Peter Wolf on the Time He Turned Down Tom Petty's 'Don't Do Me Like That'

Singer recalls little-known history of early Petty classic

Singer Peter Wolf recalls the time Tom Petty offered "Don't Do Me Like That" to the J. Geils Band, and why he turned it down. Credit: Andy Tennille

"To be on this last tour was such a thrill," singer Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band said, reflecting on his working vacation this past summer as an opening act – with his solo group, the Midnight Travellers – on Tom Petty's last tour with the Heartbreakers. A few days after Petty's unexpected death on October 2nd, Wolf spoke to me for Rolling Stone's feature tribute to Petty. Indeed, Wolf was one of the first artists to respond when I contacted him for the story – literally a minute after I emailed him.

Wolf had a long friendship with Petty, going back to 1977 when Petty and the Heartbreakers tore up every stage they hit as an opening act for the J. Geils Band. During a long, fond reminiscence, Wolf told a wonderful tale of the hit that got away: "Don't Do Me Like That," Petty's first Top 10 single and the smash that detonated the multi-platinum breakthrough of Petty and the Heartbreakers' third album, 1979's Damn the Torpedoes. It turns out, in this previously unpublished excerpt from our conversation, that Petty first offered the song to another band ...

As the years went by, I would see Tom. There was one point where I was going to do some songs with [Heartbreakers guitarist] Mike Campbell. I'd stay in touch with Tom periodically. There was one night when we went to see Johnny Cash at the House of Blues [in Los Angeles]. This was way before Johnny's stuff with [producer] Rick Rubin came out. Johnny was really struggling.

The House of Blues was kind of new then; it had just opened. People were smoking and chatting, coming in like it was a pickup bar. And here's Johnny Cash, there's June, the whole bit. And you know how Tom speaks. He would be telling these people, [affects slow Southern drawl] "Why don't you shut the fuck up?"

One day I got this call from [producer] Jimmy Iovine's office, confirming my address. I got this package and in it was a cassette. It was in Tom's handwriting: "Don't Do Me Like That." And there was a note: "Hey, I think this would be a cool song for you. I think you and the [Geils] band can really do something with it."

It was in the midst of stuff. Maybe we thought we had the songs for our album: "We can do it for the next one." I called up Jimmy and, I think, Tom and said, "Love the song. I'm not sure we're gonna get to it. But I do like the song." Tom wasn't sure of it for himself for some reason. It was almost like, "As soon as I finished writing it, I thought of sending it to you."

I always heard it as having a Lennon-esque quality, especially in the bridge – just the way Tom puts the edge on his voice. There is also a Dylan-esque quality [in the lyrics]: "Well, you're gonna get yours. In the public eye, you're gonna humiliate me? Baby, your time is gonna come." That was a theme in Lennon's work too – [the Beatles'] "No Reply." But the way Tom recorded it, it just became so Tom. I always felt, "Man, I wish we'd jumped on it sooner."

It's funny – it came up in our last conversation. Tom and I were together in his dressing room [in Philadelphia last July]. I said, "Tom, I gotta tell you, 'Don't Do Me Like That' ..." And he goes, "Oh, yeah! Whatever happened?" I explained the whole thing – we were in the mix process or something. And he said, "I gotta thank you for that. When you didn't end up doing it, everybody talked me into putting it on the record. And it became one of my big, big hits."