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The Day Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Bassist Howie Epstein Died

Tom Petty
Lawrence Lucier, Getty Images

Howie Epstein could do it all — until his addictions prevented him from doing anything. The Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers bassist (seen in the above photo at center, wearing the white shirt) died of drug-related complications on February 23, 2003, at the age of 47.

The multi-faceted musician was born in Milwaukee in 1955. He earned his rock ‘n’ roll stripes in the late ’70s playing with John Hiatt and Del Shannon, before being brought into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1982 to replace original bassist Ron Blair.

Epstein made the transition easy, as he quickly became an invaluable member of the Heartbreakers with his steady bass playing, strong harmony vocals and genial attitude. In 1990, Petty told Musician magazine, “You gotta love him; I don’t know if I ever tell him how good he is. Tonight, there was a line early in the show I could just barely sing … I got to it and I heard Howie singing it with me over his mike. It sounded great, it sounded like a double track. I just looked at him, he caught my eye like ‘Yeah!’ It made me feel great … That’s what a great band’s all about.”

As a result of his high-profile Heartbreakers work, Howie became an in-demand session guy who recorded with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and others. He also made a reputation for himself as a producer, helming albums by future fiancée Carlene Carter and songwriting great John Prine – one of which won a Grammy.

But by the late ’90s, it was clear to Epstein’s bandmates that his substance abuse issues were ruining not just his musical abilities, but his whole life. Despite their attempts to help him, things got so bad that the Heartbreakers were forced to replace him in 2002 with Blair, who returned to the group.

A year following his departure from the band, Epstein passed out in his bathroom – the result of a toxic mixture of heroin and a prescription he was taking for stomach problems and an abscess on his leg. He was driven to the hospital by his girlfriend, but it was too late.

Petty shared his sadness in a piece he wrote for Rolling Stone: “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.”

Epstein is gone, but he’s not forgotten – especially by his former bandmates, who keep a bass guitar onstage at every performance to honor his memory.

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