Tom Petty Tells Surprising ‘Free Fallin’’ Story, Jams With Stevie Nicks at MusiCares Gala

Lyndsey Parker
photo: JB Lacroix/WireImage

At Friday’s MusiCares Person of the Year gala, music’s elite dug deep into the Tom Petty catalog to honor the 66-year-old rock legend and three-time Grammy-winner during a nearly three-hour, star-studded Grammy weekend tribute concert. One of the evening’s highlights was Don Henley’s jazzy rendition of “Free Fallin’” — but when Petty later delivered his charming, rambling Person of the Year acceptance speech, he revealed that, incredibly, that song almost never came out.

“Me and George Harrison and Jeff Lynne one night were at [Warner Bros. Records executive] Mo Ostin’s house. We were just working on the idea of [supergroup] the Traveling Wilburys. I had written this song ‘Free Fallin’’ and done the record [Full Moon Fever, Petty’s first solo album], and taken it to my label, MCA,” said Petty. “And they rejected the [album]. That had never happened to me before. I was like, ‘Wow, what do I do?’ So we forgot about it, and we were at Mo’s house at dinner, and him and George said, ‘Let’s get the guitars out and sing a little bit.’ We sang, and George said, ‘Let’s do that “Free Fallin’,” Tom! Play that!’

“So we had a kind of Wilbury arrangement of it, with harmonies, and [Warner Bros. executive] Lenny Waronker is sitting there and he said, ‘That’s a hit!’ With two acoustic guitars, you know? I said, ‘Wow. My record company won’t put it out.’ And Mo says, ‘I’ll f***in’ put it out!’”

The room’s video screens then jumped to a reaction shot of Ostin sitting in the MusiCares audience, chuckling, while Petty good-naturedly apologized for swearing. “I’m trying so hard to be good. My wife is here, and my daughter, Adria. I’m really on my best behavior tonight!”

Of course, MCA did eventually release Full Moon Fever in 1989 (although Petty would indeed sign to Warner a few years later). And “Free Fallin’,” the album’s opening track and third singlebecame one of Petty’s most beloved and successful classics, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard singles chart and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance – Male. (Full Moon Fever was also nominated for Album of the Year.) When the MusiCares event’s host, comic actor Ed Helms, introduced Henley’s “Free Fallin'” performance Friday, he described it as “one of the greatest songs all time.”

Henley was just one of many all-stars who covered Petty’s songs at the gala overseen by musical director T Bone Burnett. Other standout performers included the Foo Fighters with Gary Clark Jr. (whose fiery “Breakdown” earned the first standing ovation of the evening); Randy Newman playing a stark, solo “Refugee” on a revolving piano (“Due to an executive order, that version of ‘Refugee’ has been banned, and Randy has been placed on a plane to Syria,” Helms later joked); George Strait jamming on a raucous and high-energy “You Wreck Me”; and the Lumineers crooning a lovely, harmony-laden “Walls.”

Said Petty during his acceptance speech, “I’m really at a loss for words. The music has been wonderful.” He also gave a special shoutout to three newer artists on the evening’s bill: the Head and the Heart, the Shelters (whose debut album was co-produced by Petty), and Cage the Elephant. “Rock ‘n’ roll goes on… They’re gonna carry this forward, and we have to be there to support them through it. Because there ain’t nothing like a good rock ‘n’ roll band, people!”

However, the night truly belonged to Tom Petty himself, joined by — speaking of good rock ‘n’ roll bands — the Heartbreakers for the first time in two years. (“I realized I’ve been in one of the two or three best rock bands there is,” Petty declared during his speech, as he reflected on this week’s MusiCares rehearsals; the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour kicks off April 20 in Oklahoma City.) The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, and Debbi Peterson also joined Petty and company on backing vocals.

Petty’s six-song set kicked off with “Waiting for Tonight” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” during which Petty invited party guests to make their way to the front for some impromptu dancing. But the all-star jams weren’t over just yet. Petty’s longtime friend Stevie Nicks came out for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (their duet from her 1981 debut album, Bella Donna) and “Insider” (from Petty’s own 1981 LP, Hard Promises). “He is as sweet as he is talented,” Nicks gushed to the crowd. Jeff Lynne and the late George Harrison’s musician son, Dhani Harrison, then hopped onstage for “I Won’t Back Down,” before Petty and the Heartbreakers closed the show after midnight with another Full Moon Fever favorite, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

The MusiCares Foundation, which offers medical services, addiction recovery support, and emergency financial assistance to members of the music community in need, honored Petty for his charity work (often focused on L.A.’s homeless population) and long history of defending artists’ rights; this year’s gala raised $8.5 million, setting a new record in the event’s 27-year history. “I’m just so beyond honored to be here for MusiCares, something that does something for musicians,” Petty said. “I know people that this has directly affected. [MusiCares knows] how to do it. They don’t ask for a lot of paperwork, and the money shows up. They’ve helped so many people.”

Audience members at Friday’s MusiCares event, which took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center, included Ringo Starr, Olivia Harrison (George Harrison’s widow), Helen Mirren, Joe Walsh, Jimmy Jam, Kate Upton, John Stamos, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The full setlist was:

Randy Newman – “Refugee”
George Strait – “You Wreck Me”
Elle King – “American Girl”
Taj Mahal” – “Hometown Blues”
Norah Jones – “Time to Move On,” “You Don’t Know It Feels”
Foo Fighters – “Honey Bee”
Foo Fighters with Gary Clark Jr. – “Breakdown”
The Lumineers – “Walls”
Cage the Elephant – “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
Jackson Browne – “The Waiting,” “Learning to Fly”
Lucinda Williams – “Rebels,” “Southern Accents”
Gary Clark Jr. – “Good Enough”
Regina Spektor – “I Forgive It All”
Jakob Dylan – “Love Is a Long Road”
The Head and the Heart – “You Got Lucky”
Don Henley – “Free Fallin’”
The Shelters – “Listen to Her Heart”
Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen – “Wildflowers”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Waiting for Tonight,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Running Down a Dream”
Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks – “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “Insider”
Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Dhani Harrison – “I Won’t Back Down”

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