Essay

A former Sound City engineer details how Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks' 'duet' came to be

As a twentysomething assistant engineer working at Sound City Studios during the ’80s, Brian Hart worked with the likes of Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon, Santana, Gentle Giant and Walter Eagan.

He also wound up working with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during the recording of 1981’s “Hard Promises.”

“He was very quiet — not shy — but kept to himself,” Hart recalled of Petty in the studio.

Late last month Hart saw Petty close out three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. The shows would be the rock star’s last; he died earlier this week after going into cardiac arrest at age 66.

“Musically, vocally, everything was great … firing on all cylinders,” he said. “I was there at the beginning and the end of his career. It’s stunning.”

After Petty’s death, Hart looked back at one of the more memorable times in the studio with the rocker. Following are some of his remarks from my interview with him:

In my early 20s, I worked at Sound City Studios as an assistant engineer. The studio was not famous then. As a matter of fact, it was quite a dump.

One band recording while I worked there was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tom had the year previously recorded “Damn the Torpedoes,” a successful album that propelled him towards rock stardom.

Full Coverage: A look into the life of Tom Petty, 1950-2017

The chief recording engineer on this new album was Shelly Yakus. Working for the studio, I was assigned to be Shelly’s assistant engineer. My job was to be the liaison between the chief engineer, the producer and the musicians.

Every evening at about 7 p.m., the engineer, the band and producer Jimmy Iovine would show up and tell me which song they wanted to work on that night. I’d pull the tape from storage and load it on the 24-track tape machine. This tape would have much of the song already recorded, and the band might, that night, add a new guitar solo or do some backing vocals, adding more complexity to the record. Or they might replace a track such as the bass guitar or piano. As assistant engineer, my job was to keep track of all this information on “track logs.”

Sometimes, the artist would do take after take, trying to improve upon his or her performance. It could be very stressful for the artists, and very tedious for me. One night the band came in and told me that we would be working on “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” In my head, I called it “Stop Dragging this Song Around,” because I was so sick of working on this particular song after five straight days.

Iovine asked if there were any tracks open for a new vocal. I was confused because we had already recorded Petty’s vocal track earlier in the week, and everyone loved the way it came out. But I checked my track notes, found an empty track and set up for the new vocals to be recorded.

As I returned to the control room, I saw another person I had not seen in any previous sessions. Pretty, with long blonde hair I assumed she was someone’s girlfriend or wife, but she was looking over the lyric sheet. It took a second, but I recognized her. It was Stevie Nicks, from Fleetwood Mac.

Iovine was doing a juggling act. While working with Petty, he had also been working with Stevie for her first solo album. He was really burning the candles at both ends and more than once arrived to the studio exhausted.

Stevie was in search of songs for the record, and Iovine wanted to hear “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” with her voice in the lead vocal. That’s why they wanted a blank track — we would record her voice on the song’s previously take and listen back to see how the song sounded with her on lead vocal. Most likely, we would end up erasing that track if we needed it for another instrument later on.

She got in front of the mike, put on her headphones and I started the tape. For the next hour or so, she sang the song several different ways, putting emphasis on certain phrases and changing her voice a little here and there. At one point, she asked to hear Tom’s original vocal softly in her headphones to guide her along and help her keep the phrasing correct.

Finally, everyone was satisfied, and Stevie came back into the control room to listen back to what she had just recorded. To be totally honest, when the tape played back the song with just her vocals, it sounded just wrong to me. I had gotten so used to hearing Tom’s voice on the track that it was jarring to hear someone else singing it. As an engineer, this is actually a problem, listening to something over and over again, you can lose all objectivity. It’s hard to accept changes once you have gotten used to something.

We played back the song a few more times, and Yakus, the engineer, started bringing back Tom’s original vocal slowly with the fader and goofily dropped Stevie’s voice down over the course of the song to make it sound kind of like a duet. It was both funny and horrible, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to lose my job. He started mixing the vocals back and forth over different parts of the song. Sometimes Tom would sing the verse with Stevie on the chorus, or Stevie on the verse with Tom on the chorus.

Everyone enjoyed the funny mixing and blending of the two voices. Then Iovine, very seriously, told me, “Whatever you do, don’t erase Stevie’s track!” My final job as the assistant was to make a few simple cassette tapes — with Tom’s voice both in and out of the blend — for the band and Stevie to take home and listen and put the master recording back into storage.

I remember thinking as I went home that it was kind of an interesting session. It was fun to work with Stevie Nicks. She was a pro from start to finish, and I was able to do something a little different that night. Then I forgot about it, as we continued working the next night with the Heartbreakers.

About a month later, I was driving when I heard a familiar song on the radio. “Holy Smokes, this is ‘Stop Dragging My Heart Around!’ ” I recognized that organ riff at the start, along with a specific guitar part. However, as the vocal started, instead of hearing Petty’s distinctive voice, I heard, instead, Stevie Nicks’. Then, as the song progressed, I heard a blend of Tom and Stevie. It sounded like they were in the same room and had sung a duet together. This was definitely not one of the mixes that engineer Shelly Yakus made back in the studio that night, but a completely new one.

Turns out Iovine had taken the tape with the tracks we had recorded, brought it into a different studio and had Yakus mix it and press it to vinyl, as was done with records back in those days. It had been released as a Stevie Nicks record — not a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers one — and it launched her solo debut, “Bella Donna.”

When I got to the studio after hearing it on the radio, everyone was talking about the decision to make it a Nicks song and not a Petty song. Apparently, the record label made that final decision, the song rushed into production and released early. It was not a surprise to Petty or Iovine, but since I was just an assistant who worked only for Sound City, I had no idea of the plans. At the time, I couldn’t tell if Tom was OK with the decision, and it definitely was not my place to ask him.

“Stop Dragging My Heart Around” climbed the charts quickly, making it to No. 3, where it stayed for six weeks. I was still working with Petty during this period, and I can say this: Tom, who had yet to notch a top five single at that point in his career, was not happy that Stevie was getting all the credit for the song.

Many years later, a demo version of the song with Petty singing all the lyrics was released on his 1995 box set, “Playback.” Now, that was the song I remembered liking.

Brian Hart left the music business in the early 1990s. He’s a software trainer for law firms. He lives in Los Angeles.

gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy

ALSO:

Tom Petty's final interview: There was supposed to have been so much more

Tom Petty's death investigated by L.A. County coroner

Why losing Tom Petty feels like losing a piece of ourselves

The heartbreaking Instagram dispatches Tom Petty's daughter sent as the rock star clung to life

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