The best drummers, the very, very best, are the ones you have not heard of. I first heard the name Steve Ferrone in the Tom Petty documentary of 2007 by director Peter Bogdanovich. He replaced the claustrophobic Stan Lynch in 1994, the year Petty put out one of his most timeless and engaging albums, Wildflowers.
As a lifelong Heartbreakers fan, I had still only heard of Benmont, Mike and Tom. Benmont I knew as he had played with Stevie Nicks and was the (reluctant) subject of Maria McKee’s smash single, A Good Heart, sung by Feargal Sharkey and produced by the Eurythmic Dave Stewart. Mike and Tom were the double act, the engine room of the Heartbreakers. But as the documentary shows, this is a true band. Everyone is larger than life and, when Stan got too big for his boots behind the kit, Ferrone walked on.
It is important to the Ferrone legend to realise that he was already a big star in the business. By 1994, he had worked with Cash, Clapton and Harrison, and been the resident drummer in the US on Saturday Night Live for a while, starting in 1985. The reason I added ‘in the US’ is that Ferrone, incredibly, is English. Born in Brighton, England in April 1950, he was, as Tom Petty memorably claims, “the only black baby in Brighton.” In 1950, he probably was.
Only last night, he played the drums while we ate dinner. My wife had finally persuaded me to copy all her albums onto her iPhone. It was a painful process that needed patience and a skilled hand. One of the first albums she lined up was Steve Winwood’s 1986 stunner, Back In The High Life. Of course, it is my album. I bought it after hearing Warren Zevon’s version of the title track. Warren’s is far, far better, but also more recent. The album suffers from mid-1980s synth and treble overload. As Zevon found, though, there are hidden gems. Did you know you would also find Chaka Khan and Nile Rodgers on the disc?
My wife commented that track three sounded a lot like a Zevon band kind of sound. Ferrone crops up on just one track. Yes, number three, Freedom Overspill. Zevon himself had used none other than Mick Fleetwood on his most famous (and only?) hit, Werewolves of London. That vibe, call it a west coast thing, crops up again and again in Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, the Heartbreakers and all those other 1970s behemoths. It is no surprise that Ferrone, having moved in George Harrison’s circle, would eventually end up with fellow Wilbury, Tom Petty.
So there you have it. One of rock’s most understated, quiet and yet gigantic drummers, Brighton’s Steve Ferrone.