Sunday, September 23, 2018
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Video: That time Tom Petty played the roof of the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the Tampa Bay area countless times over the years, usually at enormous arenas, amphitheaters and performing arts halls.

But there is one local show that stands out for the sheer oddness of its venue: The rooftop of the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach. After Petty's untimely death Monday at age 66, it's a performance worth revisiting.

Over the decades, the historic Pink Palace has attracted figures like Al Capone to F. Scott Fitzgerald to presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Franklin D. Roosevelt. but it's also got quite a robust rock 'n' roll history. Past guests include Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake and Mariah Carey. Barry Gibb once filmed a video there.

Before a tour in support of their 1985 album Southern Accents, Petty and the Heartbreakers chose to return to their home state to do some press and film a performance for an MTV documentary of the same name. Petty, who spent most of the visit in his room, had broken his hand while recording the song Rebels, and this was to be one of the band's first public performances since.

"It's pretty healed up now, and we haven't really put it to the test yet to see how long I can play," Petty said in the doc. "I can usually play an hour, a little more. It aches a little bit, but I think it's going to be okay."

Bill DeYoung, then the arts and entertainment editor for the Gainesville Sun and author of the forthcoming Florida music biography Phil Gernhard, Record Man, was there on the rooftop for the performance.

“He loved the Don CeSar; they always stayed there,” DeYoung said of Petty. Drummer Stan Lynch “asked me, ‘You want to come down on this day and watch this thing?’ I didn’t have to be asked twice.”

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With the Gulf of Mexico in the background, the band played about 45 minutes, rolling through a handful of hits and covers, including (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, Strangered in the Night and Dogs on the Run

Fans gathered below in hopes of catching a glimpse of Petty and the band, but not everyone was so thrilled about it. Toward the end, someone who appears to be a parking lot attendant or security guard comes up and tells the band they have to cut it out.

As Rolling Stone noted on June 20, 1985: "The impromptu performance ended abruptly, however, when the local police politely asked them not to come around there no more (at least not without a permit). The band has since adopted a more down-to-earth approach. They hit the road for their Southern Accents tour, which will continue all summer long."

Funny story about that, DeYoung said. The band had actually hired four actors in police uniforms to escort them off the stage, thinking that might be a funny way to end the performance.

"They were all standing just out of camera range, just inside the apartment," DeYoung said. "They were supposed to come in and break it up for the camera, and they were getting ready to do this when the parking lot guy, the people from the Don, came up. Suddenly, they made a snap decision: 'This'll look better.' So that was real. They thought it was a great ending for the film."

Watch the entire Southern Accents documentary, which features a tour of Gainesville by Petty and the band, below.

-- Jay Cridlin

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