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 Steve Ferrone.
The first time Tom Petty asked Steve Ferrone to join the Heartbreakers on tour, the drummer said he wasn’t sure it was a good idea. He’d just wrapped up work on Petty’s solo record Wildflowers, appearing on nearly every track, but the Heartbreakers had never played a show without Stan Lynch behind the kit and Ferrone didn’t know where things stood with him.
“I said to Tom, ‘That sounds like fun,'” says Ferrone. “‘But what’s happening with Stan? Have you spoken with him about this?’ He said, ‘No. We aren’t really getting on at the moment.’ I said, ‘I’m really flattered that you’ve asked me and I’d really love to do it. But if you talk to Stan about it and things change, great. I’m really glad that’s worked out. If things don’t work out with Stan, then we’ll talk about it.’ A couple of hours later, my phone rang. It was Tom and he said, ‘You’re working next year.'”
That next year turned into a 22-year stint, during which Ferrone played on every Heartbreakers record and show until Petty’s sudden death in 2017. His time with Petty is a big part of his musical legacy, but the drummer has also performed with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Duran Duran, Paul Simon, and many, many other household names during his long career. He phoned us up from his home in Los Angeles to walk us through the the entire journey.
How’s your quarantine going?
Good. I go out every once in a while to the supermarket with my girlfriend and sometimes we’ll take a little drive. And that’s about it.
I saw this all coming very early. I was in New York doing the Seth Meyers show when everything kind of fell apart there. I was so impressed with that that I decided, as soon as I got back, to upgrade my studio and make it so that my engineer can work for me from Long Beach, where he lives. That created a little more space in the studio. I can get maybe three or four people in here with distancing and masks and we can play.
Do you miss playing live onstage?
Of course. There’s nothing like that. But I think I would miss my grandchildren a lot more [laughs]. I think the thing that seems to have been missed is, “OK, let’s buckle down and this get this over with, suffer through it. The sooner we get it done, then we’ll be out of it and we can carry on with our lives.” People just don’t seem to want to do that over here [in America].
I want to go back now and talk about your life. What first drew you to the drums as a child?
Tap-dancing. When I was about three years old, sitting in my high chair, I’d bang my spoon in time with the music on the radio. My grandpa, grandma, and my mother said, “We’ve got to do something about this.” My grandmother, being a huge Fred Astaire fan, decided to have me tap-dance. It all sort of began with that.
Who were your drumming heroes as a teenager?
I didn’t really concentrate on drums. I liked bands. I listened to music. When I tap-danced, I was doing syncopation to the music. It was standards like “Old Black Magic” and “Begin the Beguine.” I had these dance routines that I’d do.
Then, of course, on came the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I knew who all the members were and I liked the music. I liked the songs. I didn’t particularly concentrate on the drummer at all. What made me get interested in the drums was at 12 years old I got hired to dance in a children’s chorus in a summer show. I guess they call it summer stock in America. It was with a pretty big celebrity in England, a guy called Max Bygraves. He had a few songs in his show with a kids’ chorus.
The phenomenon at the time was “The Twist.” They had this little thing that he did where all us kids stood onstage and did the Twist. One night, I looked down into the orchestra pit and saw what the drummer was doing. He was using one hand different than the other hand. That’s the only way I can explain it. I thought, “Oh, let me see if I can go do that.” In the dressing room, I sat down to try and do it and found it was a little more difficult from what I thought it was.
What happened from there?
I practiced it every night. I started listening every night to what his foot was doing and I figured that out. Once I got those motor skills down, the next song that I heard that interested me was Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” I thought, “Wow. That’s kind of difficult.” But I figured out how to play that, too.
I was 12 years old and I used to go to this ballroom in Brighton called the Regent Ballroom on Saturday mornings. It was open at night, but they had this thing for kids that started around 9 a.m. Parents would drop their kids off there and we’d go in there and do our little adult thing. It was young kids having a dance-hall experience and a little bit of a social life. I was a pretty good dancer, but us guys never got any action from any of the girls. They’d dance with us and say, “Thank you very much,” and walk off.
But then Manfred Mann’s Earth Band showed up and they were going to play that night. They did a soundcheck and they played four or five songs for us kids. Every girl in the place just went crazy. I turned around and said to my friends, “That’s it. We need to start a band.” Because I kind of knew how to play the drums, I said, “And I’m going to be the drummer.” That was it. That was the beginning of that.
Where did things go from there?
At 21, I went to school in France and learned how to read music a little bit. I’d spent my teenage years just tooling around, having fun and playing resorts in Italy and chasing Italian girls. Sometimes they’d chase me, which was even better. At 21, I decided I needed to take this a bit more seriously if I was going to do this professionally.
I wasn’t sure I was going to do it, but the opportunity came up for me to go to Nice [France] and play in a residency in the casino, the Palais de la Méditerranée. I learned the craft of being a musician, being able to read and follow a chart to be a pro.
When I left there, I started playing with Brian Auger, which was a “being in a band” situation. There’s a bit of a difference between being in the studio and being a band player. There’s a creative aspect to both places, but being in a band, you craft the songs together. As a studio musician, you have to go in and they go, “Here is the song. Play it.” You have to get it done in the shortest period of time possible. The talented studio musician can play a chart that has been just put in front of him like he’s been playing for years.
I was working with Average White Band and I went to New York and there I met [producer] Arif Mardin. When a rhythm pattern came about, a groove that everyone liked, I would just sort of write it out so I wouldn’t forget. I wanted to know what the groove was, where the pocket was, so I could remember it. Arif noticed this. After we finished he said to me, “Would you like to come and do some sessions with me?” I said, “Well, yeah. I’d love to.”
That led to a lot of work.
Yeah. I started with Bette Midler and Chaka Khan and started to do more and more of that. Through doing these sessions with Arif, who was the hot producer in town, other people started to call to do sessions. Because I started to do that stuff, I got to work with guys like [pianist] Richard Tee, [bassist] Will Lee, [guitarist] Cornell Dupree, [guitarist] Eric Gale, Nile Rodgers. I just started to work with all these people and I got to befriend them.
I could also see guys like [drummer] Steve Gadd and [drummer] Chris Parker play up at Mikell’s [jazz club]. I became one of the New York studio guys and these guys really taught me how they worked in New York. A finer bunch of teachers you really couldn’t find. But I always credit Arif Mardin for being my mentor and starting me with that stuff.
Tell me about playing on Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones. I love that record.
I got a call to go to the Power Station from Nile Rodgers. They were working on “Think Too Much.” We went into the studio and [Chic bassist] Bernard Edwards was also on the date. At that time, Bernard and I were almost living in the Power Station. That’s where Chic did all their recordings.
I went into the studio and my drums were set up. We listened to this song and they said, “Just you and Nile go in and play.” We went in there and we put down this track and then we went inside to have a listen to it. Paul was standing behind the desk and he’s listening to it. At the end, he’s just standing there with his arms folded and his hand on his chin, sort of looking off into the distance.
There was this sort of silence. I said, “If you want, maybe I can play you something different on the bridge or something.” He did one of those gazing-up-in-the-the air type things and he just slowly turned and looked at me [laughs]. I was like, “Just take a minute” and I went outside where I saw Bernard Edwards. I said, “Wow. I think may be I’m done.” He said, “No, no, no. You haven’t been here. A lot of this goes on. Stick around. You aren’t finished yet.”
I was sitting outside and I heard them doing all kinds of stuff with the guitar because the rhythm guitar has all these effects on it. You might notice it on the record. They put on this shadowing stuff. They were in there messing with this guitar part. It just threw it out of time with the drums. Then I hear Nile Rodgers come out of the control room and I hear, “Listen, that’s impossible! He’ll never be able to do that.” He came walking into the lounge where I’m sitting with Bernard and goes, “Get in!” He’s really in a bad mood. “Get inside here! They want you to replay the drums to that.” It was with all the effects on it.
I said, “Nile, you got really great time. It shouldn’t be that difficult.” [Laughs] So I went in and did it! That was the track that really stood out for me on that thing. The other track on the album I really love is called “Train in the Distance.” They had such a great way of creating tension on that track. It was really cool.
How did you wind up in the Saturday Night Live house band for the 1985–86 season?
What had happened was Lorne had just come back to Saturday Night Live. He’d been gone for quite a while and they decided to put together a new band. I got this call asking if I wanted to play in the band. I knew most of those guys, anyway. We had played on sessions together. I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a fun thing to do.”
G.E. Smith was the bandleader. T-Bone Wolk was the bass player in the band. We just sort of went down and started doing the rehearsals. I had done lots of sessions with [pianist] Leon Pendarvis. He’s a really great guy. I pretty much knew everybody that was in the band. I had worked with them at some point or another.
That was a tumultuous time for the show. The cast really didn’t work, and NBC was right on the brink of canceling it. Do you remember any of that tension?
At certain points, we felt there were better jokes going on around the band than there was on the stage. As with most eras of Saturday Night Live, sometimes it just sits there in the doldrums until somebody hits something or the cast finally jells. We all credited Jon Lovitz with coming with the Liar character. We couldn’t wait to see what he was going to come up with next. It was something that we loved and we mimicked a lot of his Liar stuff.
Lorne really knows what he’s doing. It’s such a pressure job at Saturday Night Live, but he always seemed really calm. I remember one time I was standing near him when someone in the cast, I can’t remember who, was warming up the audience before the show. He said, “Remember, when you hear my name you need to cheer extra loud!” I was standing in the producer’s box and Lorne said to me, “If he thinks that’s going to keep him in the show, he’s mistaken!” [Laughs.]
Tell me about joining Duran Duran the next year right before they made Notorious.
I had this drum tech named Artie Smith. He was a drum tech around town. He worked for me, Steve Gadd, and a lot of different drummers. He was strong as an ox. I saw him pick up a Hammond organ once and throw it in the back of a van. He’s a big bear of a guy. He was my friend as well as my tech. Artie called me up one day and said he’d been working in the studio with John Taylor of Duran Duran. He said that John was mentioning that the band was going to get back together, but he didn’t know what was happening with the drums. Artie said, “Maybe Steve Ferrone would like to do it?”
Sure enough, I get this call from [bassist] John Taylor asking if I wanted to come over to England and meet [keyboardist] Nick [Rhodes] and we can see if this is going to work out. I said, “Yeah, sure.” So I went over to London and we went into the studio, just me John and Nick, and we started messing around, coming up with ideas.
There I was back in the band world again. Instead of being given a chart, I’d sit there and come up with sounds at the start of a song. I’d figure out a groove for it and we’d start to play. We had the start of maybe three or four songs.
It was fun. I was really enjoying it, but it didn’t really sound like Duran Duran. It was a bit different. And then Simon Le Bon showed up. Simon took the songs and made a couple of changes with some chords and these grooves. Then he opened his mouth and there it was. It was Duran Duran.
Tell me about the tour. Young, screaming fans must have been a pretty big change for you from your days in the Average White Band.
Yeah. Exactly. Then again, I was 23 when I started with Average White Band. By that point, I was 35. I always cracked a joke that I was the oldest teen idol in the business. We’d go play a concert and there’s all these girls out there with these big signs and posters. When we played Madison Square Garden there was this one girl that held up this huge sign saying “Fuck Me, John.” [Laughs.]
That’s pretty direct.
I was thinking, “How the hell did she get out of the house with that?” I just imagine her with her friends walking out and the old man is sitting in a chair watching TV. “Where are you going?” “Oh, we’re going to the Duran Duran concert?” “Have a good time. What’s that you’ve got under your arm?” And it’s a “Fuck Me, John” sign. [Laughs]
It’s also a big change to go right from a Duran Duran tour to one with Eric Clapton. How did that happen?
[Bob] Geldof got knighted and there was a party for him at the Hard Rock Cafe in London. Duran Duran got all dressed up and we went down there. Duran Duran was very fashionable and I was doing very well, so I bought some fashionable clothes and went down there. What’s funny is that their rival band were there. What were they called?
Spandau Ballet! Any time I’d run into these guys they were like, “You’re really well dressed!” They were really taking the piss. Anyway, everybody was milling around in the Hard Rock and Phil Collins comes up to me. “Hey Steve, how you doing?” We were doing a little small talk and he said, “Did you ever meet Eric Clapton?” I said, “Well, I met him once with Average White Band. He showed up at a gig just to say ‘hello.’ That was it.”
Phil said, “Come over with me and meet him.” I walk over and there’s Eric sitting in a booth. We sit down and we chat and it went very nicely. I said, “I better get back there to my crowd. It was nice meeting you.”
A couple of weeks later I get this phone call from these people that worked for Eric Clapton and they wondered if I would go and play with Eric. I said, “Well, yeah! That sounds like fun.” They said, “It’s going to be [keyboardist] Greg Phillinganes, [bassist] Nathan East, and yourself with Eric, a quartet. You’re going to play a little club in Boston.”
That was the beginning of me playing with Clapton and that was one of my busiest periods when I was playing with Duran Duran and Clapton. I spent only about three weeks at home that year. That was when I had to really, seriously think about giving up the Saturday Night Live seat. It wasn’t fair to keep it. There were other people that could have used that seat for some income, so I resigned my seat and got really busy.
I love seeing Clapton play with a small band like the one you had with him. I think he’s at his best when there’s no other guitarist onstage besides him.
Absolutely. I agree with you entirely. I went out to dinner with him late last year in London. I said to him, “I’ve seen you play a couple of times” and he’s always had other guitarists playing with him. Derek Trucks is fun with him, but it would come up to a solo and Eric would point at Derek and Derek would take the solo. As fine a guitarist as he is, you want to see Eric, not Derek. I always felt a little cheated that he didn’t play more.
When I saw him with Cream, he didn’t have any choice. I saw them at Madison Square Garden [in 2005] and he was phenomenal. Incredible.
Tell me about playing drums on the 1991 George Harrison tour. That was a big deal. He’d been off the road since 1974.
We did 24 nights at the Royal Albert Hall [with Clapton] and George became a regular visitor there. He was very, very friendly and funny. We were all in the dressing room together. He sat down and said, “They asked me to do this gig in Japan.” Eric said, “Are you going to do it?” George said, “Well, I don’t have a band.” Eric said, “Why don’t you take my lot? I’m going to take some time off.”
George said, “Will you guys come and play with me in Japan?” We said, “Are you kidding? Of course, we will!” That started that sequence. Eric actually came with us, but he didn’t seem happy to be there at the time. He was isolated and just miserable on that tour. He didn’t seem very happy. I think he was thinking he was going to take time off, but for some reason he came along with us.
As a Beatles fan, playing on songs “Taxman” and “Something” must have real fun.
Even better! When we were at rehearsals, Ringo showed up and [percussionist] Ray Cooper had a second drum kit. While we’re sitting up there, I said to Ringo, “Do you want to come up and play?” Ringo came and jammed. Basically, I was sitting onstage with two of the Beatles. Whenever I play with another member of the Heartbreakers, you get some kind of idea about what it’s like to play in the Heartbreakers. And so when you’re playing with Ringo and George, there’s this connection that happens between them. It was like, “Oh! I see this now.”
That tour could have easily hit North America and Europe and really all over the world. Why was it just Japan?
I have no idea. I think mainly because so many Americans went to Japan. So many people from America went over there to see that show. We played three nights at the Tokyo Dome. That’s a huge, huge venue. We played all over Japan. That was a lot of fun.
George sometimes would call you up and say, “Listen, I’m kind of bored. I’m going to order up a load of Chinese or Japanese or Indian food, or something.” He had these massive presidential suites with huge conference rooms. He’d just piled up the table with food and we’d all go hang out there with George.
When we went to Hiroshima, we all took a walk around the Peace [Memorial] Park where the bomb went off. We rang the peace bell. You have to hit it with this big log. George said, “Wait a minute!” He went inside of the bell and wanted us to ring it. Nobody would do it [laughs]. We were like, “Your ears! Your ears!” We didn’t want to be responsible for that.
It’s crazy that he never toured again.
Well, we did that one gig at the Royal Albert Hall [in 1992]. Eric didn’t come to that. I think he really didn’t want to be there in Japan, for whatever reason. I don’t know. And so Mike Campbell came over and was the second guitarist. Nathan couldn’t make it. George said, “Do you know any bass players that might want to come and do this?” Will Lee is such a huge Beatles fan. I said, “I know just the guy in New York.” I called up Will and said, “Do you want to come and play with George Harrison?” He was just over the moon. He’s owed me ever since for that call.
Tell me your memory of playing on Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.”
I went over to London to start rehearsals for the Japanese tour with George. I rented an apartment not far from the Albert Hall. I had to go out to Windsor to begin the rehearsals. I’m driving down Kings Road and I see this guy walking down the street. It’s a little muscle-bound guy, like a bodybuilder guy. But he looks like [Duran Duran guitarist] Warren Cuccurullo. I hadn’t seen Warren in a few years and he’d taken to bodybuilding and I didn’t know, but it looked like Warren Cuccurullo.
I rolled down the windows and went, “Hey, Warren!” He goes, “Hey, Steve. Great, you’re in town. I need you to do a session for me.” I said, “I’m rehearsing with George Harrison. I don’t know the schedule.” He says, “When you get it, let me know.” He puts his hand in his bag and tosses this cassette into my car. He said, “Call me when you know what’s going on.”
I drive off and put on the cassette. It’s the demo for “Ordinary World.” It’s a rough mix of what they did with the drum machine and the guitars and the vocal. I thought, “This is an incredible song. It is such a great song.”
I got back and called Warren and I said, “Listen, you don’t need me to play on this. This is a hit record right here. This is really a great song.” He goes, “No, no. We really want you to play on it.” I said, “OK. OK.”
I figured out the schedule with George. He’d work from noon until about 6 p.m. That was it. Once I figured that out, I went over there in the evening. It was some studio south of the [Thames] river. We cut “Ordinary World.” I’m really glad they let me play it. It’s a wonderful song.
Were you a big Tom Petty fan before you were called in for Wildflowers?
I can’t say that I was a big Tom Petty fan, but I’d seen a couple of his videos on MTV. I think “Learning to Fly” and “I Won’t Back Down.” I liked his music, but I was more into R&B and jazz. I like rock. I’d go and see Zeppelin, but I was more into other kinds of music. But I thought Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were cool.
I presume the connection was meeting Mike Campbell at the 1992 George Harrison show at the Royal Albert Hall.
That’s what I finally found out years and years later. But I got this call in London asking if I could come over and do this session in Los Angeles. I said, “Yeah, who is it for?” They said it was “top secret.” I said, “That’s going to be triple scale, then.” [Laughs.]
I showed up out here and they put me at this hotel and I got this message saying I had to go over to Sound City recording studio. As I was going in, Kenny Aronoff’s drum kit was heading out. That’s still not unusual. Sometimes people would make albums and they’d want me to play on a couple of tracks, like Paul Simon.
I walked in and my drums were being set up. I wandered into the control room and there’s Tom Petty and Mike Campbell. That was the start of a 25-year gig. Actually 27, because I’m basically still working for it.
Those sessions lasted for years.
The first half of it began around October of 1992. I came back around June of 1993 and we did the second half. I really enjoyed being back in the studio in a band situation. But there was a bit of a learning curve with the Heartbreakers since it was all about the song. Tom’s songwriting is so strong that they kept it really simple to just present that song. Every once in a while., I could do a little something, but it had to be really, really straight down the line.
I had so much fun. This guy could just throw out song after song after song. And he would throw away songs. Wildflowers sounded a lot different than the other stuff I had heard from Tom Petty. It was a different-sounding record. Every once in a while he’d come up with another song and I’d be like, “Oh, this sounds more like Tom Petty in the vein of the old Tom Petty that I know.” We’d start to play it. We’d play it three or four times and he’d just go, “No. We’ve been here before.” And he’d just throw it away. I was wondering, “What the hell is he doing? This is a great song.”
What was it like going into the band on the road right after Stan left? He’d been there for years and everyone else was so tight.
I never really inserted myself in that. I minded my own business. It has nothing to do with me. I heard this and that, but I never pursued it. And I became my own new guy. I followed other people before. It wasn’t like I wasn’t used to following people into bands. I followed Phil Collins into Eric Clapton’s band. I worked with Christine McVie after Fleetwood Mac. And Average White Band after Robbie McIntosh passed away.
I love the Echo album.
A sleeper album!
I spoke to Tom a few years ago and he said he had trouble listening to it because it reminded him of too many painful things. Are you able to listen to it and enjoy it?
Yeah. I’ve grown to enjoy it. It was a bit like pulling teeth. It was much harder to make than Wildflowers. The title track started off being about 27 minutes long. We played it for about four days to get it down to where it was. It just wasn’t coming together. It was hard work to make that happen. We did it at Mike Campbell’s house and had fun doing it. But I think it was difficult for him to do and that made it a bit slow going.
You weren’t on the cover of Echo. When did you become an official member of the Heartbreakers?
It was funny. I don’t think Howie was on the cover of Echo, either. Scott [Thurston] was there, but Howie didn’t make it on. I think once I did the Wildflowers thing, I was a first-call for the band. I was in the band, basically.
The thing is there was always, in the Heartbreakers … I can’t say so with Tom, but in the management of the Heartbreakers, even when Ron [Blair] came back, there was me, Ron, and Scott. If they wanted us to do something and they wanted to pay us, they called us the Sidebreakers [laughs]. And then if they wanted us to do something for free, they called us the Heartbreakers [laughs bigger].
So there were two tiers of Heartbreakers, and Benmont and Mike were on top because they were the only ones consistently there from Day One?
Yeah. And even Ron when he came back, he was relegated to the Sidebreaker part. I used to do the negotiating for the Sidebreakers with management, and I always felt like I was putting my head on the chopping block. [Manager] Tony [Dimitriades] would say to me, “You know, whatever I pay you, I’ve got to pay the other two guys.” I was like, “Well, yeah … I’m just negotiating for me, but that’s very nice of you!” [Laughs] But I can’t say that Tom felt that way. Tom always made me feel essential.
You brought up Howie back there. I love what he added to the band. His harmony vocals were such a key part of the sound. Watching that tragedy unfold right in front of you must have been agonizing.
It was. What happened with me is that when I first started playing with the Heartbreakers I was the normal Steve Ferrone. When I came back to the second part of Wildflowers, I started to get sober. My early sobriety years were very much embedded in the Heartbreakers. Watching Howie deteriorate over the course of a decade was awful.
I remember we were in Detroit for a gig. Tom had told Howie to go get well. He didn’t care where he was going. He said he’d pay for it. He said, “Just go and get well.” Tom had had enough of it. Howie never, ever called me up, but he called and said, “Come up to my room.” I wandered up and there was blackened silver foil all over the place. I looked around the room and looked at Howie and said, “What are you going to do? Where are you going to go?”
He said, “Well, I really miss my dog, so I’m going to go back to New Mexico. I want to go there before I go anywhere.” I was like, “You’re not going to do that.” He said, “No, I’m going to go in a bit.” I think the last time we saw him was when we played in New Mexico [on August 22nd, 2002] and he came to the show. It was very sad. And then his dog died and Howie died shortly after.
How did Ron’s return change the band’s dynamic?
Well, we had long layoff periods. I think after the Echo album, there was this long period of Tom not wanting to play. He went through a divorce and all this other stuff. Dana was just arriving at that point. There was a lot of turmoil. He was going through whatever it was he was going through.
We had a long layoff period. I called up Mike one day and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m just sitting around, waiting for something to do.” I said, “Listen, I know you have some songs. Why don’t we just record your songs? Do you want to do that?” He said, “That would be great. I’ll call Ron.” He called Ron and I went over and we started the Dirty Knobs. That was when the Dirty Knobs started. He got Jason Sinay to come over and play guitar with him after a while.
How they got the name the Dirty Knobs is that I was hitting the bass drum one day in the studio and there was this horrible sound coming through the headphones. There was this crunching sound. The engineer finally fixed it and I said, “What was it?” He goes, “It was a dirty knob.” I said, “Dirty Knobs? That would be a good name for a band. You go and see the band and you get knobbed!” [Laughs] It kind of stuck.
And so the Dirty Knobs had started. When we got around to recording The Last DJ, there was this ongoing issue with Howie and his addiction. I remember Mike saying, “Tom wants to get another bass player.” I said, “Well, what about Ron? You’ve been playing with him. He knows all the stuff and he was in the band before.” He said, “Well, yeah, but there’s a bit of an issue since he left the band before.” But it was logical and just became a question of getting Tom to think it was his idea, basically.
I don’t know what Mike did, but he dropped Ron’s name a few times and then he started showing up at some of the Last DJ sessions. It was smooth as silk, really. It was putting on an old pair of socks.
I think my favorite shows were the Beacon Theatre ones in 2013. It must have been fun to play with a different set list and a looser vibe.
That was always fun. Between the beginning and end of the shows, we never really knew what was going to happen. We did cursory rehearsals where we went over certain things, nothing set in stone. By the end of that run, we had down what we were doing. The theory was, “Start with something they know, put whatever you want in the middle, maybe one thing they know, and then at the end, give them a couple of things they know. We’ll be happy and they’ll be happy.” Tom saw it as putting the band through its paces and keeping us fresh. It really worked.
Tom told me that when you play an arena or stadium, there’s a certain obligation to play your hits. The problem with you guys is, you had too many of them. They ate up nearly the whole set most nights.
It was ridiculous. I always said the Heartbreakers could do a whole set of the greatest hits, but there was a whole other set of greatest hits out there we could have done and everyone would have left happy. He was so prolific as a writer. He was so strong as a songwriter.
When you played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Prince in 2004, did you have any idea he was going to do what he did?
No! He scared the hell out of us all. It was kind of weird. I didn’t even know he was going to be there. Most of us had rehearsed here in Los Angeles. Then we got to New York and there’s [Steve] Winwood and Jeff Young on keyboards. I’d known Steve for ages. I played on one of his albums. Prince shows up on the other side and Winwood goes, “There’s Prince over there.” I look over and go, “What’s he doing here?” Steve goes, “I think he’s going to play with us.”
Something had happened where the people organizing it wanted Prince to play with us and I think Olivia Harrison said she just wanted people that knew George to be in the band to induct George. But they persuaded her and they ran it by Tom and other guys in the band and they agreed to let Prince come and be with them.
There was this little bit of standoffishness that was happening. I said to Winwood, “I’m going to go over and say hello to him.” I go over and say, “Hi Prince, Steve Ferrone. Nice to meet you.” He goes, “I know who you are.” That was because I played on Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You.” Prince wrote that. I said, “Really looking forward to playing with you. I didn’t know you’d be playing here.”
Then I went back and Winwood was like, “What’s he like?” I said, “He’s really nice. Go over and say hello.” We ran down the song and he took a bit of a solo. But when we came out to do the actual thing, here he comes with this solo and he just walks off with it. He walks to the center of the stage, then he looks at the band, and he falls off the center of the stage. Everyone gasped [laughs].
He had this gigantic guy in the audience that caught him and pushed him back onstage. Then he had this guitar tech, a Japanese guy … he took off his guitar and threw it up in the air and walked off the stage and it was hard to figure out at first what had happened.
I never really did figure it out. He just walked off and I was so blown away by the solo. Afterwards I was like, “Wait a minute? What happened to that guitar? Did it catch on the rigging or something?” It was funny. That little show he did was more for us than for the audience. He was a showman and that’s an amazing guitar solo.
I just checked on YouTube. It’s been watched over 90 million times.
Really? Wow. I’ve watched it a few times myself, so I’m probably a bit of that 90 million. It’s a phenomenal guitar solo. it was a great tribute to George.
I saw a bunch of shows on the last Tom tour in 2017. Everyone was playing really well. I could tell you guys were having fun.
It was. Everything was right on that tour. The whole thing was right. It was the first time he’d really been out on the road on his own like that. He always came with Dana on the road, but this time he was out with just us, the band. It was back being a boys’ club again on the road.
I know Tom was in pain, but you couldn’t really see it when he performed.
To get from the dressing room to the backstage, he always had a little golf cart that would take him. At one point, my knee was hurting and they met me in a wheelchair. He’d always come after us. We’d gather there and then Tom would show up. And then we’d walk out there and I was always close with him going up on the stage. He’d put his arm around my shoulder and go, “Let’s get up there.” We’d walk up the stairs, both of us sort of limping.
He was taking Oxycontin so he could get through the shows. He’d sort of time it so that it would kick in once he got up there. I’d say, “How are you doing? You ready for the show?” He’d say, “Just get me up there and I’ll be OK.” We’d get up there and it would do what it was supposed to do. It would kill the pain and he’d be able to perform.
But once we’d done the done the bulk of the show and we’d come off and have something to drink backstage while everybody was going crazy, sometimes he’d be able to walk up there on his own. Other times he’d say, “I need you again.” He’d put his arm around me and we’d hit those stairs together.
It sounds like he really needed hip-replacement surgery.
He had a cracked hip and he was in a lot of pain. It’s not like he did a lot of exercise and was moving around. He’d be watching movies in the hotel and then go out and do the show. He would basically rest and then go and do the show. That’s what he was there for. But he shouldn’t have done it, really. I wish he hadn’t done it. I don’t think you’ll find anyone in the band that wouldn’t say, “He really shouldn’t have done that. I really wish he hadn’t done that.” We should have canceled and done it another time.
But he was very loyal. He felt he had a lot of people relying on him, the band and the crew, to make a living. But there’s not a person on that crew or in the band that wouldn’t have given up that tour for him. That’s for sure. I’d like to see what he’d be writing about today, actually. He’d have a lot of things to say about that.
Do you see any scenario where the Heartbreakers play in the future? A Wildflowers tribute show?
Well, you know, I’ve spoken with Mike a little bit about it. Mike always said, “Tom will let us know when it’s right.” I think we all feel that there’s been this pretty tumultuous aftermath of Tom’s death. I don’t think that the band has been willing to do anything until something happens that might be what Tom would want.
The other thing that is difficult about it, and I’ve spoken to Mike about this, is it wasn’t so much that it was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It was Tom Petty in the Heartbreakers. He was an integral part of that band in that he was a guitarist in the band. He wasn’t just the frontman. He was in the band. He used to have as much fun playing with us as he did singing his lyrics. I think that’s why he loved the band so much because he was in the band.
He was always the leader and obviously the boss, no doubt about it. But he was in the band. He was very proud of the fact that he was a good guitarist and he could come in and hold his own and play some great solos. A huge part of the band is missing with Tom Petty’s demise, a huge part of it. Sure, we could get someone to sing in front of us. I don’t think that would be a problem. But who is going to play guitar?
It’s hard to imagine, but you could have Eddie Vedder out there and Lucinda Williams …
Absolutely. You know what? His fans, when Tom passed, were incredibly sensitive and loving. I’m still in touch with some of the fans. They are really, really nice people, good people. Tom loved his fans and his fans loved him. I don’t think it would be fair for us not to do something.
When was the last time you saw him?
After the [last show at] Hollywood Bowl, I went up to see him at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He and Dana looked so happy and in love. They ordered up some food and we just sat around talking. He was saying that we were going to do something, but no big tours anymore. He said doing something with Wildflowers would be fun. He was saying that he wanted to get his hip fixed and get stuff done. He wanted to work again with the [Webb] sisters.
There was so much he wanted to do. When I left and hugged Tom, my friend’s nephew took a photo of us. It’s my most treasured photograph. It’s me saying goodbye to Tom. I chose to remember that as opposed to being there at the hospital and seeing him on life support.
Fans always say to me, “What was Tom like?” I always say, “He’s exactly what you thought he was. He was that kind of a man.”
He was so wise and he helped me with things in my personal life, like getting sober. Also, I always thought that I carried my father’s name. I was probably 47 when I found out that I didn’t have my father’s name. It turned my legs to jelly. One of my foundational beliefs was ripped away from me. I was really upset and upset with my mom and lots of other people. I went and saw Tom and I told him the story about how Ferrone was a name taken from a movie because being born in 1950, being illegitimate was bad enough. Being illegitimate and with a black father is off the charts in any damn country, really.
Tom said to me, “What was your father’s real name?” I said, “Nicholson.” He said, “Nicholson? Steve Nicholson. Steve Nicholson on drums. That doesn’t sound good. Steve Ferrone on drums, that sounds good. You did that. You made that name. That is your name.” He had a whole different way of looking at things and he’d add humor. He was just a very wise man.
I’ll wrap up in a minute here, but tell me what you hope to do in the next few years.
At 70 years old [laughs]? I’m still sitting up to play. I’m supposed to fill in with the Dirty Knobs next June. They are supposed to open for Chris Stapleton and their drummer has a gig he has to do in Italy. Mike asked me if I’d go out and play with them. I’m looking forward to doing that if it happens.
That’s a big if.
Yeah. I’m really happy to sit here in my studio and make records. People continue to send me songs to play on. I got an album that I’ve been working on for about 12 years I might get around to finishing. I look forward to doing that. And it would be great if we could get together and get this tour done that Tom wanted to do so much.
He even told me about it. He really wanted a Wildflowers tour.
Yep. What he told me is, “We’ll do Wildflowers and then we’ll do the other Wildflowers album and have guest singers.” I think he was thinking about Eddie Vedder, Steve Winwood, and Stevie Nicks. That would have been so much fun to do. I can’t see it being very small though, could you? [Laughs.]
No. It would be a huge deal. It would also be cathartic for the fans. We’d all be in the room again to celebrate him.
Absolutely. I think it would be fantastic. We’ll see what happens. The loss of Tom cut really deep in the whole band. Sometimes something will come up and I’ll think about Tom and just lose it and start crying. I know Mike and Benmont are probably feeling the same way. Scott definitely. It really effected the band deeply. I really think that everybody would like to do it. We’d just have a lot of emotional hills to climb. It’s hard enough walking into the clubhouse without him. It feels like somebody is missing.
It’ll be difficult. I don’t think it’s impossible. I think we can do it. But I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking on my part. I think so. I’ll pray about that. How about that?
You really should write a book. We’ve been talking for 90 minutes and just scratched the surface of your life.
I started talking to a friend of mine about that. It’s kind of fun, but some of it is kind of painful. I guess a little pain never hurt anybody, though.