by Jeff Fiedler
Though the late, great Tom Petty’s career certainly had its share of turmoil and personal setbacks – most notably, the quick demise of the first label he recorded for, Shelter, and his all-too-frequent public battles with MCA in their earliest years together (first over their quest to obtain his publishing upon their absorption of Shelter and later over the sticker prices of his albums, which Petty once threatened to combat by naming one of his albums $8.98) – Petty never let his cynicism over industry practices diminish his love of music and compel him to walk away from the business as so many other artists who have suffered through much less have done. Instead, Petty fought – and fought hard – for the rights of the artist, and musicians everywhere knew they had a friend in Petty. Indeed, Petty was reportedly a very loyal personality, and it shows not only in the remarkably low turnover of musicians in the Heartbreakers over their four decades together and Petty’s unexpected – and virtually unprecedented for any artist of Petty’s magnitude – late-career move to revive his pre-fame band Mudcrutch with old friends Randall Marsh and Tom Leadon. Nor could Petty ever turn down a chance to help out a friend or one of his idols if his schedule permitted, and his discography is so, so much more than just the studio albums he cut himself, with and without the Heartbreakers. He’s written hits for other artists – including Lone Justice’s stellar “Ways to Be Wicked” (which can be found on their 1985 self-titled debut) and Rosanne Cash’s “Never Be You” (a rare co-write between Petty and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench) – and lent his vocal and guitar talents to countless others, just sixteen of which we’ve singled out to spotlight here. See if you have them all! We bet there’s some here that you’ve still yet to discover!
Bella Donna, Stevie Nicks (1981, Modern)
The Fleetwood Mac vocalist would collaborate with Petty quite a few times over the course of the early ‘80s – he’d also appear on her sophomore solo outing, The Wild Heart, and she’d, in turn, pop up on his live disc Pack Up the Plantation Live!, the pair enjoying a seldom-heard-these-days Top 40 hit together with a duet rendition of the Searchers classic “Needles and Pins” – but it’s this disc that sports their most well-known collaboration, the Top Five smash (and enduring FM radio classic) “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which Petty both wrote (along with Mike Campbell) and co-produced. Petty only pops up on one other track here, “Outside the Rain,” but Heartbreakers Campbell and Tench make multiple cameos throughout the disc.
Drop Down and Get Me, Del Shannon (1982, Network)
This Michigan-born rocker had been one of the biggest pre-Beatles pop stars of the ‘60s, scoring such major hits as “Hats Off to Larry,” “Little Town Flirt,” “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun),” and, most memorably of all, the chart-topping “Runaway” (easily one of the most melodically sophisticated Number One hits of the early ‘60s). But though he had been an early champion of the Beatles (even covering their song “From Me to You” before the Fab Four’s own version finally landed on the American charts!), his career was ironically derailed by the British Invasion and his run of hits would come to an end by early 1965. Enter Petty, a longtime fan who offered to produce a comeback album for the ‘60s star. Jude Cole and Motels member Marty Jourard are just two of the notable names who make guest appearances here, but it’s Petty and the Heartbreakers who serve as Shannon’s primary backing band (this is also reportedly the only studio album that both original Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair and his replacement Howie Epstein appear on!), so this disc is consequently a must-own for Heartbreakers fans. Petty’s help did the trick, and Shannon would briefly find his way back onto the charts, scoring his first Top 40 hit in seventeen years with a cover of the Phil Phillips classic “Sea of Love.”
Jungle, Dwight Twilley (1984, EMI)
Twilley and Petty actually go way back, long before this disc was ever recorded. Twilley and Petty first met as labelmates at the sadly-much-too-short-lived imprint Shelter in the mid-‘70s. (Other Shelter artists included Leon Russell, who co-founded the label, J.J. Cale, Phoebe Snow, and Willis Alan Ramsey.) Their first collaboration together came via Petty’s appearance on the Dwight Twilley Band’s second album, Twilley Don’t Mind, playing guitar on “Looking for the Magic” (the other member of Twilley’s band, drummer Phil Seymour, would also work with Petty several times over the years, even being recruited by Petty to help out with backing vocals on the aforementioned Del Shannon album), but their most high-profile work together was this disc’s lead-off single, “Girls,” featuring Petty on backing vocals. The song – which rose all the way to #16 – would give Twilley one of only two Top 40 hits he ever had, the other being the Dwight Twilley Band’s 1975 single “I’m on Fire.”
Knocked Out Loaded, Bob Dylan (1986, Columbia)
Taken as a whole, this disc is admittedly not one of Dylan’s best, but it’s notable to Petty fans for including a Dylan/Petty co-write in “Got My Mind Made Up,” featuring Petty and the full Heartbreakers lineup as the backing cast. [Dylan would return the favor by co-writing the hit single "Jammin' Me" from Petty's next album, 1987's Let Me Up (I've Had Enough).] But although it’s the sole instance of Petty showing up on one of Dylan’s studio albums, the two would memorably team up years later as bandmates in the novelty supergroup The Traveling Wilburys alongside friends Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison, releasing two full-lengths together, the first of which is a true classic and great, great fun for classic-rock buffs of any kind.
Land of Dreams, Randy Newman (1988, Reprise)
This fine, oft-overlooked late-‘80s effort from Newman – primarily produced by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler – sports such great tunes as “It’s Money That Matters,” “Dixie Flyer,” and “Roll with the Punches,” but Petty fans will especially love the Jeff Lynne-produced cut “Falling in Love,” which features both Petty and Lynne on guitar and backing vocals. (Mike Campbell also pops up on guitar on the track!)
Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, Joni Mitchell (1988, Geffen)
Though this legendary singer-songwriter’s string of ‘80s releases for the Geffen label tends to be critically derided, they’re actually quite good – and certainly far more commercially accessible than nearly any of her late-‘70s releases for Asylum – and this one sports a very generous number of highly infectious cuts, including the Peter Gabriel duet “My Secret Place,” “The Beating of Black Wings” and “Number One” (both featuring The Cars’ Ben Orr on backing vocals, surprisingly enough!), the Don Henley duet “Snakes and Ladders,” and a cover of the country standard “Cool Water” featuring Willie Nelson. But it’s “Dancin’ Clown” that serves as the most star-studded track here, featuring brief cameos from both Tom Petty and, incongruously enough, “Rebel Yell” rocker Billy Idol!
Mystery Girl, Roy Orbison (1989, Virgin)
Orbison, of course, was bandmates with Petty in the Traveling Wilburys until his tragic passing in 1988, but Petty also figured into Orbison’s history in an even bigger way by guesting on this posthumous effort, the last that Orbison recorded before passing away. This is a very star-studded affair: George Harrison pops up on guitar on “A Love So Beautiful,” U2’s Bono both produces and appears on “She’s a Mystery to Me” (which he and bandmate The Edge especially wrote for Orbison), and Al Kooper plays organ on “In the Real World,” while ELO’s Jeff Lynne (who produces the bulk of the album) and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers serve as Orbison’s primary backing squad. Petty also co-wrote two songs here, “California Blue” and the massive comeback hit “You Got It,” which gave Roy his first Top Ten hit in twenty-five years and sounds so perfectly tailor-made for Orbison that only the contemporary production keeps it from sounding as if it stems from the same magical era that produced such early Orbison classics as “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” and “Blue Bayou.” Roy’s legendary ‘50s and ‘60s singles can easily be obtained on such stellar hits packages as Rhino’s 1988 package For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits or Legacy’s 2011 package The Monument Collection (1960-1964), but as far as his studio albums go, this one might actually rank as his very best and not even the most casual of Orbison fans should be without this disc.
Paint Another Picture, Darlene Love (1988, Columbia)
It’s not a terribly easy disc to find these days, but this second solo disc from Love – perhaps best known to the general public for her perennial holiday favorite “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” but one of the most famous and in-demand background vocalists of the ‘60s (particularly on Phil Spector’s productions from this period) and the lead vocalist behind several hits from The Crystals (“He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” a new recording of which is included here) though never officially a member of that group – is a fun outing boasting cameos from the likes of the Turtles’ Flo and Eddie, Joan Jett, and Petty, who plays guitar on his self-penned “We Stand a Chance.”
Back from Rio, Roger McGuinn (1991, Arista)
The Byrds were a particularly big influence on Petty – you can hear it most clearly in “American Girl” – so it only makes sense that Tom would have leapt at the opportunity to take part in this comeback disc from the former Byrds frontman (who had opened for Petty on tour years earlier.) Like many of the discs on this list, this album is packed with high-profile guests, including Elvis Costello (who contributes the song “You Bowed Down”), Michael Penn (“No Myth”), the Eagles’ Timothy Schmit, Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway, and McGuinn’s former Byrds bandmates David Crosby and Chris Hillman. But perhaps the album’s best moment is its lead-off single, both co-written and sung as a duet with Tom Petty, “King of the Hill,” which also features fellow Heartbreakers Campbell, Tench, and Stan Lynch. The album sold only moderately (McGuinn never did have much commercial success as a solo artist, but then again, none of the former members of the Byrds – not even Crosby – ever reached the Top 40 as solo artists, either), but it was deservedly very well-received by critics and gave McGuinn his highest profile in years.
Never Been Rocked Enough, Delbert McClinton (1992, Curb)
This blues great never had much pop crossover success (though he had a fluke Top Ten hit with the 1980 single “Giving It Up for Your Love” and served as Bonnie Raitt’s duet partner on the Luck of the Draw cut “Good Man, Good Woman,” also included on this disc), but he’s a musical legend all the same – not in the least since he also played the immortal harmonica solo that serves as the primary hook in Bruce Channel’s chart-topping “Hey, Baby.” While McClinton’s always been an excellent blues singer, his great taste in material is what makes this one of his finest discs, and he covers material here from such criminally underrated songwriters as John Hiatt, Nashville veterans Fred Knobloch and Tony Arata (the latter best known for writing Garth Brooks’ “The Dance”), alt-rocker and former Undertones frontman Feargal Sharkey, and Troy Seals (whose “Everytime I Roll the Dice” is one of the biggest highlights here). Benmont Tench pops up on piano or organ on quite a few of the tracks here, but Petty himself makes a surprise appearance on “Why Me?,” providing the track’s alluring harmony vocals.
American II: Unchained, Johnny Cash (1996, American)
Petty actually appears on more than one album in Cash’s critically-adored American series of ‘90s comeback albums helmed by Rick Rubin – American III: Solitary Man features a cover of Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” done as a duet with the songwriter himself – but it’s this disc that gets the nod for Cash’s most interesting collaboration with Petty (as well as the entire Heartbreakers team, who also appear here), a cover of the title cut of Petty’s oft-misunderstood and very underrated mid-‘80s disc Southern Accents.
Go Cat Go, Carl Perkins (1996, Dinosaur)
The inclusion of covers from both Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon of the Perkins classic “Blue Suede Shoes” (neither rendition of which actually features the rockabilly legend) prevents this disc from being a true Perkins disc all the way through and makes it something more of a tribute disc, but the other fifteen tracks here either feature Perkins either by himself or teaming up duet-style with such notables as Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, and there are actually two duets here between Perkins and Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Restless” and “One More Shot.”
Vertical Man, Ringo Starr (1998, Mercury)
This high-profile late-‘90s solo outing from the former fab Four drummer attracted much print press over both the inclusion of a remake of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” and cameos from both Paul McCartney and George Harrison (who adds slide guitar to two cuts, including the single “King of Broken Hearts”), and much less attention was paid to the jaw-dropping number of other guests included here – among them, Brian Wilson, the late Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), Ozzy Osbourne, and Joe Walsh. Interestingly enough, years before Uncle Kracker turned “Drift Away” into a duet with its original artist, Dobie Gray, to massive commercial success, Starr also – to much less public interest – re-worked the same song into an all-star duet, and his version of “Drift Away” features the interesting combination of himself, Petty, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and Alanis Morissette. It’s not the best version you’ve ever heard of the song – that title still belongs to Gray’s original rendition – but it might be the most fascinating.
The Wind, Warren Zevon (2003, Artemis)
The final album that the acerbic rocker would make during his lifetime (it was recorded while Zevon was battling cancer and was released just two weeks before his death), The Wind is both a heartbreaking and fun listen at the same time, but then, that’s probably how Zevon would have wanted it. (Certainly, there’s a bit of Zevon’s trademark brand of morbid humor to his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” when you consider the circumstances it was recorded under.) He evidently made sure to have plenty of fun while making this record, bringing in an all-star assortment of friends, including Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, John Waite, Tommy Shaw, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, and Emmylou Harris, to help out, and Petty pops up to contribute background vocals to one of the standouts, “The Rest of the Night.” The disc was a heck of a way for Zevon to bow out – not just as a musician but from the world as well – and it stands as one of the finest discs he ever made.
The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale, Eric Clapton & Friends (2014, Bushbranch/Surfdog)
Though Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler may be the rocker most clearly stylistically influenced by the great, late J.J. Cale, there was perhaps no bigger champion of J.J. Cale in all of rock music than Clapton – he’d, after all, record literally dozens of his songs over the span of several decades, and have sizable hits with both “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” – so it makes sense that Clapton would be the one to spearhead this tribute disc. Knopfler naturally makes several appearances here, as does John Mayer (who does a surprisingly great rendition of “Magnolia”), Willie Nelson, and Cale’s old Shelter Records labelmate Petty, who helms lead vocals on “The Old Man and Me” and splits vocal duties with Clapton on “Rock and Roll Records” and “I Got the Same Old Blues.”
Bidin’ My Time, Chris Hillman (2017, Rounder)
Reportedly the last record that Petty worked on in his too-short lifetime, Bidin’ My Time is a somewhat fitting capstone on Petty’s career. Petty doesn’t merely appear on this disc – he produced it as well, and considering that Hillman is an alum of one of Petty’s greatest influences of all, The Byrds, it’s hard to imagine a much more delightful and meaningful production job for Petty to have taken on at this stage in his career. It’s also an effective statement on Hillman’s many talents, encompassing not only several fine new originals and a few equally delightful covers (you can’t lose with a version of Sonny Curtis’ indestructible “Walk Right Back”) but new versions of underrated Byrds tunes like “The Bells of Rhymney” and “She Don’t Care About Time.” Considering the untimely passing of Petty shortly after this disc was released, it’s all the more emotionally powerful in hindsight that this disc should end with a cover of one of Petty’s loveliest songs of all, the criminally underrated title track to 1994’s Wildflowers, and Hillman turns in a gripping rendition of the tune indeed. Hillman’s solo work has never received anywhere nearly as much attention as his work with the Byrds – or the Flying Burrito Brothers, for that matter – but this disc should hopefully change that, and no one would be happier about that than Petty himself.