What’s it take to raise $8.5 million in one night for charity? About 3,000 Tom Petty fans.
That was the outcome Friday of the Recording Academy’s annual Person of the Year fundraiser for its MusiCares Foundation, this year saluting the veteran singer, songwriter, guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member.
Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, in announcing the numbers just before Petty and the Heartbreakers took the stage to cap an all-star evening of tributes, said this year’s total set a record for the organization that’s entering its 27th year of providing assistance to musicians in need.
Past honors have gone to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, among others.
“I’m really at a loss for words,” Petty, 66, said, trembling slightly as he looked out on the audience consisting of entertainment industry movers and shakers, celebrities and politicians, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
The night featured the likes of Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, the Bangles, Jeff Lynne, the Foo Fighters, Norah Jones, Dhani Harrison, Jakob Dylan, Taj Mahal, the Lumineers, Elle King, Regina Spektor and the Head and the Heart all putting their spin on various Petty songs.
The A-list nature of the show extended to the house band, which backed many of the featured guests. Musical director T Bone Burnett brought together celebrated R&B-soul great Booker T. Jones, guitarist David Mansfield, bassist Dennis Crouch, percussionist Jay Bellerose and sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, a.k.a. roots-rock duo Larkin Poe.
Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell, drummer Steve Ferrone and keyboardist Benmont Tench also pitched in on various numbers.
In fact, Petty’s first thank you was directed to the Heartbreakers, the ever-ready band of collaborators he’s often worked with over his four-decade-plus career, and who were at his side once again Friday.
“A rock and roll band is a wonderful thing, folks,” Petty told members of the crowd, who ponied up anywhere from $750 to $7,500 just for a seat at one of about 300 tables set up in the Los Angeles Convention Center. A silent auction preceding the dinner and concert raised more than $500,000.
A live auction of a high-performance sports car, a trip to Shanghai and a set of four pages of lyrics to four of Petty’s signature songs in his own hand raised almost $400,000.
In return, onlookers were told that MusiCares spent more than $4.2 million last year helping more than 16,000 clients with a plethora of needs, from medical care to substance abuse treatment to housing and emergency instrument or equipment issues.
Newman opened the show with a solo reading of Petty’s “Refugee,” demonstrating how in sync Petty’s song is with his own signature sardonic view of human foibles, as he sang, “Honey, it don’t make no difference to me / Everybody has to fight to be free.”
Actor-comedian Ed Helms, the show’s emcee, quickly spun out the first of a number of jabs at President Trump, saying, “Due to a new White House executive order, that version of ‘Refugee’ has been banned, and Randy Newman has been put on a plane and sent to Syria.”
In describing the mission of MusiCares for the audience, Helms also quipped, “It’s more than just a spelling disaster.”
Petty’s songs turned out to be remarkably flexible in others’ hands. Often, when musicians take on songs of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or other titans of rock, they adapt themselves to the works.
With Petty, numbers plucked from his extensive catalog aligned readily with the artists who sang them. Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams applied her luscious Louisiana-bred drawl to “Southern Accents,” Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters hard-rocked their hearts out on “Honey Bee,” country kingpin George Strait turned “You Wreck Me” into a convincing two-step and the Lumineers extracted the Americana essence of “Walls (Circus).”
Elsewhere, “Learning to Fly” and “The Waiting” morphed into poetic meditations in heartfelt performances by Browne, and Spektor kept the set list fresh with an exquisite rendering of “I Forgive It All” from “2,” the 2016 album from Mudcrutch, the Florida rock band Petty had before trading coasts in 1974 and assembling the Heartbreakers.
A sweet moment, given Petty’s original debt to the Byrds, was the appearance by that pioneering folk-country-rock band’s co-founder, Chris Hillman, and his longtime collaborator Herb Pedersen to sing a stripped-down “Wildflowers.”
Another of the most accomplished singer-songwriters to emerge in the 1970s, Eagles co-founder Henley sang just one song, “Free Fallin’,” but poured passion into it with his smoky vocal. He spared no expense by bringing along a five-piece horn section and two additional singers.
Another highlight: the moment Nicks, dressed, as always, in flowing black, emerged from the wings to join Petty and the Heartbreakers on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “”Insider.” Petty introduced the latter as “a song I wrote for her, but she didn’t like it,” prompting a moment of old-married-couple-like quibbling as she protested, “That’s not true!”
The evening inspired a Traveling Wilburys redux when Lynne and Harrison teamed up with Petty and the Heartbreakers on “I Won’t Back Down,” before Petty stepped back to the mic to end the show with “Runnin’ Down a Dream” a bit after midnight.
It capped a richly satisfying evening, one whose real beneficiaries are likely to reap rewards from the assemblage for months and years to come.