Happy Birthday to Howard Norman “Howie” Epstein – July 21, 1955 – February 23, 2003!
Howard Norman “Howie” Epstein was an American musician best known as a bassist with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Epstein was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and grew up in a musical household. His father, Sam, was a top local record producer who worked with various rock and roll and soul groups in the 1950s and 1960s. Epstein often visited the music studios, watching his father work and occasionally making recordings under his father’s watchful eye at a very young age. He recalled, “I would go into the bars with my father to check out the bands he was thinking of working with, and a couple of times he let me use groups he was working with as back-up musicians for stuff I’d record.” Howie attended Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin, graduating in 1973.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Howie played mostly rhythm guitar or mandolin and sang in a number of both rock and roll and country Milwaukee bands that were regionally popular, including MHB Experience, Egz, Winks, Forearm Smash, and The Craze. When he felt he had gone as far as he could go in Milwaukee, Epstein decided to move to New York City, but before he could pack his gear, he was lured to the West Coast by a drummer friend to play bass in a new band that singer-songwriter John Hiatt was forming in Los Angeles. He stuck with Hiatt for two years and two albums (Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters)
Epstein did not start playing the bass until a couple of years before joining the Heartbreakers. He took a gig backing Del Shannon. While playing on a Shannon album that Tom Petty was producing (Drop Down And Get Me), Epstein impressed Petty with his ability. Consequently, when Ron Blair, who had been bassist with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers since their inception in 1976, announced that he had had enough of touring, Epstein was recruited to replace him. “We all kind of thought Howie would get the job,” says original Heartbreakers’ drummer Stan Lynch. “He seemed to have a real good feeling for what we were doing. He’s a good bass player, a real good singer, and he fit in real well.” Epstein agreed that the transition of playing in these obscure bands to becoming part of a very popular, very established band was almost seamless. “It’s been easier than I thought it would be. I was already familiar with most of their music just because I’m a fan of the Heartbreakers, so it wasn’t like I was coming in cold.”
After joining the Heartbreakers, he started to take up the bass seriously. “I had a tendency to play real busy, from all the years of playing rhythm guitar” Epstein found a natural style, which he said emphasized “simplicity, playing in the pocket, getting into a steady groove. I’ve always considered myself a good team player and that’s the way that the Heartbreakers operate. Everyone listens to what everyone else is doing musically.”