Exclusive: Jon Scott talks breaking Tom Petty

Scott talks to us exclusively about his new Tom Petty book

If it weren’t for Jon Scott, two of America’s finest musicians may never have achieved the success they have. The former DJ-turned-radio promoter is responsible for launching John Mellencamp’s and Tom Petty’s careers, despite the backlash of his bosses at MCA and ABC Records during the 70’s. Scott, who has been friends with Petty for more than 40 years, has authored Tom Petty and Me: My Rock ‘n’ Roll Adventures with Tom Petty that gives fans a look inside the life and career of Petty.

The book’s forward is written by Mellencamp, who was known as Johnny Cougar in the 70’s when he was trying to breakthrough as a singer/songwriter. Scott was working as a radio promotions man (aka promo man) for MCA Records at the time, and was ultimately fired because he wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to supporting the then 22-year-old from Indiana. The label wanted nothing to do with Mellencamp, but Scott didn’t care. He was determined to get his music noticed, but was fired before Mellencamp gained success on a national level. After MCA, Charlie Minor, who was head of ABC Records at the time, hired Scott to be their new promo man where curiosity nearly got the best of him of there, too.

After discovering Petty’s iconic debut album eight months after it had been released, Scott pulled another “Johnny Cougar thing” and was relentless at getting Petty’s music heard. The album was released alongside thirty-two other albums in 1976 and was disregarded as punk due to the album’s artwork featuring Petty in a leather jacket draped with bullets across his chest. Punk wasn’t popular yet, so many stations didn’t even listen to the album, let alone play it. That’s when Scott stepped in and nearly lost his job a second time because of his accidental discovery that became a passion for Petty’s music.

I spoke with Scott last month via phone from Los Angeles. He tells me that he had six weeks and absolutely no money to break the band that was about to be dropped by ABC due to its lack of support.

“I noticed it in ’76. It came out in October. I didn’t see a cover. It was white, and something told me to sit down and listen to it. When I did, the first song ‘Rockin’ Around (With You),’ the hair on my arm stood up at attention. And then ‘Breakdown,’ the same thing happened. I’m like ‘Damn, this is really good.’ I listened to the whole thing. It closes with ‘American Girl’ I think. What I heard was incredible. I remember telling my assistant to hold my calls and I put the headphones on.

“The production on that first album. The producers had the [background] voices flying left and right and Mike Campbell’s guitar flying from one side and switching it over to the other side. Hearing it on headphones is like a treat. That’s when I jumped up, and it was like I jumped out of a trance. I ran into Charlie’s office and said ‘Who are these guys?’ He couldn’t tell by the record because it had nothing on it, so he put it on, and said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s that punk band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.’ I said, ‘Punk band? You didn’t listen to it, did you?’ He goes, ‘Jon, I didn’t have to. Look at this guy.’ He pulls the actual album out, ‘Look at this guy, you have blond hair — streaky blond hair — bullets around his neck and lights in the background, he’s a punk. Radio stations aren’t playing punk bands.’

“My mind was blown. I had heard punk bands, but punk band? I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ Something inside of me said, ‘Just go for it, ask him. Give me a chance.’ When I first worked there, he made me raise my right hand and swear I will not do a ‘Johnny Cougar thing’ again. [He said] ‘If we don’t work them, you cannot work them.’ I had my fingers crossed behind my back. I’m a DJ, I’ll play good music.

“I knew what I heard, no doubt. There’s no mistaking. First of all, I said, ‘Charlie, give me a shot at this record.’ He said, ‘You’re doing the same thing you did at MCA, Jon. You got fired over there, don’t get fired here. I like you. I know you got an ear for music, but no.’ I said, ‘Please, I have nothing to do for two weeks.’ He goes, ‘You won’t spend one dime on this. You can’t buy an ad, you can’t do anything. You’re on your own.’ I started making phone calls. Most of them never heard of [the band]. I said ‘I send you a record tomorrow.’

“I believe we just sent a hundred records out the next day. Most said they had never heard of him. I started calling local guys and another guy living in Boston, and he said, ‘Jon, we’re getting a reaction here. He’s big here.’ Right then at that point, I knew I was onto something. The same thing happened in San Francisco. They started playing it there and got a reaction. He would play small clubs there, but I saw a glimmer of hope and that’s when I said, ‘Charlie, I’m into this thing, I’m gonna do it.’ I sat there one day, thinking ‘I don’t know. I think maybe I’m in a bigger hole than I can get out of’ because the majority of the stations said no when in fact they never even listened to it. He was overlooked and under appreciated because of the record cover.

“I still don’t understand why he had a black leather jacket on and bullets around his neck, but I never did find that out. Because ’76, he hadn’t made it big in Europe or really signed and made it big in Europe at the time. There’s not been a cover like that. That cover threw so many people off. Radio stations wouldn’t even listen to the record. They perceived it to be a punk record and nobody was playing punk records.”

Petty died suddenly after going into cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu during the early hours of October 2, 2017. He passed later that evening UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. Scott was devastated and dumbfounded like the rest of the world of Petty’s passing. He said it wasn’t until after Petty’s passing that he started writing the book to honor him.

“I started making notes about maybe a month after he died. I didn’t want to write anything and put it out before Christmas as a money grabber or something, because I always see those kinds of things. I want my story out. I want my grand kids to be able to read it and my daughter, especially my grand kids. Some of the stories came out better than the others.

“I wanted it to come out on 4/20 actually. I knew he would appreciate that. I never really knew Tom to be a drinker, except one time when we went on a Christmas cruise, he was going, ‘These are just too bland.’ I never really saw him drink. We made no bones about it, we’d smoke five [blunts]. That’s the thing about Tom, I tried to bring out his humorous side as much as I could. It’s not a sex and drugs story. I think it’s a feel-good story. Someone described it like sitting around a campfire telling stories. That’s how I wanted it to be.”

Scott was in attendance of what became Petty’s final show on September 25, 2017 at the Hollywood Bowl. It was there when Petty himself, acknowledged Scott’s work from the stage of the sold out concert.

“There’s one particular friend I want to dedicate this next song to,” he tells the crowd. “This is for Jon Scott. And six weeks before we were going to be dropped from ABC Records, he went to the radio stations…and got that sucker played and, on the charts, and we’re forever grateful to him.”

Although Petty is one of the greatest front men in the history of American rock ‘n’ roll, Scott claims the singer/songwriter wasn’t too keen on public appearances.

“Whenever he learned about texting, and realized that he didn’t have to talk to somebody in person who was going through something or whatever, he would just text people. It took him awhile to get into it, but he’d start texting people. It was his form of communication.

“He was a shy guy. He really was shy, I always want people to know that. He didn’t like to be around big crowds of people, but if he had to do it, he’d do it. He was always uncomfortable. At most concerts, he would pull it right before the show started and maybe an hour before the show started, he’d walk off the streets and be the first one inside. He would be bugged. He just didn’t want to be around because he knew people wanted his autograph. After two-three hours of performance, you know how it is after you do that, you’re spent.”

I’m not much of a reader myself, but this book really kept my interest. The chapters are short and very visual with a lot of incite into the music business. I can see this book being made into a movie and Scott confirmed I’m the second person to tell him that. Hmm.. Maybe one day it will be.

Buddy Iahn
Buddy Iahn

Buddy Iahn founded The Music Universe when he decided to juxtapose his love of web design and music. As a lifelong drummer, he decided to take a hiatus from playing music to report it. The website began as a fun project in 2013 to one of the top independent news sites. Email: info@themusicuniverse.com