Howie Epstein would have turned 55 yesterday.
The Milwaukee native and Nicolet High School grad (class of 1973) died of apparent complications from heroin use in 2003 at the age of 47. He was the bass player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for nearly 20 years and was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the group in 2002.
Epstein, who played with John Hiatt and Del Shannon before joining forces with Petty, was a stellar musician and one of the better high harmony singers in rock. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he played in local bands like MHG Experience, Egz, Winks, Forearm Smash and The Craze.
Petty likes to say that he "stole" Epstein from Del Shannon's band, and Epstein was "the new guy" -- a Wisconsin guy in a tight-knit band whose members all hailed from Gainesville, Fla.
Epstein produced for John Prine and Carlene Carter, who became his girlfriend. He was an incredibly talented musician, but Petty decided to let him go because, "he was just degenerating on us to the point where we thought keeping Howie in the band was actually doing him more harm than getting rid of him. His personal problems were vast and serious.
"We tried everything we could to reach him but it got to the point where his ability to do gigs was diminishing. Eventually, we realized that we were just contributing to the problem. When you're living a life where you really don't have any responsibilities, it's easy for evil forces to take over."
Petty later said: "There's a great sadness, because Howie was never not a Heartbreaker. He just got to where he couldn't do it anymore ... It's like you got a tree dying in the backyard. And you're kind of used to the idea that it's dying. But you look out there one day and they cut it down. And you just can't imagine that beautiful tree isn't there anymore."
Petty said that a song on his new album, "Mojo," was inspired by Epstein. It's called "Running Man's Bible."
"I'd always wanted to deal with Howie's death, and there's some of that in there," he told Rolling Stone. Petty called it "One of those embarrassingly revealing songs. It just crept into my mind one day. I was playing the guitar, and it started falling out."
Howie was a great guy and a true talent. I played with him in Forearm Smash and he also practiced a couple of time before that with a band I was in called Death. In my high school years I'd played in a CYO cover band, and like all of them it attempted vocal harmonies - think Hollies, etc. My introduction to Howie's vocals was the first practice with Forearm Smash, in his Northshore bedroom by the way. He and I were vamping on the Who's "Kids are Alright." We sang the intro . . . "I don't mind" . . . and he blew me away. We ruined the rest of the practice by tossing out irrelevant harmonies to random songs when we knew it would be the most irritating to the rest of the band, especially the actual singer. Singing with Howie was an honor. I can hit the notes and harmonies, but Howie, as you say, ended up being the best high harmony voice in rock. I'd always known that hitting the notes and singing are too vastly different things, but it was Howie that truly drove that home for me.
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