In the early 1970s, Leon Russell trusted Tom Petty to make the best music in the recording studio. Petty was new to the scene and took his duties seriously. However, when Petty decided he wanted to look as cool as the guys in the studio, Russell put him in his place. Russell told him he needed to earn the right to look like a rock star.
Leon Russell signed Tom Petty to his Shelter Records in 1974
In 1974, Petty moved to Los Angeles. Shortly after, Denny Cordell signed Petty to Russell’s record company, Shelter Records. Soon, Russell became very impressed with Petty’s songwriting and gave him a special job in the recording studio.
In his acceptance speech at the MusiCares Person of the Year Gala, Petty explained, “Leon brought me over to his house and he said, ‘I want you to just hang around.’ He liked the songs that I’d done. ‘If it comes to a thing where we need some words, I need you to be here and I’ll pay you for it.’ And he was gonna pay me, I was gonna be there, right?”
Russell scolded Petty for wearing sunglasses in the studio
During Petty’s first session, he met George Harrison and Ringo Starr of The Beatles. Drummer Jim Keltner came over as well. Petty thought Keltner’s sunglasses were cool. However, when Petty started wearing the accessory, Russell called him out.
In his speech, Petty continued, “Those cats were so cool, you know? And I found myself — after the session when we were hanging out — I found myself slipping my sunglasses on. Leon said, ‘What the hell are you doing with the dark glasses, man?’ I said, ‘I don’t know? It feels cool, you know, like Jimmy Keltner; he’s got his on.’
“He goes, ‘Wearing sunglasses at night is an honor you earn. Lou Adler had Johnny Rivers and the Mamas and Papas before he put them glasses on. Jack Nicholson made really shitty Boris Karloff movies before he put them glasses on.’
“Well, I’m putting my glasses on [removes eyeglasses, puts on shades], but I thank Leon for that advice.”
The Heartbreakers frontman got to meet two Beatles
Petty might have had to earn his right to wear sunglasses, but at least he was working with some of the best artists, including George and Ringo. So, working for Russell wasn’t too bad for Petty.
In a special edition of Rolling Stone called “Remembering George,” Petty explained, “It’s a scary thing meeting Beatles, but George was so nice to me and included me in everything.”
Petty and George crossed paths again in the mid-1980s when George came to one of The Heartbreakers’ shows in England. After that, they became best friends.
“I reminded him that we’d met, and there was some kind of weird click,” Petty continued. “It felt like we had known each other all our lives, and in a very personal way. We wound up just hanging a lot.”
So, in a way, working for Russell allowed Petty to have his first memorable moment with George.