Tom Petty’s relationship with Elvis Presley stretches way back. When he was ten, his uncle landed a job on the set of Elvis’ 1962 musical comedy Follow That Dream. Petty got the chance to stop by, and witnessed Elvis arrive in “a fleet of white Cadillacs”. The crowd that had gathered was sent into an ecstatic frenzy, all screaming and thrusting records through the chain-link fence.
“I remember his hair was so black that the sunshine was glowing off of it,” Petty told Rolling Stone. “Just a nod and a hello made your skin tingle. I was high for weeks. It lit a fever in me to get every record I could, and I really digested it.”
That fever stayed with petty throughout his childhood, pushing him to buy all the Elvis records he could lay his hands on, and providing a soundtrack for those early years in Florida. Within two years of being introduced to Elvis, Petty had taken up the guitar, and by the early ’70s, he’d dropped out of school to tour with his group Mudcrutch, who sadly imploded shortly after arriving in Los Angeles.
From the ashes of that group rose Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Comprised of Petty, two former Mudcrutch members (Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench), Ron Blair and Stan Lynch, the band released their self-titled debut in 1976, spawning their smash-hit single ‘Breakdown’. By the late ’70s, Petty and co. were one of the biggest bands on the block — and it all started with Elvis.
Speaking to Rolling Stone back in 2011, Petty named some of the Presley songs that ended up inspiring his own music. As well as classic tracks like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and ‘Hound Dog’, Petty also selected some lesser-known tracks, including his 1955 rendition of ‘Baby Let’s Play House’. “Arthur Gunter’s original was a really obscure blues number and a really great record. But there’s something about Elvis’ version that’s just otherworldly,” Petty began. “Scotty Moore was always such an underrated guitar player. He plays around everything on the track and just fills the holes. And then when he solos, it’s from Mars.”
For Petty, it was the otherworldliness of Elvis’ records that made the biggest impact. Take his 1957 single ‘Mean Woman Blues’ for example, a track that seemed to herald the yet-unknown realm of adulthood. “‘She kiss so hard she bruise my lips/Hurts so good my heart just flips.’ That was pretty heavy stuff for a little kid like me to hear,” Petty recalled. “He brought in backup singers the Jordanaires, and used them as a rhythm instrument, which was usually done in old gospel music, That added a whole other dimension.”
On the whole, Petty seems to have preferred pre-army Elvis. The ’70s rocker chose only three Elvis records after he joined in 1958, the first being 1961 effort ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’. “When it came on the radio, it’d make you swoon every time,” he remembered fondly. “He did come back and do a few great things. It wasn’t all over.”
Another of those “great things” was 1960’s ‘A Mess Of Blues’, which sat alongside ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’. “An acoustic guitar and a snare drum played with brushes carry the rhythm,” Petty said of that 1961 single, “But when the six-string bass comes in and the piano goes up to the high register, the whole thing jumps out of the speaker. I used to have a tape of alternate takes. It was kind of a mess when they started, and it turned into this beautiful arrangement”.
You can check out the full list of Petty’s favourite Elvis songs below.
Tom Petty’s favourite Elvis songs:
- ‘That’s All right’ (1954)
- ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ (1955)
- ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (1956)
- ‘Hound Dog’ (1956)
- ‘Mean Woman Blues’ (1957)
- ‘One Night With You’ (1958)
- ‘Santa Clause Is Coming To Town’ (1957)
- ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’ (1961)
- ‘A Mess of Blues’ (1960)
- ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’ (1961)