On the surface, proto-punk legends The Stooges and heartland rock icons Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have exactly zero connections. You could stretch and say that they are both American bands, which is true, and that both had outstanding frontmen, which is also true. But after that, the similarities between the two acts are as few and far between as any bands in rock history.
It would seem that way, except for the fact the two bands share a member. As improbably as it seems, there was one musician who could bring both the gritty aggression of Iggy Pop and the chest-thumping stadium rock of Tom Petty to life. Unsurprisingly, this was someone with a long history in the music business and multi-instrumental capabilities. That man is named Scott Thurston.
After The Stooges reformed following their initial breakup in 1971, Thurston was noticed by guitarist James Williamson while playing in a different group. “I was over at Capitol Records and as I was going out I was watching this guy recording and it was Scott Thurston with this other band,” Williamson explained in 2012. “He was cool, I could hear that he was a great piano player, so I got his contact info and I said, ‘You wanna play with us?’ When we put the band Iggy and the Stooges back together, I asked him if he wanted to play with us, and he said, ‘Sure,’ and the rest is history.”
Pop had played piano on some of the softer songs on The Stooges’ Raw Power, so Thurston had a role to fill in the otherwise guitar-heavy Stooges lineup. Once The Stooges broke up for good in 1974, Thurston joined Pop as a backing musician throughout the 1970s. As a sessions player, Thurston began the next phase of his career as a journeyman hired gun.
Thurston jumped from Pop’s solo band to former bandmate Ron Asheton’s The New Order and then back to Pop again while also logging time with Nils Lofgren, Bonnie Raitt, Glenn Frey, Melissa Ethridge, and Jackson Browne. During his time as a session player, Thurston linked up with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers on the tour, supporting Petty’s solo album Full Moon Fever.
Thruston fulfilled an important role, although not at first. Petty was already the band’s rhythm guitar player, Benmont Tench filled the keyboard position, and harmony vocals were handled by drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Howie Epstein. Thurston was mostly a background player until Lynch left in 1994, and Epstein died in 2003. From that point on, Thurston’s most important role was serving as Petty’s main counterpoint on harmony vocals.
It wouldn’t be until 1999’s Echo that Thurston would officially appear on a Heartbreakers record. From that point on, however, Thurston was a vital contributor through his multi-instrumental skills and vocal prowess. Thurston’s singing voice was remarkably similar to Petty’s, almost giving off the impression that Petty was harmonising with himself in concert. Despite his greater prevalence within the band, it still took Thurston a while to officially consider himself a Heartbreaker.
“I was trying to get him out of the corner over there, because he always saw himself as a sideman—’I’m a Sidebreaker’—and he tried to stay over to the side,” Petty observed to Rolling Stone in 1999. “But we love him, he sings great with me, and we want him out there with us. He’s a good buffer between the rest of us. When we’re fighting or have some cliquishness, he’s good at getting in there and saying, ‘Let’s look at it this way’, because Duckhead, as we call him, is neutral. He doesn’t come from Florida, wasn’t there when this or that happened.”
Thurston would remain in The Heartbreakers for the final 25 years of their existence. When Petty died in 2017, Thurston had established himself within the band’s dynamic and even got some prominent spotlights and solos during songs like ‘You Wreck Me’. Although he was rarely recognised by name, Thurston was an essential contributor to two of America’s most important rock bands.