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My Time with Tom 

As the fifth anniversary of Tom Petty's death approaches, a former pro ski racer recalls his adventures with the legendary singer

Breakdown: Dedicated to the memory of Tom Petty

The roots of this story go back long before I met Tom Petty or even knew who he was. Those roots are the path we choose in life. In the years 1973-1978 I was a professional ski racer on Bob Beattie's World Pro Ski Tour, along with several good friends who had left the U.S. Ski Team to race pro, including Ken Corrock and Terry and Tyler Palmer. We were good ski racers, young and with few social skills. God Bless Bob Beattie. He took us under his big wings and mentored us on how to act like professional athletes: Don't be rude or arrogant, be polite, tip big in restaurants and people will be grateful and look at you as a professional.

click to enlarge Back in the day, author Dan Mooney, left, poses with KATT-FM Program Director Mike Bailey, the man himself — Tom Petty — and two unidentified men. - COURTESY DAN MOONEY
  • Courtesy Dan Mooney
  • Back in the day, author Dan Mooney, left, poses with KATT-FM Program Director Mike Bailey, the man himself — Tom Petty — and two unidentified men.

Every Friday before a race we had a racer meeting to go over any problems. Once those issues were resolved, Beattie gave us a pep talk which always emphasized that every Friday night there was a cocktail party for sponsors and guests. It was important that racers appeared at these parties to meet sponsors face to face, so we could promote ourselves and the tour to the sponsors.

We met too many interesting people to list, but one year during the off season while living in Squaw Valley, California, I met a group of guys in the business of promoting bands. They included Johnny Barbis and his brother Dino, Gary Davis and Burt Stein. In time, they also became good friends with my ski buddies. They came to some of our ski races and gave us tickets and sometimes backstage passes to concerts. It was really cool!

In the spring of 1976, after the ski season had ended, Kenny Corrock and I were driving from Sun Valley, Idaho, to San Francisco to spend some time with Johnny Barbis. Somewhere between Elko and Winnemucca, Nevada, on Interstate 80, smoking a big, fat joint—because that's what you do driving through Nevada, I was watching the scenery pass by and daydreaming when I said to Kenny, "You know, this July 4th is our country's bicentennial birthday. Two-hundred years! That's a pretty big deal. I bet there is going to be a lot of cool stuff going on to commemorate the bicentennial. We should do something, too."

"Ya," Corrock said, "that is a big deal. We should do something big. What do you think we should do?"

I replied, "I don't know. It's summer, July 4th, maybe some kind of party."

"Something outside?" he said. "Yeah, that sounds good. Maybe a big BBQ with a band?"

I said, "An outdoor concert! We know all these record people guys. We should use them to get a band."

So, an idea was born.

As we drove through Nevada and into California, we put together a plan to put on a July 4th concert in Sun Valley. Neither Corrock nor I had ever put on a concert before.

By the time we reached San Francisco we had decided Commander Cody would be the perfect headliner. We told promoter Johnny Barbis of our plan and asked him if he knew Commander Cody and could he 'hook us up' with him. He said, "Yeah, I can call him for you." That was when we learned his real name was George Frayne and that he lived in Stinson Beach. We went to his house that afternoon and put the deal together. My friendship with Barbis strengthened and we discussed the possibilities of me finding a job doing promotion for a record company when I retired from ski racing. Corrock and I wound up doing four concerts in Idaho.

Life as a promoter

In February 1978 I retired from ski racing. By that time Barbis and a group of his associates were running ABC Records. I called him and asked if there were any opportunities with ABC. He told me to call Gary Davis IMMEDIATELY. I called Gary, nicknamed "Big Red" because he was 6'4" and had red hair, who asked where I was. I told him I was in Colorado. He asked if I could catch a plane and be in his office by noon the next day, which I did. We knew each other, so there was no idle chit-chat.

click to enlarge The late Tom Petty rips it up in concert earlier in his career. - COURTESY TOMPETTY.COM
  • Courtesy tompetty.com
  • The late Tom Petty rips it up in concert earlier in his career.

"How do you feel about retiring from ski racing?" he asked.

"It's tough," I replied. "Ski racing has been my life, but I always knew this day would come. I'm OK with it and ready to move on."

Red asked, "You want to do promotion or sales? Wait, I'll answer that for you. You want to do promotion." (Cont. on page 13)

"Yeah, definitely promotion." Red is looking me over and not saying a thing. I am sure he is thinking, "Should I offer this guy a job or get him out of here now and save us both a lot of grief down the road? Jesus, Barbis sends me a damn ski racer that knows nothing about the record business." He sat there a little while, lets out a kind of sigh and says, "I have one opening in Dallas, Texas, for a promotion manager. When can you be there?"

I'm thinking, Texas? I've never even been to Texas. I replied, "Well, I need to go back to Sun Valley, do a little skiing, chill with my bros. I could be there around the end of April, first of May."

Gary leans forward on his desk, clasps his hands together and says, "Look, Moon Dog, I've got 20 guys standing outside my office door that would kill for this job. You've got one chance here. You take this job and I want you in Dallas in 48 hours." So.....48 hours later, as I was looking out the window of a jet plane on the final approach to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I was asking myself, "What the f*ck have I gotten myself into?! I've never even been to Texas."

In Dallas I was met by the person whose job I was taking over, Dan Percell, a really nice guy who helped me a lot by introducing me to all the radio people. My job was to get radio stations to play ABC records in north Texas and Oklahoma. I realized immediately I was in way over my head and had nothing in common with these people. When someone found out I was a skier they would ask, "Oh, really, what kind of water skiing did you do?" I absolutely did not fit in.

After the third day I was on my own and it got worse. I was ready to quit after a week, but I talked myself out of it and convinced myself to give it at least a month. One day I was at a radio station waiting to see the program director when I struck up a conversation with Jeff Hackett, a promoter for Chrysalis Records (Moody Blues, Blondie, Nick Gilder). He asked me how I was doing. "Honestly," I replied, "I am struggling." I needed a place to live and I didn't know anyone in Dallas. I ran into him a few more times at radio stations and one day he said, "Look, I may regret this, but I am single, and own a house and have a bedroom that I would like to rent out!"

I moved in with Hackett, who was a Dallas native, knew EVERYBODY and was a real pro in the music business. Life quickly began to be better, but I was still struggling. One day Hackett said to me, "Moondog, I like you and I want to see you succeed at this and this is what I think you should do: Every month you need to take a week or two and go see all your stations in your secondary market. You need to get to these people, because ultimately they are your bread and butter. They will play records for you and your majors will pick up on that and start playing your records for you, too. I had stations in Midland, Odessa, Killeen, Fort Worth, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and East Texas. So, every month I would go on the road for a week, sometimes two, visiting these stations and promoting ABC Records. After a while I was seeing real progress. Jeff was right. Lo and behold, I woke up one day and realized I had been in Dallas for over six months. I had been thrown in with the wolves and survived and was feeling pretty good about it.

Tom Petty arrives

One day in 1979 Johnny Barbis calls to tell me that Tom Petty is coming to Oklahoma City for a concert. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were just beginning their career and neither their self-titled first album, or second album, "You're Gonna Get It" had boosted Petty's career as much as Petty and ABC Records hoped it would. His third album, "Damn the Torpedoes," was going to be released a week before the Oklahoma City concert. Barbis made it perfectly clear that this was a critical time and we needed to pull out all the stops.

click to enlarge In this undated photo, an exuberant Tom Petty takes a flying leap. - COURTESY TOMPETTY.COM
  • Courtesy tompetty.com
  • In this undated photo, an exuberant Tom Petty takes a flying leap.

He said, "Moondog, I cannot impress on you how big this is. We cannot afford to drop the ball. You need to contact all the pertinent FM stations. There are five of them. Do not take 'no' for an answer. Don't worry about Tom. He will be available for interviews. I want you to rent a limo to drive him around to these interviews. Then you need to rent a convention or party room at the Hilton Hotel for an after-concert party. Make sure you hire a DJ, a good one. A bar with real liquor, not just beer and wine. The Hilton can do the bar for you and help find a DJ. Make sure every program director, station manager, sales manager, top disc jockeys, record store managers and sales people get two complementary tickets to the concert and an invitation to the party. Make sure that during the party the DJ sprinkles enough Tom Petty music to make an impact, but don't smother the guests with his music. Get to work on this now, and, Moondog, don't f*ck this up. This is huge. The show is in two weeks."

I called all the radio stations in Oklahoma City right away. A couple of them gave me some resistance and didn't think Petty was that big or deserved an on-air interview. I dug in my heels and forced them to agree. The rest was easy. I reserved a limo, arranged everything with the Hilton and gave Barbis the schedule for the radio interviews. He assured me that Petty would be available and cooperative. I figured I had done everything I could do from Dallas.

The concert was on Friday, so on Wednesday I flew to Oklahoma City to make sure everything was in place. One of the fun things about being a promotion manager for a major record label is being able to hand out free tickets to a concert and an invitation to a post-concert party. Johnny told me to go big on this one, and I had a lot of tickets. I gave them to everyone, even the receptionist at the radio station. I hit all the major record stores that sell the records that radio stations play. I convinced one record store to put on its marquee, "Oklahoma City Welcomes Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Friday night." Early Thursday evening I went to Petty's hotel and met his road manager. We went over the interview schedule and I told him I'd be at the hotel at 9 am the next morning. He said, "Fine. Tom will be ready." I was about to spend some quality time with Tom Petty. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that driving through Nevada with Kenny Corrock would lead to this day.

The next morning around 8:30 I arrive with the limo at the hotel. I call the road manager who says that Petty will be down shortly. 9 am, no Petty. 9:10, no Petty. 9:15, no Petty. 9:20, no Petty. I am getting nervous. Finally, just before 9:30 Petty and his road manager come out of the elevator. Off we go in the limousine. It's immediately clear to me that Tom Petty is not a morning person. I try to put him at ease, saying, "Thank you for doing this. I will get you through this as quickly as possible. If you want coffee and a sweet roll we have time." We stopped for coffee on the way to the first interview and didn't say more than two words to each other. After that, on the way to the second interview I said to Petty, "Look, I am not here to promote anything, but... if you're interested I have in my pocket a little something that is derived from coca leaf, and in the spirit of getting through today I would be happy to share this with you." He looks at me and says, "Seriously?" I say, "Seriously. No judging. No one finds out. What happens in the limo stays in the limo."

I get a spark of enthusiasm from Petty. I asked the limo driver to close the partition between us and proceeded to do the business. As we arrived for the second interview, he asked, "So, I hear you're from Montana."

"No," I answered. "Idaho." He finally starts to open up and really wanted to know all about Idaho. I tell him about Sun Valley, skiing, the Sawtooth Mountains, the Stanley Basin and Red Fish Lake. He hung on every word. I was learning that Petty was a really nice guy from Florida and we had lived in two different worlds. Eventually, we arrived at interview number three, which went very well. He was a lot more candid.

On our way to interview four I started questioning myself: Are we doing everything we can for this guy? The interviews are good, but are they enough? Is what we're doing today going to leave a lasting impact? I couldn't think of anything more and normally would have shrugged and let it go. But this feeling of not doing enough would not go away. It was driving me crazy, and I knew my window of opportunity with Petty was running out. I knew more could be done. Just before interview number five it hit me. I needed to give Petty a Bob Beattie Friday afternoon pep talk.

As we pulled up to the station I said, "Hey, before you go in, I want to share something with you. Please bear with me. I need you to use your imagination. The program director is named Mike Bailey and you are now Mike Bailey and it's Monday morning. You go to work and start out with the usual chit chat and are asked if you went to the Tom Petty concert on Friday night. You answer, 'Yeah, the wife and I went to the concert and had a great time.' End of story. Now, let's change it up a bit. You say, 'Ya, we went to the concert, it was really great, and you know that guy Dan Mooney threw a concert. And, you're not going to believe this, Tom Petty shows up with his entire band. I ended up talking with Tom for like half an hour. What a great guy! We're both from Florida and we have a lot in common. In the production meeting this morning let's take a close look at this music and see if we can't give him more airplay time than we are right now.'"

Then I said to Petty, "You see the difference. These post-concert parties are nice. I have all the radio and record store people there, and think of the impact it would have if the artist showed up, too. Now I am putting the artist in front of the people who will play your records. It would be HUGE. I am putting on a post-party concert at the Hilton tonight. I know this is the first you've heard about it, but if I could get you and the Heartbreakers to show up, even for half an hour to shake a few hands and talk to a few people it would make such a difference. After the concert I will bring the limo driver to your dressing room. If you feel like going, I will have him drive you and take you back to your hotel afterwards." Then I shut up.

Petty sat there looking at me for a little time and then says, "I like you, Mooney. I was dreading doing these interviews today, but you did make it fun. You know we don't go to post concert functions, but I get what you're saying. I won't say yes or no, but we will see."

"Fair enough, Tom," I said. "Let's get you through this interview and back to the hotel and call it a day." We had a nice drive back to the hotel and as I dropped him off, I said, "Thanks. I had fun hanging with you today."

"I did too, Mooney," he said. "You're OK."

The concert that night was awesome. "Damn the Torpedoes" had just been released and we were promoting "Refugee" as the single. I had only heard the album a couple of times, but hearing them play it live blew me away. It was my first time seeing Tom Petty in concert. He and the band had a certain "straight ahead rock and roll style" that I loved and was missing in a lot of 1979 music heard on the radio. After the show I got the limo driver and deposited him at Petty's dressing room where he was clearly visible to anyone in the room. I walked up to Petty and told him, "Great show. I really loved it. Thanks for your help this afternoon. By the way, standing over there in the corner is the limo driver." Then I left.

Everything was set up at the Hilton. I got a drink, sat back and thought, 'Well, you've done everything you can do. Let's see what happens.'

Soon people started to show up. Much to my surprise the room filled up. I didn't know if these people were starved for entertainment or it was just Friday night and they were energized by a Tom Petty concert. But they were there to party. The DJ nailed the music. Soon the dance floor was full and people were genuinely having a good time. After about an hour there was a commotion at the front door. I looked to see what was happening and much to my shock, amazement, disbelief and pure, unadulterated happiness and gratitude, there stood Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Mike Campbell, Ron Blair, Stan Lynch and Benmont Tench.

I made a beeline for the front door, went up to Petty and said, "Thanks." He gave me a nod of approval and I said, "Come with me. I've got someone I'd like you to meet." I had no idea who. Oddly enough, the first radio program director I found was Mike Bailey. I introduced them and could tell Bailey was taken aback. I'm sure he was enjoying the party but never expecting to have the opportunity to talk with Tom Petty. Tom was cordial, friendly, outgoing and in just a few minutes the entire band was engulfed by the crowd. The band's appearance took the entire atmosphere of the party up a few notches. People were dancing. The DJ was rocking the house. I made a management decision and walked over to the head bartender and said, "From here on it's an open bar. Keep track of what you pour and give me the bill." All the bartenders looked at me with an "Are you sure you want to do that" look on their faces.

"Yes, Mr. Mooney, we can do that. Open bar from now on." I sat back and observed the perfect storm. I had a full house and everyone was dancing and having a great time. The music was keeping the spirit alive and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were working the crowd.

Around 1 am I noticed Petty rounding up his crew to leave, which was fine. He had done more than I had hoped for. I was across the room and we made eye contact as he was leaving. He did a little head nod of approval and I did the same back to him. Then they were gone. As the party began to wind down, I went to the front door to say goodbye to all the guests. I was getting high fives and accolades from everyone. Around 2 am the last of the party goers left. The DJ and the bartenders all commented to me that that was one hell of a party. I said thanks and went to my room and crashed.

The breakdown

The next morning as I was checking out of the hotel the manager came to the counter and asked, "Are you Mr. Mooney with ABC Records.?"

"Yes," I said, "I am."

"Mr. Mooney, I am so and so, the manager of the Hilton. I have to tell you we've had a lot of functions over the years at the Hilton, but we've never seen anything like what you put on last night. I mean, you brought the house down. Here's my card. If we at the Hilton can ever be of service to you and your company again we would welcome the opportunity." I'm thinking, "This guy is making me feel like a million bucks."

click to enlarge The late Tom Petty, who died Oct. 2, 2017, strums away in a quieter moment. - COURTESY TOMPETTY.COM
  • Courtesy tompetty.com
  • The late Tom Petty, who died Oct. 2, 2017, strums away in a quieter moment.

But by the time I got back on the plane for Dallas I was thinking, "I better start looking for another job, because when Johnny Barbis gets my expense report he's going to go ballistic." The bar bill alone was in the thousands. I kept the limo an extra eight hours. It was out of control. I didn't hear from Barbis until Friday of the next week. I was working in the office and got buzzed by the receptionist. "Dan, I have Johnny Barbis on Line 2. I took a deep breath and said to myself, "Well, here goes." I said to Johnny, "Johnny, how you doing, buddy?"

He wasted no time in answering, "Don't give me that good buddy shit, Moondog. I want an explanation to what the f*ck is going on."

I said, "It just seemed like an open bar was the best way to go, and I kept the limo driver a little longer than planned."

"F*ck the open bar and limo driver," he said. "I want to know how my rookie promotion manager who has been on the job for a little over six months was able to convince Tom Petty, his band and road manager to go to an after-concert party and stay there until 1 am and work the crowd. Moondog, my phone has been ringing off the hook all week long. Every program director in and around Oklahoma City has called me to tell me what a great job you did. Tom's road manager told me the same. We're getting air play on 'Refugee' in and around Oklahoma City and Tulsa. I could f*cking kiss you. You did the impossible. You got Tom and his band to go to an after-concert party. You have done what no other promotion manager in this company has been able to do. What? You thought I was going to yell at you about your expense report and the open bar? OK, I'll yell at you. You ever have an open bar again there will be a map to the unemployment office enclosed in your weekly paycheck envelope. Great job, Moondog. Great job. This was your breakthrough. I was on the verge of letting you go a couple of times since you started, but you hung in there and I am so proud of you."

After he hung up I was in a daze. Wow, I thought, I certainly wasn't expecting that.

As the weeks and months went by, the album "Damn the Torpedoes" eventually reached number 2 on the Billboard album chart. It spent seven weeks in the number 2 position and went on to become certified triple platinum. "Refugee" the single, peaked out at 15 on the top 100's Billboard chart. As time went on, whenever I heard his music or heard people talking about him, or when I would be playing his music on my boat at Cultus Lake for my daughter and her friends, I would try to do that same little shy smirk he does on the "Refugee" video. It is a great feeling to know that on his path to stardom, even though I played a very, very small part in helping him reach that goal, I've always been able to say to myself, "If nothing else, at least I got him to come to the party."

Dan Mooney skied on the world pro ski circuit for six years in the 1970s. He currently lives in Central Oregon.

REST IN PEACE, TOM. WE MISS YOU.

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