If all Benmont Tench was ever known for was the memorable role he has played as the keyboardist in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, that would be plenty in terms of classic rock history.
But in addition to Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-earning output, Tench has moonlighted like a madman, playing on hundreds of songs, both hits and deeper cuts, for a who’s who of rock, pop, and country artists as a session player. (His AllMusic.com credits listing is 27 pages long.)
Jimmy Iovine, producer of early Heartbreakers records like “Damn the Torpedoes” and “Hard Promises,” brought Tench in to play on Stevie Nicks’ landmark solo debut “Bella Donna” and Bob Dylan’s “Shot of Love,” helping launch Tench’s lengthy associations with both artists and a prolific side career. Tench has put his fingerprints via piano, Hammond organ, mellotron, farfisa, and a multitiude of other instruments on songs by everyone from Johnny Cash to Alanis Morissette to Eurythmics to Fiona Apple and U2 — sort of, see below — and dozens more.
In a chat, Tench (see accompanying Tench interview) who plays a sold out Fenway Park with the Petty and the Heartbreakers on Saturday, says he still pinches himself about the musicians he’s gotten to play with over the years.
We asked him to do a little free associating about some of those artists and albums. Here’s a tiny sample, plus a look at a gorgeous tune from his solo album “You Should Be So Lucky,” released earlier this year, and a Heartbreakers classic.
Benmont Tench, “Why Don’t You Quit Leavin’ Me Alone” (from “You Should Be So Lucky”)
Rosanne Cash recorded this hushed ballad on her album “King’s Record Shop.” Tench reclaimed it for his solo album. Talk about a heartbreaker.
Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (from “American IV: The Man Comes Around”)
Recruited by occasional Heartbreakers producer Rick Rubin, Tench plays piano, organ, and mellotron on the country legend’s haunting cover of the Nine Inch Nails classic.
Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (from “Bella Donna”)
Tench has recorded with Nicks on several of her biggest hits including “Edge of Seventeen” — fun fact: Roy Bittan of the E Street Band also plays on that track — and there is, of course, this famous collaboration with his home crew.
“Just love. It was always fun hanging out with Stevie. All those people are my dear friends.”
Neil Diamond, “Hell Yeah” (from “12 Songs”) & Rick Rubin, producer (Heartbreakers, Dixie Chicks, Cash, Avett Brothers, and more.)
On Diamond: “A joy. There’s a great, wonderful, lovely man.”
On Rubin (who worked with Tench in the Heartbreakers and brought him in on this session as well as ones for Cash, the Dixie Chcks, the Avett Brothers and more): “Grateful. Because through Rick, I got to work with some really wonderful people, and I learned a lot, and his work with the Heartbreakers is really, really strong.”
Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know” (from “Jagged Little Pill”)
Tench remains blown away by the worldwide success of Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” to which he contributed organ to several tracks including its hell-hath-no-fury breakout single.
“Fluke. Not that Alanis was a fluke, but the way that it came about. She and Glen Ballard were basically recording it in a demo studio in the basement of the MCA Records building so I came in and played. It went worldwide and they deserved it.”
Sheryl Crow, “The Difficult Kind” (from “The Globe Sessions”)
“I think that’s a really excellent song and that album shows what Sheryl is capable of.”
Bob Dylan, “Lenny Bruce” (from “Shot of Love”)
Tench and the Heartbreakers have a long history with Dylan, even serving as his back-up band on a tour and, of course, Petty traveled as a Wilbury alongside the acclaimed singer-songwriter.
“There’s nothing you can say about Bob Dylan. To live in a time when Bob Dylan is making music and still putting out really good music is to live in a time when Walt Whitman is putting out poetry, when Yeats is writing poetry, when Gershwin is presenting new songs, when Dickens is saying, ‘Here’s my latest novel’ and when Melville is putting out a little book called ‘Moby Dick.’ That’s the level and that’s the privilege that we have and that’s what we should be aware of that Bob Dylan is in the world and we have to really cherish that Bob Dylan is in the world.”
U2, “All I Want Is You” (from “Rattle and Hum”)
The first word that came to the self-deprecating Tench’s mind for this “Rattle and Hum” track was “guilty.”
“I feel guilty about that because I’m credited on it and I’m barely on it. I couldn’t figure out what to play because the song seemed complete, and eventually the Edge said, ‘Why don’t you play this little figure?’ and it’s in there somewhere buried in the mix and as a result everyone always credits me with having played with U2. I feel like they were kind enough to let me be around for a few days. I love that song and they’re really lovely guys but when people try to put U2 on my resume, I try to take it off because I don’t feel like I deserve it. But it’s a beautiful song. You should put that in there, that will clear that up,” he says with a laugh.
Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” (from “Be Yourself Tonight”)
I didn’t actually get a chance to ask Tench about this ‘80s female empowerment anthem but I love this video. He plays organ on this one and another big hit from this album, “Would I Lie to You.”