Phil Jones on His Years With Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison - Rolling Stone
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Drummer Phil Jones on His Years With Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison

The drummer plays on Petty’s ‘Full Moon Fever’ and has also worked with the Rolling Stones, Cracker, Del Shannon, and the Waddy Wachtel Band

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 05:  GOLDEN GATE PARK  Photo of Pegi YOUNG and Phil JONES, Drummer Phil Jones performing on stage at the Strictly Bluegrass Festival  (Photo by Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns)

"I just always thought how fortunate I was to even be on the stage with this band," Phil Jones says of his time playing percussion with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns/Getty Images

unknown legends
Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features drummer Phil Jones.

Only the most devoted Tom Petty fans are aware of the role that drummer-percussionist Phil Jones played in the singer-songwriter’s career, but anyone who has listened to rock radio in the past 30 years has heard his work on songs like “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” and “You Wreck Me.” He joined the world of the Heartbreakers in 1980 as a drum technician, but was quickly upgraded to onstage percussionist and he gigged with them for four years, appearing on Hard Promises, Long After Dark, and Southern Accents. In 1989, Petty used him as the drummer for nearly every song on Full Moon Fever and he brought him back in 1994 to play percussion on a few Wildflowers tracks.

Jones has also recorded with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, Cracker, Del Shannon, and Pegi Young in addition to his long-time membership in the Waddy Wachtel Band where he got to play impromptu sets with the likes of Keith Richards and Neil Young as part of their Monday night residency at the Joint in Los Angeles. We phoned him at his California home to hear about how he went from being a small-town kid in Iowa to sharing the stage with his rock & roll heroes.

How has your COVID year gone?
It’s been fine. It’s also been creepy. I’m doing stuff here in the studio, playing drums for people that send me tracks. And I’m still working on projects I have going on with other people. I collaborate with a guy named Jim Wilson who is a great songwriter-singer. He’s in Daniel Lanois’ band and he tours with Emmylou [Harris] and Sparks and a whole bunch of different people.

He writes great songs and he’s a really good singer and guitar player. We have a couple of great albums out and we’re working on another one. It’s just me and him in the studio. That works well in the studio with Covid. We can be far apart and do that.

This must be a big adjustment since you can’t play live.
Right. When this thing came down, I was on the road. We were about four or five dates into a tour with Marc Ford from the Black Crowes. He has a solo career and I play drums with him. I love his playing. We were on the road and five gigs in, we had to come home. It is what it is. We’re just keeping on.

I want to go back here and talk about your life. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Oskaloosa, Iowa. That’s a small town the southwest part of the state.

What’s the first music you remember hearing that really reached you?
My mother was an outstanding soprano singer and my great-grandmother was a great piano player. Probably the first music I remember hearing is church music. I was in the church kid choir when I was five. And then my mom made me take piano lessons, which I didn’t really like. That’s the first music I remember, ensemble choir music. There’s certain pieces I remember that made my hair stand up. It was just that feeling of, “What a sound!”

What’s the first pop music you recall hearing?
I had a paper route and I bought 45s. My mom liked to play classical music. My dad liked more swing, like Louis Prima. Years later, I realized he was playing Big Joe Turner and stuff. He had a woodworking shop in the basement and he really liked swing, so I heard Glenn Miller and stuff like that.

The first real records I bought were movie themes, like the theme from Checkmate or Exodus because I liked the sound. And then I started to buy Beatles records. I used to go to this place that had jukebox records, 45s. I could go there and buy them for 25 cents each, so I’d go there and stock up and I had a huge collection of jukebox records.

I liked doo-wop. I didn’t realize it was doo-wop back then, but I loved that Flamingos record “I Only Have Eyes for You.” That’s one of my favorite records ever, still.

I would guess in small-town Iowa that you didn’t get to see a ton of live music from national acts.
Not really. But there were small touring bands that would come play dances at the high schools or the Elks Club or Eagles Ballroom. I would go to those dances and there were some really good live bands, but they weren’t touring bands you could see in a city like Chicago.

When I was in high school, I took my mom’s car and went to Chicago with a couple of guys. We went down to Wells Street and went to a parking lot on a very cold night. Muddy Waters was there paying for his parking. I went, “Really?!” At that point, I had heard the Stones and I knew who these guys were. I’d gotten into that kind of music.

We followed him into this club. It was 18-and-under night, so we got to go into the club and watch Muddy with [pianist] Otis Spann play that night. That was one of the first major concerts I saw. It was heavy stuff, amazing.

Tell me how you started to play drums.
I was in high-school band and I played French horn. A friend of mine had a drum kit that he set up in the band room. I started to just mess around on it and he taught me a few things. The first song I learned how to play was “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures. I went on from there, realizing that French horn wasn’t going to get me in a rock & roll band. And so I started playing the drums in high school and got into bands that were covering the Stones, Beatles, and Animals, mostly blues stuff, British R&B stuff.

And then I just kept doing it. I got into a three-piece band that was like a Cream sort of band. It was pretty heavy being in that kind of a band in Iowa in the late Sixties. We were hippies and there were people that didn’t like us. Me and two of the guys from that band moved out to California in 1968 or 1969. That’s how I got started.

What was it was like for you, a small-town kid from Iowa, to arrive in Los Angeles at the peak of the counterculture movement?
I first came out to San Francisco for a month and then I got drafted and had to go back to Iowa and do the whole draft thing. I got an [exemption], which meant I didn’t have to go to Vietnam. Then I came back to L.A. and got a room two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. In my first couple of days, I was walking down it and I’m seeing these women that looked kind of big. [Laughs] I was like, “Wait a minute, that’s a dude. Wow.” [Laughs]

Then I’m walking along and I get to the Scientology Center and they’re trying to get me to come in. I’m going to these parties. It was quite a culture shock.

Tell me about the formation of Crabby Appleton.
The first band I was in L.A. was actually before Crabby Appleton. Lee Oskar from War was the singer. It was his band. Casey Foutz and me, who were from Iowa, and a couple of other guys were in that band. And then that band dissolved after a few months. Then Casey and I started living in Laurel Canyon with this guy that worked at the Experience, which was a club on Sunset that was there for maybe a year or two. A lot of people came and played there, like the Mothers [of Invention] and Alice Cooper. Led Zeppelin and Hendrix came in there to jam.

I had listened to the radio and I heard the song by the Millennium called “To Claudia on Thursday.” It was Michael Fennelly singing that song. I thought, “This is a great song.” And so I met him down at the Experience. I think I bought some hash from him. I was in a band that was playing Orange County doing covers to make a living. I thought, “This band with him as a singer and songwriter could be really good.”

We kind of merged and then did some demos for Elektra. They loved the demos and that’s how Crabby Appleton got started.

When “Go Back” hit as a single, did you think the band was going to make it big?
Yes. We should have been. We had a lot going for us. We had a good rhythm section and a unique sound. Michael was a great writer and singer. What really screwed us up was that we were on Elektra and then Elektra got sold to Asylum and Warner Bros. We lost the people that were really excited about us from Elektra. When we signed with them, it was the Doors and then a lot of folk artists, Paul Rothchild and those guys. We were one of the few rock bands. They were starting to do that. And then the Doors came along. Once they merged with Asylum and Warner Bros., we kind of got put on the back burner.

Our second single was called “Lucy.” It was Zeppelin-ish almost, but there was a trucking strike and they couldn’t get the record distributed. That sort of shot our chances.

Where did your career go after Crabby Appleton broke up?
I was kind of kind of fed up. I had quit the band in the middle of a tour. We had two guys that were actually junkies. They’ve both passed away now, but we’d go out and play and they wouldn’t be there. They were too fucked to play and that pissed me off. And so I left them on the road, came back and it turned out they hired another drummer.

I didn’t want to be in the business anymore and so I moved out to Lake Elsinore and kind of became a hippie. I had a cool place and played in the club there for quite a while. It was a good place and people would come to rehearse there. One time, Johnny Winter came in.

After doing that for a few years, I got a call from Richard Fernandez. He was my drum tech with Crabby Appleton. That was his first gig as a roadie or a tech. He had become a road manager during that time he worked for the Eagles and the Faces. He’d worked himself up working for these great bands and he was working for Tom [Petty].

And so he asked me if I could come out and help. He originally wanted me to help with Stan [Lynch] as a drum tech. He wanted me to tune the drums and all that. And so I started out doing that. After six months, I started playing percussion with him. Eventually, I didn’t do all of that other stuff. I started doing percussion with him in the studio and live.

When exactly did this start?
It was before Hard Promises. They were touring on Damn the Torpedoes. I didn’t play on that, but I played with them live during the tour.

How did you make the transition from drum tech to onstage percussionist?
First of all, I wasn’t a great tech. I was supposed to be helping with loading the trucks and stuff, but the other tech guys were like, “No, no. You stand out here.” On the soundcheck, I’d be playing the drums and the band would come out and they’d start jamming with me.

I was a musician and I didn’t want a tech job, but I didn’t want to turn it down either because I had seen these guys previous to that, Tom and the Heartbreakers, and they were so good, such an amazing band. Early on, they were on fire. I just went, “Man, I gotta do this just to be around this music.”

I just kept doing that I do and I started playing a couple songs on percussion next to Stan. And when we got in the studio after that tour to make Hard Promises, they just wanted me to play on the tracks. Normally, the percussion is overdubbed at the end. By percussion, I mean the tambourines and shakers and all that kind of stuff.

But on Hard Promises and Long After Dark, I played percussion on the basic tracks. That was partially because, I think, as everyone knows, there was this controversy with the grooves. Stan and Tom and Jimmy Iovine would have these things going on between them. The groove was always being questioned. I was kind of there just to keep it grooving.

How did Stan feel about your presence, both on the stage and later in the studio?
He was fine. We had fun. It was actually very cool because it really did add something to the whole thing. I don’t think he had a problem with it at all. It was really just an addition to what was already going on. That other stuff didn’t have anything to do with me. It was just band shit. I felt like I was adding something and so did they.

Do you recall making “The Waiting?”
Yeah. It’s hard to remember exactly each session, but I played a tambourine on it and then the shakers in the chorus. I did that live, too. A lot of the time, I would play on the track and actually play the tambourine and shakers at the same time. And live, I did that too.

Were you a Sidebreaker? I knew for a period, that’s what they called Scott Thurston.
I was a Sidebreaker. Scott became more a part of the band than I was. He was there for a long time and did a whole bunch of stuff, but I was there for four years. I traveled on the band bus. This was before the planes and everyone having their own bus. It was one bus and everyone was on it. It was the early days of touring.

What are your earliest memories of Howie Epstein?
I knew him before he was in the Heartbreakers when he was playing with Del [Shannon]. He was a real sweetheart and just an awesome musician. It was really sad, what happened to him.

His harmonies really elevated their sound.
Oh, yeah. The thing is, Stan had that too. Stan had an incredible ability. His vocals should not be underestimated. He was great. He could sound like Tom. He could make the sounds that Tom made. And then Howie had a higher voice. He was also just amazing. I was on the road with him, too. It was great.

Do you recall playing the US Festival with them in 1982?
Yep. [Laughs] It was a lot of people. I remember Bill Graham being pissed at the Kinks because they wouldn’t come off. It was just a huge thing, like 400,000 people. It was ridiculous.

What other gigs stand out to you?
The one at Boston Garden [on August 7th, 1981]. That’s the one that really stands out to me. It’s where the Lakers/Celtics played and I used to watch those all the time. And we played there and Stevie [Nicks] was there. When she came out, the sound of the crowd — the place was packed — the sound was so loud that I thought, “This must be what it sounds like when the Lakers and Celtics are playing.” It was so loud! I couldn’t believe it. Amazing.

I just always thought how fortunate I was to even be on the stage with this band. In my opinion, that live band is one of the best, if not the best, live rock & roll bands ever. How do you get better? I just don’t know. They’re just so good.

What was it like playing on the Del Shannon record?
The first one [Drop Down and Get Me] was like being in the studio with Tom and the Heartbreakers, where I played percussion and was the guy. I remember Tom produced it. I didn’t talk to Del a whole lot. He was there and we had interactions. It was just like doing a Heartbreakers record, but it was Del’s songs. And then the second one was the Jeff Lynne production. That was like Full Moon Fever, the same way that was done.

You play a bit on Southern Accents, but they didn’t bring you on the tour. Was that because they brought in the backup singers?
Yeah. There was a year or two off. They brought in a horn section. The next tour was Pack Up the Plantation, so they didn’t take the percussionist, which was me. [Laughs]

You just missed the Bob Dylan tour.
Yeah. But I did go see it and it was pretty awesome. I saw them in Irvine, [California in June 1986]. The band part of it was just great, but the thing that killed me the most was seeing Bob Dylan sing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” by himself. It was like, “Wow! Are you kidding? That’s what this song means!” [Laughs]

Speaking of Dylan, tell me about being called into the Knocked Out Loaded sessions in 1986 to play on “Got My Mind Made Up.”
Tom was doing it and they just called me in to do an overdub. It was the first time I met Bob. I just played congas on it. Another time, they just asked me to do a cymbal crash. They asked me to bring some cymbals and a stand and do the cymbal crash. I’m in the studio and Bob comes in. When he wants the cymbal crash, he points at me and I hit them. [Laughs] It was surreal to have Bob Dylan pointing at me like, “Crash the cymbals there!” I don’t remember which song that was, though.

Tell me about making “You Got It” with Roy Orbison.
That was basically done the same way as Full Moon Fever. It was all that same time. It was a Jeff [Lynne] production. It’s incredible how he has everything figured out in his head, little parts. It was done the same way. I think the track was recorded before I played drums on it. That’s the way they did all that stuff. They would record the track with acoustic guitars and a simple drum machine part. And then I’d come in and overdub drums, sometimes one at a time or two at a time. It was really interesting and it accounts for the sound, too.

How did Full Moon Fever start for you?
Before I knew it was a record, they called me up and said that Jeff and Tom had a song they wanted to record. We recorded at Mike Campbell’s. I went over there and they had the track sort of already done. I played the drums, but there was no vocal or anything. It was just one chord over and over again. To make a long story short, it ended up being “Free Fallin’.” [Laughs]

I lived about an hour and a half away and I listened to it all the way home going, “Man, this is a hit! This is fucking amazing.” Also in the first batch of songs was “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” But the record company said, “We don’t hear anything good here,” and they had us do more.

The record is basically just you, Tom, Mike, and Jeff. Walk me through how the songs were constructed in a little more detail.
Well, it was a totally different process than the Heartbreakers. The Heartbreakers recorded live. With Full Moon Fever, I’d come to the studio and sometimes the songs would be basically fleshed out with some acoustic guitars and some very simple drum-machine parts. There would maybe be a bass, maybe not. Maybe a vocal, maybe not.

And then I’d play the whole song through and they would keep some of it or Jeff would say, “Let’s just hear the snare” or “Let’s just hear the snare and the the hi-hat.” It was pieced together like that, which is really brilliant.

That’s the way that almost all of that record was made, in different variations. I think “Free Fallin'” they started the track and the first couple fills are from the live track. They just kept them and then I think maybe they replaced the snare drum all the way through.

On “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” that fill that goes through the choruses, that I played on the first round through. And then Jeff said, “Let’s add some toms on top of that.” So I’d overdub them. It was pieced together, but pieced together with his plan. It was mostly in Jeff’s head. It was incredible how it came out. Most of his stuff you can hear that, like that George Harrison record [Cloud Nine] and even ELO stuff.

The video for “I Won’t Back Down” shows Ringo Starr playing to your drum track.
That’s right. George Harrison wanted to do the video. And so I had to sign a release from Tom’s management to let Ringo play in that video too, which was pretty funny. They were like “Ringo” and I was like, “OK.” [Laughs]

If there’s one drummer that can pretend to be you, it’s Ringo.
Exactly.

I love the whole record, even “Zombie Zoo.”
I think my favorite is “Face in the Crowd.” It has such an amazing, beautiful sound and feeling to it. Jeff did such amazing stuff to it.

Does playing on a song as popular as “Free Fallin'” generate any money for you?
Yeah. It does. It just started the last few years, but yeah. … I didn’t get any points, but I get performance royalties off of it, which is great. I’m thankful for it.

Was there any talk of bringing you on the Full Moon Fever tour since you basically play on the whole record?
Nah. [Laughs] They didn’t because I play drums mainly on that. They were just kind of past it then.

You worked with Del Shannon again right before he died. This wasn’t long after you worked with Roy Orbison right before he died.
Yeah. Jeff produced them both with the same kind of process. I saw Roy right before he died. He was coming out of Rumbo Records right into a ’65 black Stingray Corvette with split windows and pipes on the side. Unbelievable car. It was like a 427, the best Corvette you could possibly have, coolest one. It was just amazing.

You’re on the first Cracker record in 1992. Tell me how that happened.
The first Cracker record was [producer] Don Smith. We had done a lot of stuff together. It was recorded out in Pioneertown, [California] in a soundstage that they built out there. It was really cool. I first got called to do percussion. I went out there and did some percussion overdubs. And then after the record was close to finished, Don wanted to do some of the drums. I’m on two or three of the songs and they were overdubbed after the fact. I went into a studio here in L.A. and put down some drums.

I do remember [bassist] Davey [Faragher]. He’s an awesome player and he went on to play with Elvis Costello [as a member of the Imposters]. He’s still in that band.

Tell me about playing on the Rolling Stones song “I Go Wild” from Voodoo Lounge.
That was another Don Smith call. They needed some shakers just to clean up that track. I mean, the Stones were the Stones. I went down there. It was at A&M. Keith [Richards] and Don were in the control room. They just wanted me to play some shakers through the track. I put the headphones and the track was sort of like, “Wheeew.” It was Charlie and it was great, but it was all over the place. I put the shakers on and that was that. A pretty simple thing, but it was awesome to do.

I sort of love how you’re on Dylan’s most obscure song and the Stones’ most obscure song.
[Laughs] Yeah. That’s right!

Tell me about working on Wildflowers.
That was an overdub. I went over to Tom’s house and I played a tambourine on “You Wreck Me.” I’m on another two or three songs, too.

I know he went through a bunch of drummers before he settled on Steve Ferrone. Did he try you out for it?
Yes, actually. There was one time where [bassist] Bob Glaub and I went to Mike’s house and did a day of tracking with him. He went through a ton of drummers while making that record. I was there for some of that, not there for others.

He tried Kenny Aronoff at one point.
I know he tried the guy from Dire Straits, Terry Williams. You see, Ferrone is a great drummer. I love his Average White Band work. But the way that those guys recorded before Full Moon Fever and after Full Moon Fever was totally different. Before Full Moon Fever, there was much more of a band thing. After Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open, that real simple drum thing continued on into their stuff for the rest of the time.

Steve could really do that. He could catch that real simple …”You Don’t Know How It Feels” is boom-bap, boom-bap. It’s that thing, that Jeff Lynne thing that they kept the whole time.

Did you see Tom very often in the final 20 years of his life?
Not a whole lot. The last time I saw him was when Richard Fernandez got a Lifetime Achievement Award [in 2016]. I went to that and everyone was there. I saw Tom and all the guys there. I got a picture. It was really good to see him.

He was doing that show on Sirius and he said to me, “I play Crabby Appleton songs on my show all the time.” He loved that band. One time he played me a really obscure one. I was like, “Really? How did you find that?” But we really liked each other. We didn’t talk much after the Nineties, but we always got along great.

Hearing the news of his death must have been a shock.
I don’t know what went on there, but that was a drag. He should still be here.

Tell me about working with Pegi Young and how that period started.
I played with [bassist] Rick Rosas for like 25 years. I first met him in 1993. I think he and Joe Walsh called me since they heard Full Moon Fever and they liked the way I played. They were putting together this band that only lasted for a few gigs called the Flu. I met Rick through that. Rick and I went on to play with Jack Tempchin. We started to play together a lot. We also did some gigs with just Joe as a solo act.

Rick played with Neil [Young] and hadn’t heard from him for a long time, and all of a sudden, Neil called him up to do some stuff. And then he did some gigs with Neil and then Pegi started opening on tour for Neil [in 2007]. They didn’t have a drummer. Anthony Crawford was playing tambourine with his foot. And so Rick talked Pegi into getting a drummer. That’s how I got the gig. I went up to the ranch and played with them and they liked it. I played with them for six or seven years.

It was fun. They were great musicians. It started out with Anthony, Rick, me, Ben Keith, and Pegi. And then Anthony left and Ben passed away, so we got Spooner [Oldham], which was awesome, and Kevin Holly, who is a great guitar player. He was with Little Richard forever. He’s amazing.

And then Rick died.
That was really a drag. We played together in the Waddy Wachtell Band forever on Monday nights, almost every week, for a while at the Joint in L.A.

Pegi was a great songwriter.
Yeah. She wrote some great songs. And then she had a good choice of covers, too. It was a fun band to be in. We didn’t play for many people, which was the only drag about it. It was hard for her to get people to come unless they thought Neil was going to be there for something.

That did happen sometimes.
Yes. He did a couple of complete shows with us, and it was great. We’d do festivals like the Bridge School and he’d come play with us. And then they got divorced, which was total weirdness.

It’s sad to watch the videos where it’s Pegi, Rick Rosas, and Ben Keith. They’re all gone.
Yeah. It really is sad. I remember the phone calls. Pegi called me and went, “Rick passed away.” And she’s crying. I was like, “What?!” Nobody knew he was sick. We had sort of an inkling, but he didn’t tell anybody. It was really a drag.

To move on to something happier, you had so many amazing nights at the Joint with the Waddy Wachtel Band. I was just reading about May 16th, 2005, where Neil Young came out and jammed with you for a long time.
You can see it on YouTube. We played “Down by the River” for like 30 minutes. Then we did “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” which has these great background vocals. We had Blondie Chaplin and Bernard Fowler singing the background vocals. You know what those guys do. At that point, they were both with the Stones. They are great singers. Those guys were doing the background vocals with Neil and Waddy playing guitar. Pretty badass.

The crowd showed up that night and had no idea what they were going to see.
That’s right. They didn’t. They were running across the street to get cameras and stuff.

I imagine some of the best musical nights of your life were spent on that stage at the Joint.
Yeah. Some of them were some of the best music you’ll ever hear. Even though I was there playing it, I have to say it. When you’re in it and you’re hearing it, you’re going, “Man, this is just great.” Some of the best stuff was just me, Rick, Waddy, and Bernard. Bernard does this David Bowie tribute thing. We first did “Heroes” there at the Joint. And then “Waterloo Sunset” with Terry Reid. That turned into what it was because we played it every night. It was a band arrangement that evolved into this epic thing. Everybody loved it and it was great. Keith Richards was there about three times. It was killer.

That’s the glory of being in L.A. These people are always around.
Exactly. When I think about, “Maybe I can live somewhere else that isn’t as crazy …,” I go, “But all the good guys are here, and girls.” I have a studio here and I can call up these great players and most of them will come and play for just a little bit of money. It’s the place to be as far as I’m concerned.

You must really miss all that during the pandemic.
Yeah. Playing live now, you can’t do it. It’s just a drag. But you just gotta deal with it. I work in my studio and have people come over one at a time, or someone will send me a track and I’ll play on it. That way I get to keep playing music and doing stuff with music until we can go out again.

It’s amazing to think about a kid from Iowa moving to L.A. to play drums and more than 50 years pass and here you are …
Exactly. I’m still doing it, kind of, and I’m still with Marc Ford. I always tell him that he’s the best part of the Black Crowes. His playing and the way he is, is just amazing. Jim too. All these guys are great. Getting to play with them is what it’s all about.

I’m sure you’ll be back out there before too much longer.
Sure. Hope to be. I’ll just keep my chops up and get ready to go back out.

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