The Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell’s demo was rejected by Tom Petty, which allowed Don Henley to record “The Boys of Summer,” one of his biggest solo songs, in 1984.
Mike Campbell served as Tom Petty’s right-hand guy for many years. They were a formidable songwriting duo. Even though he collaborated with other musicians in addition to The Heartbreakers, such as Stevie Nicks, Campbell always went to Petty first when he had an idea for a song. Nonetheless, Petty was his superior and had the last say.
The Heartbreakers had to work inside a rigid framework since Tom Petty and Campbell had initially intended for the album Southern Accents, which they were producing in 1983, to be a concept record. Even if they produced excellent songs, they wouldn’t fit on Southern Accents if their music didn’t fit the heartland rock vibe of the album. The Boys of Summer, a song that Campbell wrote with The Heartbreakers in mind, is among the best examples of this strategy. After Petty declined the offer, he continued to be committed to getting the song out there and started looking for a performer to use his composition. Even though he had never met Don Henley of the Eagles, the song managed to find its way to him and, with the help of producer Jimmy Iovine, became a smash.
The song came into the possession of the Eagles vocalist because Iovine was pals with Henley and intimately associated with The Heartbreakers. Campbell said, “In Tom’s defense, when I got to the chorus, I went to a different chord. It was kind of like a minor chord. As the song ended up, on the chorus it goes to that big major chord. You know, it lifts up. And so he heard a slightly inferior version. And I remember when it went by, we were kind of grooving to it, and it got to that chord and Jimmy Iovine goes, ‘Eh, it sounds like jazz.’”
The response “completely deflated” Campbell, but he also saw that Iovine was correct. He then altered the chorus’ chords and added them to the demo. Then, when Henley was seeking music for what would eventually become Building the Perfect Beast, Iovine called him and asked him to play it for him. Campbell consented and delivered the tape to the former Eagles drummer’s home because she reasoned that Petty, even with the altered chords, was “probably fed up with it” and had plenty of other songs to work with.
Campbell said, “It was just me and him, We sat at a big table. He sat at the other end like the judge, totally quiet and didn’t bat an eye – just listened with his eyes closed. And then he said, ‘Okay, maybe I can do something with that.'”
Campbell had gotten a phone call from Henley, and was told, “‘Oh, I just wrote the best song of my life to your music.'” He answered, “Really? I’d like to hear that.”
Campbell had to learn all the guitar sections he had improvised on the demo, which was in a higher key, again when it came time to track the song in the studio. He managed to write it all down, but one alteration came to him on the spot: the song’s iconic outro solo. This was all because it didn’t match Henley’s voice.