Scott Blackwell knows very well how much he looks like Tom Petty. If he had a nickel for every time someone pointed it out, he could probably afford a couple of guitars from Petty's private collection.
Long before he even thought about performing a tribute and played in a band with long-time friends, Blackwell had people taking a second look. There comes a time when the obvious path is staring you in the face — literally.
Even after Petty's passing a couple of years ago, people sometimes didn't believe Blackwell wasn't Petty. He'd have to pull out his wallet and show his driver's license to prove it to them.
So about 19 years ago, Blackwell and his guys created Breakdown – Tribute to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and collectively recreated a Petty experience with accuracy and respect for the music at the center of everything.
Petty recorded dozens of hit singles with the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist. In his career, he sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, so for the guys of Breakdown, they had a tall order before them, but it was go big or go home, do it right or not at all. It's been a philosophy that continues to serve them well to this day.
In addition to Blackwell (lead vocals, guitar), the band includes Eric Garcia (guitar, back-up vocals, mandolin, harmonica); Ricky Williams (bass, back-up vocals); Mike Spinelle (drums); and Tim Rovnak (keyboard, accordion).
"We've been together 19 years now, the same guys," Blackwell told the Laughlin entertainer. "I think our keyboard player has been with us nine years now, but the rest of us are all the same guys. We were all pretty much musicians in other bands before this and we just kind of fell into the whole Tom Petty thing.
About a year before, we were doing a White Zombie/Rob Zombie tribute and at one of our shows, Mike Campbell, who plays the part of Rob Zombie, was having technical difficulties, so while he was trying to fix them, we decided to play the Tom Petty song 'Breakdown.' The crowd was like, 'keep going, keep going.' Of course, we were like, 'no, we're just killing some time, I don't think so.
"The next practice session it was like, 'you know, we should actually try it to see how it goes.' So we picked three songs just to see how they would go. I think half-way through the first song, the band stopped and they were like, 'Dude, you gotta do it.' The crowd was loving it and we were like holy s---!' That was 19 years ago," he said. "Reluctantly I agreed and I'm having more fun than I've ever had in a band in all my years of playing."
There was no denying that some things are just meant to be.
"I can't go a day that a dozen people aren't going, 'Hey man, has anybody ever told you that you look like Tom Petty?' Um, probably a couple thousand or more," he laughs.
The weird thing is he sounds like him too, even over the phone while conducting this interview, so clearly the vocals weren't a stretch either.
"I have that same nasal-y twang that he had when he sang. Of course, when you hear your own voice on an answering machine or a recording, you're like, 'Really? Ew.'
"But it kind of turned into something, I mean, I can't get away from it, and it does come naturally to sing like Tom. Over the years of doing this, I've reluctantly agreed, well, I guess I do sound like him," he added.
"Throughout the show, I always tell people, 'hey, I'm not the real Tom and these aren't the real Heartbreakers, we're just paying tribute to a great artist and a great band.' People will still come up and want pictures and stuff. And when I sign my real name on my autograph, they look at me funny or they'll say, 'Dude, I saw you back in the '70s in Chicago.' I'm like, 'Wow, I've never been to Chicago.'
Sometimes the recognition goes beyond the ridiculous.
"Me and the guitar player had finished doing a show at a casino up north and we're sitting at the bar having a drink and talking, and I hear this guy yelling, 'Tom, Tom, Tom!' My name is not Tom, so I didn't respond. I finally turned to him and he says, 'I knew that was you.' I said, 'Tom's dead.' The guy didn't believe me, and says, 'Okay, I'll keep your secret.' I actually had to show him my driver's license and a picture showing us as a tribute band before he would believe I wasn't the real Tom Petty."
Speaking of Petty's passing, many "tributes" seemed to instantly crop up overnight, some more cheesy than respectful, to capitalize on his accomplishments. Groups like Breakdown are mindful of the reason they got together in the first place — to keep the music out there and the legacy alive, while maintaining the utmost respect for the man and his music.
"The guitar player said we're all there for the same reason, along with the fans, to celebrate Tom's music. Nineteen years ago when we started this, it was paying tribute to a great singer/songwriter and group of guys, now it's turned into a celebration of Tom's life and his music, so we appreciate everybody who comes out to see us and helps us celebrate his legacy. We hope that we do him justice, that we keep his music going for the people that don't really know who Tom Petty is. We want to gain more and more fans for his music. That's why we started doing it because we're fans of his music.
"For us Tom's passing was like losing a family member," he said. "At first people were calling me, offering their condolences, but it wasn't like he was my dad or brother or anything like that. But I started thinking, you know, we've been doing this for 19 years. So living, breathing, sleeping and doing nothing put Tom Petty, he felt like a family member. Then it kind of hit me, I'd never thought of it that way.
"Putting this much time and effort into it and listening to it all day, every day, like an actor, watching films and all of his videos, you get to know the guy, so he is like a part of the family."
Some booking agents wanted to capitalize on Petty's passing even before he took his last breath, and the guys of Breakdown said no.
"That was just a little too soon," Blackwell said. "We did get a bunch of people inquiring about booking a show, after he passed, but some requests were crossing a line.
"We did notice quite a bit of Tom Petty tributes popped up 'cause we keep track of who's out there doing it and if they're doing him justice or if they're trying to look like him or sound like him," he said. "There are a lot of bands that we don't really consider tributes. For one thing, Tom didn't have any females in the band, or they're not even trying to look like him or sound like him, they're using backing tracks so it's almost like they're singing karaoke."
Was there even a challenge when Breakdown was created all those years ago, or since? No, not really.
"Most of it comes naturally, so there wasn't really any huge challenges," Blackwell said. "Okay, my guitar player just said my biggest challenge was cutting my hair. I'm a rocker, so I have a lot longer hair, but a few agencies would say, 'you look like him, but Tom's hair is not as long as yours and not as dark,' so lightening my hair and cutting my hair was my biggest hurdle. I've had long hair all my life, so that just shows how dedicated I am to it that I was willing to cut my hair above the collar and lighten it up as a blonde to look even more like Tom."
With the look, the sound and the solid musicianship already in place, their dedication isn't the only thing that sets Breakdown apart. Veteran players focus on what's important, leaving the egos at the back of the bus.
"Because we've been together 19 years, we know each other," he said. "We don't really even have to communicate on stage with each other. Everybody pretty much knows what to do, everybody's got it dialed in.
"You can always tell when a band just gets together, they slap some songs together and get on stage. They're looking at each other because they don't remember the songs. Clearly they haven't put the time in," he added. "We've been playing together so long it's just natural on stage. Although we do interact on stage, we're not yelling out the chords across the stage to each other and it goes smoothly, and that's the key.
"The chemistry we have on stage is genuine because we are all friends, we're all family. Obviously being in a band is like being in a marriage, but we go on camping trips together, we go on fishing trips together, we all hang out, all our wives get along, so we're not just band mates, we're family, we're friends."