Like most columnists, I have a large cache of article starts in the can just waiting for me to flesh them out for future columns. I thought I had plenty of time to finish an article I’d started two years ago. Tom Petty’s death a month ago sped up the process a bit for me. One of the biggest disappointments of my 16-year-old life came when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cancelled their appearance at the Circle Theatre back on September 8, 1978. My old high school running buddy (Jon Newton) had scored front row tickets and we were devastated when Petty bagged that show. Regardless, I remained a fan and followed Petty’s career ever since.
Being a lover of pop culture history, one episode from Petty’s earliest days stands out in my mind. It was the summer of 1961. Eleven-year-old Thomas Earl Petty was sitting on a bale of straw under a pine tree in his front yard, counting cars, pitching pebbles, cloud spotting and doing the things that every pre-teen kid did back in those days. The day would get better. Tom’s uncle invited his young nephew and his cousins out to his job site that day.
Petty’s uncle, Earl Jernigan, owned a local film-developing business and often worked on movie sets whenever filmmakers came to the area. No doubt about it, Uncle Earl had some juice. After all, Uncle Earl often showed young Tom and his friends the rubber suit worn by the creature in “Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which Earl obtained when the film was shot in nearby Silver Springs. Today, Uncle Earl was working on a film 30 miles down the road in Ocala called “Follow That Dream” starring Elvis Presley. Filming began on July 6, 1961 in the summer heat of Florida. It was filmed in Citrus, Marion, and Levy counties, specifically Inverness, Ocala, Yankeetown, and Inglis. Uncle Earl invited Petty to come down and watch the shoot.
Young Tom Petty was thunderstruck and he instantly became an Elvis Presley fan that day. Tom Petty told friends, “Elvis glowed.” The next day Petty traded his Wham-O slingshot to his friend Keith Harben for a collection of Elvis 45s. “I caught the fever that day, and I never got rid of it,” Petty later said in Paul Zollo’s 2005 book, Conversations With Tom Petty. “That’s what kicked off my love of music. And I’d never thought much about rock ‘n’ roll until that moment.” Sadie Darnell, Tom’s cousin who was with him that day, told The Gainesville Sun that the meeting between the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and his cousin Tommy was a “life-altering moment” for young Tom. “He was completely, completely enthralled,” said Darnell, who went on to become sheriff of Alachua County. “And Tommy told us as a family that he was going to be a rock star.”
It was Petty’s Aunt Ellen who drove Tommy, along with his brother Bruce and cousins Sadie and Norma Darnell, down to the film set. Elvis was scheduled to shoot a scene driving up in a car and entering a bank. “There was a huge crowd; the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in the streets of Ocala,” Tom later said. “And then, I swear to God, a line of white Cadillacs pulled in. All white. I’d never seen anything like that,” he remembered. “And I was standing up on a box to see over everyone’s head, because a big roar started up when the cars pulled in.” Petty watched as guys in mohair suits and pompadours came bouncing out of each car — they all looked like Elvis to young Tom Petty.
Petty encountered Elvis during what fans call the King’s “movie years,” that period between “Young Elvis” or “Skinny Elvis” in the 1950s and “Fat Elvis” in the 1970s. Presley’s chart topping “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender” era had passed. This was “Blue Hawaii” and “Wild in the Country” era movie star Elvis, who’d given up vinyl in search of celluloid stardom. These were the days when Elvis always got the girl: Ann-Margret, Donna Douglas, Nancy Sinatra, Mary Tyler Moore, so why wouldn’t he glow?
When the real Elvis finally appeared, Petty knew immediately. “He stepped out radiant as an angel,” Tom said. “He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. At 50 yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like. And he came walking right towards us. Elvis’ hair was so impossibly black that it glistened a deep blue when the sunlight hit it.” (We’ll forgive 11-year-old Tommy Petty for his faulty memory on this point as Elvis had his natural hair for this film) “And that’s when Elvis walked directly over to Uncle Earl, Aunt Ellen and me. We were speechless,” Petty recalled. As Uncle Earl introduced Elvis to his nieces and nephews, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll smiled and nodded to each open-mouthed youngster. “I don’t know what he said because I was just too dumbfounded,” Tom said. “And he went into his trailer.”
Tommy Petty watched as hundreds of girls pressed against the chain-link fence thrusting their album covers and photos in the direction of Elvis’ trailer. Petty later noted that one of Elvis’ “Memphis mafia guys” then dutifully took the fan-loot into the trailer and returned, bearing authentic Elvis autographs on each one. Seeing those girls go wild over Elvis surely made a lasting impression on Tom Petty. His cousin Sadie said. “My sister and I were excited to watch them film a movie. But Tommy got caught up in the moment. It was like he was mesmerized with an imprint on his brain.”
Petty and his cousins hung out the rest of the day and watched as the crew spent hours filming that one scene of Elvis getting out of the car and entering the bank over and over. The scene was filmed at a bank on Ocala’s Silver Springs Boulevard. Petty remembered that “every time Elvis’ car rolled up, the crowd went ‘insane,’ breaking through the barricades and charging toward the star. And I thought at the time, ‘That is one hell of a job to have. That’s a great gig — Elvis Presley.”
Eleven-year-old Tom Petty went home and ordered The Elvis Presley Handbook — which he had to send one dollar for, all the way to England. And he stayed inside the house — constantly — and did nothing but listen to Elvis music. “My dad was concerned that I didn’t go outside, that I just played these records all day,” said Petty.
“Follow That Dream,” released in 1962, was based on the 1959 novel “Pioneer, Go Home!” by Richard P. Powell. The title was changed, allegedly, because the songwriters could not find a rhyme for “pioneer.” At first, Powell was unhappy that Presley had been chosen for the role, but after seeing the finished film he thought Presley had done a good job. The movie reached Number 5 on the Variety weekly Box Office Survey, staying on the chart for three weeks, and finishing at Number 33 on the year-end list of the top-grossing movies of 1962.
Three years later 14-year-old Tommy became even more enamored of rock ‘n’ roll when The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show — and it’s true of thousands of guys — there was the way out. There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. It was something I identified with. I had never been hugely into sports . . . I had been a big fan of Elvis. But I really saw in the Beatles that here’s something I could do. I knew I could do it. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place.” He dropped out of high school at age 17 to play bass with his newly formed band.
In a 2014 interview, Petty stated that the Rolling Stones were “my punk music.” Petty credited the group with inspiring him by demonstrating that he and musicians like him could make it in rock and roll. One of Petty’s first guitar teachers was Gainesville neighbor Don Felder, who would later join the Eagles. As a young man, Petty worked briefly on the grounds crew for the University of Florida, but never attended as a student. He also worked briefly as a gravedigger, which always makes for romantic imagery.
Although Petty never saw Elvis again, the die was cast on that July day in 1961. Petty said, “I learned all of those early Elvis songs and having that kind of background in rock ‘n’ roll, of where it had come from, has served me to this day. It became an invaluable thing to have. So for that, I thank him.” Well Mr. Petty, we thank you for over 40 years of classic music and memories. Tom Petty lived his life like a rock star. In his ode to Indiana song, “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” Petty warned, “Well I don’t know what I’ve been told, You never slow down, you never grow old.” He was right. For whenever we think of Tom Petty now, we’ll see him in our mind’s eye slingin’ that guitar low over his watch pocket and leaning into the microphone like he’s fighting a stiff wind. Rest in Peace Tom Petty.
Al Hunter is the author of the Haunted Indianapolis and co-author of the Haunted Irvington and Indiana National Road book series. His newest books are Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View, Irvington Haunts. The tour guide, and The Mystery of the H.H. Holmes collection. Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.