Credit Neil Portnow, the record industry’s ambassador of cool. Last night at the annual MusiCares Person of the Year dinner Portnow sat between Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, respectively Democratic House minority and Republican majority leader while honoree Tom Petty and friends rocked the stage.
McCarthy was gracious as emcee Ed Helms made countless Trump and Bannon jokes, and dozens of black tie dressed guests came over to their table wishing Pelosi well in her battles against the new administration. Portnow, keeping things on an even keel, introduced me to McCarthy and said, “He’s really great. He’s a big supporter of culture and the arts.”
Rounding out the main table: Oscar winner Helen Mirren and her hit director husband Taylor Hackford.
McCarthy nodded, agreeing with that statement. Maybe after experiencing the MusiCares evening, McCarthy will make sure the NEA and other arts funding will remain safe. He and his lovely wife stayed til the very end of the five hour dinner and show, and had a pretty swell time. They saw an eclectic group of performers help raise $8.5 million including everyone from Randy Newman, Norah Jones, and Gary Clarke Jr. to the Foo Fighters, Cage the Elephant, and my new favorite group The Head and the Heart.
Among the surprise guests dotting the audience: Matt Damon and wife Lucia, who were at a random table. Why were they there? “I’m a big Tom Petty fan,” Matt said, “and a friend of ours invited us.” Cool. There were no other celebs around him. Across the massive ballroom in the LA Convention Center I ran into actress Gina Gershon and her sister, Tracy, a popular music exec from Nashville (VP of A&R at Rounder Records).
But the big music guests were the extended Beatles family: Ringo Starr, wife Barbara Bach, her sister Marjorie, and Marjorie’s husband, Joe Walsh, plus Barbara’s daughter talented filmmaker Francesca Gregorini, and famed drummer Jim Keltner. Not only that: Olivia Harrison with jewelry designer pal Loree Rodkin. Olivia was excited because son Dhani played guitar at the end of the night with Petty, Stevie Nicks, Jeff Lynne and the Bangles. Yes, that’s right–and they rocked the stage “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” and “I Won’t Back Down.”
But that was only after Don Henley, Jakob Dylan, Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, Gary Clarke Jr., Norah Jones, and so on covered every Petty song they knew from “Free Fallin'” to “Learning to Fly.”
Petty, who gave a very moving and funny acceptance speech, told a great story about “Free Fallin.” Turns out his then record company MCA Records turned it down. “They rejected the record,” he said. And that’s how he got to Warner Bros. Records in 1996. Petty, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison–pre Traveling Wilburys– played the song for Warner legends Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker one night when they were jamming at home. Waronker heard it, and said, “That’s a hit.” Petty recalled, Ostin– who was in the audience last night– replied, “I’ll fuckin’ put it out!”
And that’s how great hits are made.