man.”
After a stint as a radio DJ, he was hired in 1973 by MCA Records, eventually working and traveling with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton John, The Who, Olivia Newton-John, Keith Moon, Roger Daltry and many others.
“(Scott) actually believed in me … so much … he lost his job … over some unknown kid like me with not too good of a record, mind you, that had just been put out, that nobody else in the world even remotely believed in,” Mellencamp wrote.
Record in the closet
What changed the lives of Scott and Petty was a nondescript, 8-month-old record album the promoter found in his office closet a few days after starting his new job. Scott had just been hired as national head of record promotions for ABC Records.
Being a curious cat, Scott absolutely had to listen to the album, no matter how obscure it was.
By the time he got to the second track, he was hooked, convinced “that what I was listening to was tremendous and would be transformative — the future of rock ‘n’ roll.”
The track was “Breakdown,” which eventually wound up on Top 40 lists across the nation and in Canada.
How it got there was Scott’s doing because nobody else (including his new boss Charlie Minor) believed in Tom Petty, his band, the song or the album. All were dismissed as being punk rock and not worth the time or trouble to promote them.
Scott fervently disagreed, and, as he wrote in the book, he begged for six weeks “to perform a miracle,” to get the song played regularly on the radio and on the charts. “I had zero budget. I couldn’t buy any ads... no radio-station time buy,” he wrote. “But I was consumed and on a mission to break this band’s career, and I knew this mind-blowing rock ‘n’ roll was worth the effort.”
How it happened, and what happened from then on, are the other tales Scott tells in his book.
Scott, a co-founder of AllMemphisMusic.com, an internet radio station, said in a recent phone interview that he hopes to retire to his Cambria home on Lodge Hill in a year or so.
“Tom Petty and Me” is available at www.tompettyandme.com from Amazon, on Kindle and locally at Home Arts in Cambria.