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Howie Epstein

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[1] 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)[1][2]

The Heartbreakers

Epstein did not start playing the bass until a couple of years before joining the Heartbreakers.[citation needed] 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".[1] Epstein found a natural style, which he said emphasised "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."[1]

On September 1, 1982, he made his live debut at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in Santa Cruz, California, on the tour to promote the album, Long After Dark. Epstein was a member of the Heartbreakers until his departure due to his failing health caused by his heroin addiction. He made his final appearance with the band when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2002.[2]

Tom Petty commended Epstein on his collaborative efforts:

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 mic. 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 mic. 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.[3]

Epstein played bass on recordings by Eric Andersen, Bob Dylan,[4] Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, Stevie Nicks, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, John Prine, Linda Ronstadt, Del Shannon, The Textones, The Village People and Warren Zevon.

He earned acclaim as a songwriter and a producer. Epstein produced two albums for John Prine, 1991's The Missing Years, which won a Grammy Award[4] for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, and Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings.[2] He also produced Eric Andersen's Memory Of The Future (1998).