How promotion man Jon Scott helped make Tom Petty a star

Jon Scott, left, with Moon Zappa, Stan Lynch, and Tom Petty, in the late 1970s. (Photo: Jon Scott, Facebook)

At what turned out to be his final concert, Sept. 25 at the Hollywood Bowl, Tom Petty took a break four songs into the set to give a shoutout to all his friends who had turned out for the show, but he singled out one man in particular: Jon Scott, a 72-year-old former record-promotion man.

Related: Tom Petty’s life in photos

“Six weeks before our first record was dropped by ABC Records, he went to the radio stations with a vengeance and brought that sucker onto the charts,” Petty said. “And it wasn’t easy. We’re forever grateful. We’re going to dedicate this to him tonight.” Petty and the Heartbreakers then appropriately tore into “I Won’t Back Down,” which was exactly how Scott managed to break Petty into radio against all odds. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Scott’s efforts, we may never have heard of Petty.

This week, Yahoo Music caught up with Scott, who was still in shock and grieving over the loss of his friend of 40 years, to hear the story of how he helped Petty get his first hit.

After six years of working as a DJ at WMC-FM 100 Memphis, where among other things he conducted the first live radio interview in the U.S. with David Bowie, Scott crossed over to the other side of the desk to become a promotion man for MCA Records in 1974. “I’d shoot the s*** with the promotion guys and we got to be good friends, and one of them offered me a job,” he recalls. “I saw these guys had expense accounts, and to me, turning a program director on to a record was the same thing as turning a listener on to a record, so I thought that would be cool.”

By chance, one of the first records Scott was asked to work was “Depot Street,” a single by a Gainesville, Fla., band called Mudcrutch, featuring a young Tom Petty. “I listened to it and liked it. It had a little reggae feel, so I took it on my first radio trip to Nashville,” he remembers. “I was with Olivia Newton-John, and I went to the FM station there, a great radio station, WKDF, and the program director said, ‘That’s cool, I’ll add it.’” Enthused, Scott called MCA headquarters in Los Angeles to report that he had scored his first add. “They said, it’s on a division of the company, on Shelter [Records], so don’t make it a priority.”

Jon Scott’s daughter Tiffany Scott, left, Scott, and Tom Petty in Memphis, May 8, 2017. (Photo: Jon Scott, Facebook)

Mudcrutch was dropped before an album was released; Scott, in short order, was moved to Atlanta and then to Los Angeles, where he was named head of national album promotion in 1974. While with the company, he worked records by the Who and Lynyrd Skynyrd, often touring with the bands, but he still had a soft spot for new acts, including a budding new artist named Johnny Cougar (later known as John Mellencamp), whom he caught live after hearing his record in Seymour, Ind. The only problem was that the brass at MCA didn’t share his enthusiasm. “I kept going after Johnny Cougar, ‘Play Johnny Cougar,’ and finally they told me to stop, and I said, ‘I can’t.’ So they fired me,” Scott recalls.

By happenstance, Scott was soon hired by legendary promo man Charlie Minor at ABC Records, the same label that was home to the then-struggling new act Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. About two weeks into the job, Scott stumbled upon a white-label promo album with no artist identification, other than a date showing that it was eight months old. Scott’s curiosity got the best of him. He slapped it on the turntable. “I put it on and heard ‘Rockin’ Around (With You),’ and then you get to ‘Breakdown’ and ‘American Girl.’ I didn’t believe what I was hearing, so I put headphones on and listened again. And if you listen to that album on headphones, there are all sorts of stereo effects. Mike Campbell’s guitar and Benmont [Tench]’s harmonies go back and forth in the headphones. It put me in a trance. I walked into my boss’s office and said, ‘Who are those guys?’ And he said, ‘It’s Tom Petty. We’re dropping him.’ I said, ‘This is one of the best records I’ve ever heard in my life.’” Minor told Scott that the label had already spent a lot of money on the band over eight months and had sold only 12,000 copies, so the label planned to cut ties with Petty after the release of the band’s self-titled debut.

“Radio stations weren’t listening to that record because Tom had a black leather jacket on with bullets around his neck,” Scott recalls. “He was perceived to be a punk artist by a lot of people at radio. I got on my knees and begged Charlie to give me six weeks to get the record played.”

Although the Petty album initially got lost in the shuffle at ABC, Scott was able to get influential stations WBCN in Boston and KSAN in San Francisco to play “Breakdown,” but he needed more. By luck, an old friend of Scott’s named Charlie Kendall became the program director at KWST (K-West), a Los Angeles station that was going up against album-rock powerhouse KMET. Scott played him the Petty album, and he was impressed but wanted to see the Heartbreakers live to make sure they were the real deal. “By chance they were playing at the Whisky the following Saturday, opening for Blondie,” Scott recalls. The pair went to the gig, and after Petty and the Heartbreakers played “Breakdown,” Kendall leaned into Scott and said, “I’m going to add this record to the station Monday morning, once an hour, every hour.”

Thrilled by the news, Scott took Kendall upstairs to the dressing room after the band’s set to share the good news, unaware that the band was frustrated with the label because of its lack of support. “I introduced myself to Tom, and he said, ‘I don’t care who you are. We hate your label.’ Stan Lynch, the drummer, yelled out, ‘You know what ABC stands for? A bunch of … it starts with a ‘C.’”

Undaunted, Scott fired back, “Have you ever heard your record on the radio in L.A.?”

“No, why?” Petty answered back.

“Well, you’ll hear it Monday morning, once an hour, every hour,” Scott replied.

Unimpressed, Petty said, “Get out of here. You’re just another ABC nutjob.”

Before being thrown out of the dressing room, Scott said, “Tom, I’m gonna break your career. My name is Jon Scott, and every time you hear your record on the radio, you’re going to think of me.” Petty and the Heartbreakers laughed.

Scott, however, lived up to his word. Kendall made good on his promise, and K-West listeners called the station asking who the band was. Tower Records on Sunset upped their orders. Eventually, Scott got more stations to add the record, but he still had to convince consultant Lee Abrams, who controlled about 50 stations at the time. Scott agreed to work with the stations to stage “low-dough” concerts featuring Petty in exchange for airplay; so, for example, a station with the frequency of 100.3 would charge a mere $1.03 for a ticket to the gig. The ploy worked, and “Breakdown” cracked the top 40, nearly two years after the album’s release.

Soon Scott received a phone call from Petty, apologizing for his behavior at the Whisky and inviting him to meet with Petty at his home. It was there that Petty told Scott that he was once in a band called Mudcrutch. Scott mentioned “Depot Street.” Petty said, “How in the hell do you know that? It only got played on about three stations.” Scott told him that he had been responsible for two of those adds. “We just kind of bonded at that time,” Scott recalls. “If I hadn’t gotten fired by MCA over Johnny Cougar, I never would have met Tom Petty.”

In the liner notes of the original issue of Petty’s second album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, the only person receiving “special thanks” was Jon Scott.

Scott eventually left ABC for Capricorn but was reunited with Petty when Backstreet Records was launched, following MCA’s purchase of ABC. Petty’s team insisted that Scott be hired at the label, which found its first success with Petty’s 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes, featuring the songs that Scott helped make hits, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee.”

Although Scott eventually left Backstreet, he stayed in touch with Petty over the years, offering advice on his upcoming releases and serving as a consultant for the all-star release from the Traveling Wilburys, featuring Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. Scott recalls Petty famously telling him before the release of 1989’s Full Moon Fever that MCA initially hadn’t wanted to put the album out because they didn’t hear a hit a single. Scott encouraged a friend, who was head of promotion at MCA at the time, to go to the mat for Petty. The friend obliged. The album was released as it was and became one of Petty’s biggest hits.

Now semiretired and working as a consultant for All Memphis Music, Scott recalls a quote from Petty biographer Warren Zanes — once the guitarist for a band called the Del Fuegos, who were on the brink of stardom but never made it big. “He said, ‘It doesn’t matter how good your record is, you gotta have somebody behind it. It doesn’t matter how good it sounds, if you don’t have a promotion guy behind it, you’re in trouble.’”

Tom Petty had Jon Scott, and for that, we all should be grateful.