Benmont Tench, best known as the keyboardist and founding member of Tom Petty’s band The Heartbreakers, is striking out on his own: he released his debut solo album, You Should Be So Lucky (Blue Note Records) on February 18 (and we’re giving away a free copy—enter here!)
Tench has a long history with Petty. They were both in a band called Mudcrutch, formed when the two were teenagers in their hometown of Gainesville, Florida. As the story goes, Petty felt so strongly about Tench’s musical potential that he convinced Tench’s father, a judge, to let his son quit college and move with Mudcrutch to California in 1974. It’s a good thing—The Heartbreakers owe much of their sound to his contributions on organ and piano. Tench is also a sought-after session player who has contributed to the recordings of countless artists including U2, Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Don Henley, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, and Bonnie Raitt (to name a few). But now, it’s Tench’s turn to step into the spotlight.
You Should Be So Lucky, produced by the legendary Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton), was recorded at Sunset Sound right here in Los Angeles and features Tench on lead vocals, piano and organs. He was joined by a dream team of collaborators including a core band of Don Was, Ethan Johns, Blake Mills and Jeremy Stacey, with cameos from Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Ringo Starr, and of course, Petty. According to Tench, he approached the album as an excuse to record some songs with friends. (As it so happens, he has some very talented friends, all of who jumped at the chance to work with him.)
The verdict? The album, fully stocked with twelve songs, most written by Tench along with a few covers, has an impressive sound. Stand out tunes include two laments of lost love, “Today I Took Your Picture Down” and “Blonde Girl, Blue Dress,” that suit his raspy, soulful voice. “Veronica Said” has a great groove and smart lyrics, and there’s even a love song to L.A. entitled “Like the Sun.”
Tench is playing several shows around the L.A. area to celebrate the album’s release and kicked things off last Thursday with a Q&A and performance at the Grammy Museum. Remarkably, it was his first public solo performance ever. Dressed in his signature black suit and fedora (and what he calls his “lucky socks”) Tench proved a modest and self-deprecating headliner. When moderator Scott Goldman asked why he hadn’t done a solo album before, he replied, “Does anyone really need one?” But, he went on: when Johns approached him about making a record, it was too good a chance to pass up. He also recalled his years of session work and told one story about being taken to his first session for Bob Dylan by Jimmy Iovine. And of course he spoke of Petty, touching on how much he looks up to him and the simplicity of his songs. Asked what he’s learned from Petty in regards to songwriting, Tench replied, “Everything and nothing.”
Sitting down to perform, Tench quoted George Harrison. “For years I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.” He performed one brand new song, a few from the new album, and then surprised us all by accompanying himself on guitar for the album’s title track. His encore of “Roll Over Beethoven” wrapped up the show—no suffering to be found. Part of what is so endearing about Tench is his humility: he’s a musician others long to play with because his talent is one that elevates anyone performing with him, but he doesn’t see himself that way. (Meanwhile, any piano player in the audience that night probably longed to go home and practice. I certainly did.)
This weekend, Tench plays three shows at Largo at the Coronet. As for future solo performances, he’s not sure whether there will be any. “I don’t know if I’ll take to it,” he said. “I might run screaming from the stage.” At the Grammy Museum, though, he did anything but. Here’s hoping the warm reception he received will encourage him to continue. Either way, he said, there will be plenty of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers performances to look forward to. “It’s blood now, not a band,” Tench said. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”