Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.

Although Howie Epstein wasn’t one of the founding members of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, he quickly became an integral part of the band after joining in the early ’80s. The bassist was present for Petty’s most commercially successful period, playing both on full band releases and on the singer’s “solo” records. Keyboardist Benmont Tench called Howie “the coolest guy in the band.”

Epstein was born on July 21, 1955 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He began playing musical instruments at a young age, growing up under the influence of his father Sam, who was a record producer. Sam produced some of the Midwest’s top rock and soul groups in the ’50s and ’60s. As a result, Howie became entrenched in Milwaukee’s music community, getting to know the local acts and going with his dad to shows. As he got older, Howie convinced Sam to let some of those groups serve as backing bands on his own recordings.

In his teenage years and twenties, Epstein was involved in a number of rock and country bands in Milwaukee, most often playing rhythm guitar or mandolin and singing. Tiring of the limitations of the Wisconsin music scene, Howie set off for Los Angeles in the late ’70s to play bass in a band that singer-songwriter John Hiatt was putting together. He toured and recorded with Hiatt, playing on his albums Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters.

Howie soon joined Del Shannon’s backing band, a move that would lead directly to him becoming a full-time Heartbreaker. A huge Shannon fan, Petty was producing an album for the singer (titled Drop Down and Get Me) and Howie was playing on the sessions. Petty was highly impressed with Epstein’s musicianship. The bassist soon would see exactly how impressed Tom was.

By 1982, the Heartbreakers’ founding bass player Ron Blair had had enough. Tired of the touring grind, Blair departed the band, leaving a vacancy for Epstein. Bringing Howie into the fold wasn’t a surprise move, as far as the other Heartbreakers were concerned. “We all kind of thought Howie would get the job,” drummer Stan Lynch said. “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.”

By all accounts, the transition was seamless. Howie helped the band record 1982’s Long After Dark, bringing his strong backing vocals and steady bass playing to the album. “I had a tendency to play real busy, from all the years of playing rhythm guitar,” Epstein said about his playing. His style was “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.”

He would tour with the band for the next couple of decades and become a well-known and respected member of an already established rock band. After Howie had been in the band for about eight years, Petty sung his praises to 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 was having to work harder than I normally do to make it, I was getting really close on the mike. I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, I hope I can do this...’ 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, ’cause I know he was thinking the same thing, ‘I know he’s tired, I’ll cover him – wham! Got it!’ That’s what a great band’s all about. That’s what it’s all about.”

By becoming such an important part, Howie became an in-demand recording musician, playing on albums by legends such as Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and others. He also began to work as a producer, starting with Carlene Carter’s 1990 album, I Fell in Love. In fact, Howie had fallen in love with Carter and the pair had begun a relationship that would culminate in a proposal, but never marriage.

Around the same time, Epstein produced a pair of studio albums for songwriting great John Prine, including The Missing Years, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. A fair share of Heartbreakers also showed up to play on Prine’s albums.

Although Howie kept up his work with Petty and the boys through the ’90s, some of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle began to catch up with him. “He was just degenerating on us to the point where we thought keeping Howie in the band was actually doing him more harm than getting rid of him. His personal problems were vast and serious,” Petty would later say. “We tried everything we could to reach him but it got to the point where his ability to do gigs was diminishing.”

By 2002, Petty replaced Epstein with the same bassist Howie had replaced 20 years earlier – Ron Blair. “Eventually, we realized that we were just contributing to the problem,” Petty said. “When you’re living a life where you really don't have any responsibilities, it’s easy for evil forces to take over.”

Then, in February of ’03, Epstein passed out in his bathroom, possibly due to a mix of drugs that included heroin and antibiotics he had been taking for stomach problems and an abscess on his leg. His girlfriend drove him to the hospital, where he died from drug-related complications on this day in 2003. He was 47. Epstein’s remains were returned to Wisconsin, where they were interred at Second Home Cemetery in Greenfield.

Upon hearing the tragic news, one-time fiancée Carter was despondent. “I’m devastated,” she said. “I loved him very much. My kids thought of Howie as their father.”

Petty shared his grief over his bandmate’s death in a piece for Rolling Stone: “There’s a great sadness, because Howie was never not a Heartbreaker. 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.”

To this day, when Petty and The Heartbreakers tour, they keep a bass guitar on a stand on stage to honor the memory of their late comrade.