Tom Petty, whose music is the soundtrack to many baby boomers’ lives, “burst into our music consciousness 40 years ago and never let go,” said MusiCares Foundation president and CEO Neil Portnow as the charity honored the rocker on Friday at a standing room-only hall at L.A.’s Convention Center.
Indeed, as artist after artist played songs — many that became hits before they were born — it became clear what a long and prolific career Petty and the Heartbreakers have had.
Starting with Randy Newman who performed “Refugee,” the tunes kept the well-heeled audience mostly dancing to them, all the way to the end when Petty and Jeff Lynne of ELO brought down the house with “I Won’t Back Down.”
Among the night’s highlights: Stevie Nicks, who sang “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “Insider” with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; Don Henley with “Free Fallin'”; Gary Clarke Jr. with “Good Enough”; Lucinda Williams with “Rebels”; and Jackson Browne with two numbers including “Learning to Fly.”
Others who took to the stage for Petty’s tunes included Jakob Dylan, the Lumineers, the Shelters, the Bangles, the Head and the Heart, Taj Mahal, Norah Jones, the Foo Fighters, Elle King, Herb Pedersen & Chris Hillman, George Strait, Regina Spektor, and Dhani Harrison under the directorship of T Bone Burnett. Ed Helms was the emcee.
Petty, who said he’d watched the evening from backstage, added, “I realized I may be in one of the top two or three rock ‘n’ roll bands.”
Talking about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, Petty said DJs thought it was a black conspiracy to bring their music to white radio. “The government got very serious about it, especially the Republicans,” he said. “They put Elvis in the Army and Chuck Berry in jail. Things calmed down for a couple of years. But it was too late, the music had reached England. In 1964, the Beatles came, I had my eyes opened like so many others, and I joined the conspiracy to put black music on white popular radio.”
Talking about his start in the business, Petty recalled hanging out with Shelter Records chief Leon Russell, along with George Harrison and a few others. Some of them were wearing sunglasses that night. Petty wanted to be cool too and wore his. Russell asked what he was doing. “You’ve got to earn wearing sunglasses at night,” Russell told him Petty said, as he donned a pair of shades.
The night broke previous records for MusiCares raising $8.5 million, said Portnow, who is also the Recording Academy’s president and CEO.
Notable guests in attendance included Ringo Starr and wife Barbara Bach, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and her husband, John Stamos, Kate Upton, Wilmer Valderrama, and many other supporters.