Father Knows Best

Tom Petty’s father Earl still lives in the same NE Gainesville house Tom called home.
“Depot Street” 
Before the Heatbreakers, Tom Petty’s home was Gainesville, and his band was called Mudcrutch. Tom wrote “Depot Street” in 1971, a high school story of a girlfriend who lived on the other side of town.

((( rural romeo )))

dave hogerty
Tom Petty New Year’s 78/79

songs of the north florida south

Since their first years out of Gainesville High School, Mike Campbell and Tom Petty (above) have been Rock N Roll mates. In the early 1970s, their band, Mudcrutch, was on any list of North Florida’s “best” bands, alongside The Outlaws out of Tampa, Jacksonville’s Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and atop the list, The Allman Brothers, Gregg and Duane, who went to high school in Daytona Beach.

Meet Earl
Tom Petty’s father still lives the quiet life — usually.

dave hogerty

Editor’s Note: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are appearing tonight at the O’Connell Center.

By Diane Julin
Alligator Staff Writer

Even though it was a warm night, 16-year-old Betsy Marcus clutched a black jacket tightly around her shoulders. Eyes transfixed on a color TV a foot from her nose, she sang and she cried both at once.

She was singing because Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were singing right there on the screen. She was crying because Tom Petty was breaking her heart.

Every few seconds, when the camera shot a close-up of the lanky rock n’ roll singer with the overbite and the surfer blond hair, Betsy pressed two fingers to her lips and enthusiastically transferred a big kiss to the screen.

Across the living room sat the owner of the TV set. He also owned the black Heartbreakers “roadie” jacket and the Tom Petty baseball cap Betsy was wearing. He had the same. lean build, the same toothy grin, the same laughing blue eyes, and yes, the same big ears as the object of Betsy’s intense affections. And he was chuckling.

“Betsy,” he said in a deep southern drawl, “I might have that boy give you a big, old kiss.”

What hard-core Tom Petty fan wouldn’t love to hear the rock star’s very own father say that? Of course, not all the fans who over the years have turned up on the doorstep of Earl Petty’s northeast Gainesville home have been as lucky as Betsy. While she was visiting two Sundays ago, Tom just happened to call his dad before going on stage in Baton Rouge.
Earl surrendered the phone to Betsy.

But other fans who have tracked down Tom Petty’s dad get thrills from seeing the platinum and gold albums on the living room wall. And watching videotapes of Tom’s performances and interviews Earl recorded with the Beta Max Tom gave him for Christmas. And looking at pictures of Tom as a little kid wearing a cowboy hat at Christmas.

The best part, though, is just being with Earl.

Hospitality and friendliness come naturally to the 57-year-old former insurance salesman. As long as the fans don’t start camping out on his front lawn — like they did on Tom’s in California — he doesn’t mind the company at all.

Do you want to see the shed where Tom’s old band and some friends of theirs — now members of the Eagles — practiced as kids? It’s right out back past the potato patch. They used to drown out the neighborhood. Do you want to see the roadie jacket with the Heartbreakers insignia on the back that Tom gave him?

Earl displays it proudly.

The phone rang the other day, Earl said, and it was another one of Tom’s fans calling. A female voice wanted to know, did Earl ever pick peaches for a living? She’d read that in a magazine. No, he said, the only peach-picking he’d ever done was out in his back yard — seven peaches.

Well, was Tom’s brother Bruce ever a truck driver? she asked. No, Earl said, he drives a brand new station wagon.

OK, well, did Earl ever say he wanted Tom to grow up and have a respectable job like his brother the truck driver? No, for one thing, Tom’s about six years older than Bruce so that wouldn’t make any sense at all, he said.

“I’m going to write Tom a hot letter,” the voice said.

“You do that,” said Earl. >>>



>>> Why perfect strangers call him up to ask him “frivolous things” Earl doesn’t really understand. Why they come to visit him is more of a mystery.

“I don’t know what the idea is behind it,” he said. “I guess they think it’s the closest they can get to Tom.”

Earl and the rest of the family don’t get much of a chance to see Tom themselves.

Rock n’ roll superstars have to live in California.

It takes him so far away,” laments Tom’s aunt, Evelyn Jernigan, who doesn’t like rock ‘n’ roll anyway.

“It consumes him completely. To me he’s still little Tommy … it robs us of our little boy.”

That’s not to say the family isn’t proud and happy at the “fuss” millions of people have made over Tom and the Heart-breakers. Double-platinum albums. Cover story after cover story in national magazines. Sell-out concerts everywhere. TV appearances. Fans so enthusiastic, that Tom needs two bodyguards for his own protection.

“Every time I see him,” said Mrs. Jerinigan, with a giggle, “I says give me a big hug and a kiss so I can tell all the girls that Tommy Petty kissed me.” There aren’t many opportunities for hugs and kisses, but Earl says Tom calls regularly to see how he’s doing. Earl has lived alone since his wife passed away last year. Earl may have lost his son to the music business, but he’s gained a house full of young friends who are all crazy about Tom. Once they get to know Earl, they’re crazy about him, too. Seated in a comfortable chair in a living room filled with photos, crocheted pillows and delicate glass knickknacks, Earl smokes a cigarette and prepares to tell his Tom Petty stories one more time.

Earl could sum it all up in one sentence: he had a kid – a good kid, a smart kid – who was determined as hell to be a musician and there was nothing his old dad could do to talk him out of it. That’s it in a nutshell but of course, nobody’s satisfied with a nutshell. They want to know how many girlfriends he had stuff like that.

So Earl smiles and fills in the details.

“It all started when Elvis Presley came to Florida to shoot his first picture.” said Tom’s Uncle Earl Jernigan – who owns a motion picture service in Gainesville, and was working on the film. “His aunt Evelyn took Tom to the movie set in Ocala for a look at the king of rock ‘n’ roll.”

“He saw all that hullaballoo and all those young girls, and he came back all excited about the rock and roll business,” Earl said.

That’s the story Tom himself tells all the magazines, but Earl’s got something to add. Earl thinks a baseball manager deserves a little credit for getting Tom together with a guitar.

The way his dad tells it, Tom wasn’t tall enough to play basketball, not big enough to play football, but pretty good at baseball. That is, except for the batting part. Or so his little league coach thought.

“For some reason or another,” said Earl, the coach didn’t see fit to let him bat. One day he was just so dejected about playing baseball, he was all beside himself.”

So Earl asked his boy what was wrong.

“Well the manager won’t let me bat,” Tom said.

“Well, if I was you,” said Earl, “I would put that little old uniform in a little old sack and I would take it down there, and I would hand it to that manager and I would tell him I had found something I would rather do.”

But what will I do? Tom asked. And Earl said, you’ll find something else.

So Tom quit that very day, and became a rock ‘n’ roll superstar instead. Not quite that fast, but fast enough.

“His mom bought him a little Spanish guitar for about $28,” Earl said. “I told him he could have music lessons if he didn’t let his grades slip.”

Sure enough, after three or four lessons, the grades began to fall, and Earl put his foot down. No more lessons.

“You can’t serve two masters,” Earl told him.

As it turned out, three or four lessons were enough. He joined a band in junior high school and another band after that one broke up. Since they didn’t yet have limos to deliver them to their gigs, good old Mom was emploved as chauffeur.

Of course, the boys didn’t want anybody to see Mom drop them off. *She would have to let them off a block before they got there,” said Earl, chuckling. “It was a no-no for their mothers to drive them up.”

The music distracted Tom from his school work and Earl didn’t like it. He always has believed that education was important. He wanted Tom to learn a trade, and have the music as a sideline.

There were so many bands who never made it, Earl thought for sure Tom and his band would never accomplish anything. The family didn’t know any celebrities or entertainers to help him. And according to Tom’s aunt, she and his mother were sure it all would come to no good.

Earl told him, “For you to make it, it’s going to be a hard job because you’re a little old small town kid and you really don’t know anything.”

Earl wanted to see Tom become an architect or an artist. “He could draw tremendously.”

Tom did go to college, a fact Earl wishes the magazines would mention instead of depicting him as a drop-out. After high school, Tom went to an art school in Tampa for six months, and transferred to a junior college in St. Petersburg for another six months.

Finally, Tom came back to Gainesville and went to Santa Fe Community College for almost a year.

Then, the inevitable happened.

“He came to me after his second year of college and told me he knew what he wanted to do and not to discourage him,” Earl said. “So I changed my mind.” From then, Earl had to watch the rest from across the country.

It was 1974 when Mudcrutch, the top local band Tom was in with fellow Gainesville natives, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, left for California. Soon after making it to Los Angeles,  Mudcrutch broke up. Eventually, still on the west coast, Tom, Tench, Campbell, Stan Lynch, and another Gainesville boy, Ron Blair, formed the Heartbreakers.

‘The rest is rock ‘n’ roll legend – legal disputes with the record company, fight with the industry over high record prices.

And, of course, success. Phenomenal success.

Tom hasn’t forgotten his roots, though, said Earl. In fact, he writes a lot of songs about Gainesville.

The song “American Girl” is about a girl who committed suicide by jumping off a sorority house in Gainesville.

Or so Earl thinks. He’s never really just sat down with Tom and asked what all his songs mean. *I thought about doing that a lot of times.” he says, “but I don’t want to foul him up if he’s got his mind on something else.”

Earl makes it a point to stay out of the business aspect of Tom’s life. That’s for him and his managers to work out. But he figures it is his business to see if his boy is keeping healthy and happy.

And he does like to give him one piece of advice. “If you’re making money, save some,” he tells Tom, “because if you save some, then you’ll always have some.”

When Tom was a kid, he obviously appreciated money. Earl recalls the first time Tom made an honest wage. He was 12, and mowed a neighbor’s lawn.

“They paid him $2, and he got so excited, he lost one on the way home.”

Tom may be saving some money now, but he’s spent some, too. He drives a Mercedes 450SL. *I told him to give it to me when it wore out, or when the ashtray got full,” says Earl.

You get the impression Earl isn’t really interested in driving a Mercedes, though. He seems more interested in the wild rabbit that hides in his potato patch, and sometimes almost comes close enough to pet. A fish fry with the neighbors on a Sunday evening can really light up his grin. And he likes to do what he can to make Tom’s fans happy — since there just isn’t enough of his boy to go around.

“I’m proud of Tom,” Earl says. “That people think as much of him as they do.”


october 7, 1981
vol 75 no 32
Meet Earl, Tom’s father, still living in the small NW Gainesville house where Tom learned to play.
Before Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Petty’s band was called Mudcrutch, and he was in the middle of a Southern Rock revolution, that included the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws, Sea Level, The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Blackfoot, The Dixie Dregs … All the best in North Florida and Georgia, not to mention Gainesvillians Don Felder of the Eagles, and Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Tom Petty (Mudcrutch) Legendary was Mudcrutch’s performance at the Second Annual Halloween Ball in 1971, Midnight to Sunrise, a show that set the standard for all Halloween Balls to follow, and high on the list of all University of Florida legend and lore.

Tom Petty

1971 “Living in a trailer for two, and dancing to Lynyrd Skynyrd. I gave it all up for you, babe.”

((( rural love song )))

•MOVIES (The Midnight Movie That Wouldn’t End.)

“Heartbreaker’s Beach Party”
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
((( florida summer)))