As you know by now, Tom Petty died yesterday at age 66. He had suffered a cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu CA, and could not be revived at the UCLA Medical center. I’ve been a big Tom Petty fan for years, so I decided to pull out my old albums and cassettes and listen to his music for the next couple of days. It surprised me, but I have no Tom Petty CDs. He has been making music for over forty years, so I guess I prefer his early stuff.
Tom Petty’s first and only contact with Elvis took place in early 1961 when he was just eleven years old. He grew up in Gainesville, Florida, not too far from Ocala where Elvis was filming Follow That Dream at that time.
The following is condensed from a 2007 article written in the Gainesville Sun by Entertainment Editor Bill Dean.
Petty’s uncle, Earl Jernigan, owned a local film-developing business and worked on location shoots whenever filmmakers came to the area.
So when Jernigan’s wife, Tom’s Aunt Evelyn, rolled into the driveway and asked her nephew if he’d like to “go and see Elvis Presley,” he was licking his chops at what would in a few hours become the adventure of his young life.
“I remember this vividly,” said Petty, who at that point primarily knew Elvis as a character who had caused some controversy, due to those swiveling hips when Tom had been about 5 or 6 years old. “He was known to me as a fellow who wiggled,”
After driving 30 miles, Aunt Evelyn and Tommy, along with his brother Bruce and cousins Sadie and Norma, pulled up near the film set in downtown Ocala – where Elvis was to shoot a scene of him driving up in a car and entering a bank.
“There was a huge crowd; the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in the streets of Ocala,” Tom said. “And then I swear to God, a line of white Cadillacs pulled in. All white. I’d never seen anything like that. And I was standing up on a box to see over everyone’s head, because a big roar started up when the cars pulled in.”
“Guys in mohair suits and pompadours began bounding out of each car – to Tom’s startled cry of “Is that ELVIS?” every time. But when the real Elvis finally appeared, Tom knew… Immediately.
“He stepped out radiant as an angel,” Tom said. “He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. At 50 yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like. And he came walking right towards us.”
Elvis’ hair was so impossibly black that it glistened a deep blue when the sunlight hit it. And that’s when Elvis walked directly over to Uncle Earl, Aunt Evelyn and little Tom Petty.
“We were speechless,” Tom said. As Uncle Earl introduced Elvis to everyone, The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll smiled and nodded to each open-mouthed youngster.
“I don’t know what he said, because I was just too dumbfounded,” Tom said. “And he went into his trailer.”
Then, young Tom got “really excited” as hundreds of girls pressed against the chain-link fence. Many brandished album covers and photos, which one of Elvis’ “Memphis mafia guys,” as Tom described it, dutifully took into the trailer and returned, bearing authentic Elvis autographs.
“Seeing the girls go wild over Elvis only added to the lasting impression on Tommy,” his cousin Sadie said. “My sister and I were excited to watch them film a movie. But Tommy got caught up in the moment. It was like he was mesmerized with an imprint on his brain.”
“And I thought at the time, ‘That is one hell of a job to have. That’s a great gig – being Elvis Presley,'” Tom said.
Young Tom began collecting anything he could find on Elvis. He stayed inside the house and did nothing but listen to Elvis music. “My dad was concerned that I didn’t go outside, that I just played these records all day.”
“I learned all of those early Elvis songs,” Tom said. “And having that kind of background in rock ‘n’ roll, of where it had come from, has served me to this day. It became an invaluable thing to have. So for that, I thank him.”
Although Tom Petty never saw Elvis again, the flames from that fire have never waned.
Sadie Darnell, Tom’s cousin who accompanied him to see Elvis that day, told The Sun that the meeting between The King and Gainesville’s future rock ‘n’ roll son was a “life-altering moment” for young Tom. “He was completely, completely enthralled,” said Darnell. “And Tommy told us as a family that he was going to be a rock star.”
Tom Petty’s 10 Favorite Elvis Presley Songs:
01.’That’s All Right‘ – 1954
02.’Baby, Let’s Play House’ – 1955
03.’Heartbreak Hotel’ 1956
04.’Hound Dog’ – 1956
05.’Mean Woman Blues’ – 1957
06.’One Night’ 1958
07.’Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ – 1957
08.’Can’t Help Falling In Love’ – 1961
09.’A Mess Of Blues’ – 1960
10.'(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame’ – 1961
Tom Petty had a remarkable career. He had over two dozen Top 40 hits. He played the Super Bowl halftime show in 2008 and entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. But, until the day when he encountered Elvis Presley, he has said, “I’d never thought much about rock ‘n’ roll until that moment. I caught the fever that day and I never got rid of it. That’s what kicked off my love of music.”
So, how about that. Elvis can be credited with hooking Tom Petty on rock ‘n’ roll.
We’ll miss you, Tom Petty. Say hi to Elvis for us.
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To read the entire Gainesville Sun article by Bill Dean, click here.