February 23, 2003 – Howie Epstein (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) was born July 21st 1955 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Sam, was a top local record producer who worked with various rock and roll and soul groups in the 1950s and ’60s. Howie often visited the music studios, watching his father work and occasionally making recordings under his dad’s watchful eye at a very young age. “I would go into the bars with my father to check out the bands he was thinking of working with,” Epstein recalls, “and a couple of times he let me use groups he was working with as back-up musicians for stuff I’d record.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he played mostly rhythm guitar or mandolin in a number of both rock and roll and country Milwaukee bands that were regionally popular, like MHG Experience, Egz, Winks, Forearm Smash, and The Craze. When he felt he had gone as far as he could go in Milwaukee, Epstein decided to move to New York City, but before he could pack his gear, he was lured to the West Coast by a drummer friend to play bass in a new band that singer-songwriter John Hiatt was forming in Los Angeles. He stuck with Hiatt for two years and two albums (Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters).
He played in bands with John Hiatt and backed Del Shannon. While playing on a Shannon album that Tom Petty was producing (Drop Down And Get Me), Epstein impressed Petty with his ability. Consequently, when Ron Blair, who had been bassist with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers since their inception in 1976, announced that he had had enough of touring, Epstein was recruited to replace him. “We all kind of thought Howie would get the job,” says original Heartbreakers’ drummer Stan Lynch. “He seemed to have a real good feeling for what we were doing. He’s a good bass player, a real good singer, and he fit in real well.” Epstein agreed that the transition of playing in these obscure bands to becoming part of a very popular, very established band was almost seamless. “It’s been easier than I thought it would be. I was already familiar with most of their music just because I’m a fan of the Heartbreakers, so it wasn’t like I was coming in cold.”
After joining the Heartbreakers, he started to take up the bass seriously. “I had a tendency to play real busy, from all the years of playing rhythm guitar”. Epstein found a natural style, which he said emphasised “simplicity, playing in the pocket, getting into a steady groove. I’ve always considered myself a good team player and that’s the way that the Heartbreakers operate. Everyone listens to what everyone else is doing musically.”
On September 1, 1982, he made his live debut at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in California, on the tour to promote the album, Long After Dark. Epstein played (and sometimes sang) with Petty for 20 years and was with the Heartbreakers when they were inducted in March 2002 to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Tom Petty commended Epstein on his collaborative efforts:
“You gotta love him, I don’t know if I ever tell him how good he is. Tonight, there was a line early in the show I could just barely sing. I was having to work harder than I normally do to make it, I was getting really close on the mic. I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, I hope I can do this…’ I got to it and I heard Howie singing it with me over his mic. It sounded great, it sounded like a double track. I just looked at him, he caught my eye like ‘Yeah!’ It made me feel great, ’cause I know he was thinking the same thing, ‘I know he’s tired, I’ll cover him. Wham! Got it!’ That’s what a great band’s all about. That’s what it’s all about.”
Howie also played bass on recordings by Eric Andersen, Bob Dylan, Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, Stevie Nicks, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, John Prine, Linda Ronstadt, Del Shannon, The Textones, The Village People, and Warren Zevon.
He earned acclaim as a songwriter and a producer. He produced two albums for John Prine, including 1991’s The Missing Years, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, and Eric Andersen’s Memory Of The Future in 1998
Howie, who in the late 1990s had been engaged for several years to Country sensation Carlene Carter suffered from serious depression. He sadly overdosed on heroin while in New Mexico on February 23, 2003 at age 47.