Backstage in South Florida: Tom Petty's Rocky Introduction to West Palm Beach

Back in his early days, Tom Petty got a lot more sand kicked at him
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play their first official gig and get a heartbreaking rebuke.

During a pleasant fall evening in 1976, I was in an otherwise inconspicuous shithole of a club in West Palm Beach, the name of which I've long forgotten. Indeed, its most distinguishing feature was the piles of peanut shells that littered the floor, as if a trashed appearance might otherwise pass for ambiance.

And yet, within these shabby surroundings, history was made. This was home to the official launch of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a band that gained hometown notoriety in its native Gainesville under the name Mudcrutch before moving west, signing a contract with Leon Russell's Shelter Records label, and rebranding themselves in anticipation of the national spotlight.

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 chanced to be in attendance that night, I didn't know what to expect. The album cover finds Petty striking a punk pose, but their music seemed to pay reverence to a kind of arched Americana, a synthesis of the Byrds and Velvet Underground. My job description dictated that my presence was required, so I dutifully trudged up from West Kendall to show the label's support.

I was introduced to the musicians by their manager, Tony Dimitrades, a Brit with an extensive music biz background that all but assured the group would be accorded instant credibility. Petty was short in stature, and a bit reserved, but he emitted an unmistakable charisma and star-like quality. On the other hand, the Heartbreakers were amiable and exceedingly friendly, particularly their then-drummer Stan Lynch, and they seemed all too eager to share their stash 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 performance, even though this would be their first concert that found them billed as the Heartbreakers. Petty and company performed their initial album in its entirely, including a commanding take on their soon-to-be classic "Breakdown," a haunting rendition of the dreamy ballad "Luna," and a revved-up version of the tune that was destined to become their signature song, "American Girl." The crowd was clearly entertained, and if they weren't wholly rapt with attention, they certainly seemed duly impressed.

As a result, the group was in good spirits as I accompanied them way back to their makeshift dressing room, a dingy-looking space that normally served as the club's kitchen area. Unfortunately, the sight that greeted us on arrival caused those good vibes to instantly dissipate A rude remark was scrawled on the refrigerator, one that read "Heartbreakers suck!"

Who wrote 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 likely linger only in the collective memories of those who were there.

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