This article was previously posted in slightly different form at https://crypticrock.com/remembering-tom-petty-iconic-everyman-rock-roll/
Remembering Tom Petty (1950-2017)
Tom Petty was an unpretentious musician who built a legendary career from the humblest of beginnings. His unassuming, uncomplicated style led some critics to write him off at the beginning of his career, but over the course of forty years in the business, Petty became an icon. He was inducted with his band, The Heartbreakers, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, received the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement in 1996, and was named as MusiCares’ Person of the Year in 2017. When he learned of Petty’s unexpected departure, Bob Dylan, the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll, told Rolling Stone “it’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer and I’ll never forget him.”
Thomas Earl Petty was born on October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida to Katherine “Kitty” and Earl Petty. Earl was, by all accounts, a hard man. When Petty was young, Earl, who, according to Tom, was “a violent drunk,” would savagely beat Kitty, Petty and, later, his brother Bruce. Petty and Earl became estranged in the early 1970s, though they had something of a reconciliation before Earl’s death in 1999. Of Petty’s musical aspirations, Earl said in 1990, “I didn’t ever think he’d make anything in music. But I admired him for doing it; it made me feel good about having someone in the family that could play a tune, because none of the rest of us could.”
Kitty was a frail woman, who battled cancer and epilepsy, she passed away in October 1980, just as Petty’s third album Full Moon Fever was reaching the peak of its popularity. Kitty had always been Petty’s protector and her passing affected him deeply. Though he fely the loss of his mother deeply and was affected by the loss for a number of years, Petty was unable to attend her funeral because he did not want “this to me about me (Petty).”
In 1960 Petty’s uncle, Earl Jernigan, who was a location scout in the film industry, introduced Tom to Elvis Presley. Though he only had contact with the King of Rock and Roll for a moment, from the moment that he met Elvis, Petty’s life changed radically. Petty tells a story that he went out the day after he met Elvis and traded his prized slingshot for some Elvis 45s and played them constantly. Petty had discovered that he wanted to be a rock star. Like so many other boys of the time, Petty had a dream, but when he saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Petty found a template for how to achieve his dream.
Petty performed in many local bands in Gainesville through the rest of the 1960s and early 70s, learning how to write songs and perform with a group. When his first notable band, Mudcrutch, started to receive attention in Gainesville, he was only nominally the leader. In 1974 Petty went to Los Angeles with fellow Mudcrutch members Danny Roberts and Keith McAllister to pursue a recording contract for the band. There was some interest from London Records who sent the group back to Florida to get the rest of the band and move to Los Angeles to record an album. During the preparations for the move to Los Angeles in 1974, Petty married his first wife Jane Benyo who had recently given birth to his daughter Audria.
After a call from Denny Cordell, who had produced albums for Joe Cocker and Procol Harum, Mudcrutch stopped in Tulsa to meet with Shelter Records. Impressed by Cordell’s resume and his interest in their music, Mudcrutch chose to sign on with Shelter. After signing in Tulsa, they continued on to Los Angeles and recorded and released a single called “Depot Street.” The single failed to get much play on the radio and the record company grew impatient. In 1975 Shelter dropped Mudcrutch from the label, but retained Petty himself.
After Mudcrutch lost their contract Petty began a collaboration with Leon Russell who introduced him to many important figures in the mid-seventies music scene from Brian Wilson to George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Ostensibly Petty and Russell were working on a project, but of that time, Petty recalls, “I never ended up writing anything with Leon. Nothing. I just watched these legends come in and out of the picture. They talked to me, told me things. I got to watch them in recording studios.”
Though he learned a lot under Russell’s tutelage, Petty was no closer to realizing his dream. Some of the members of his former band had remained in LA, and played sessions and clubs to make money, and Petty stayed in close contact with them. Though he was technically a solo act, when he went into the studio to record what would end up being his debut album, he brought along former Mudcrutch members Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, Ron Blair, and Stan Lynch. After the recording sessions were completed, and the album was being prepared for release, Petty and the former Mudcrutch players decided on a name for their band. Thus, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was born.
The band’s eponymously named album was released on November 9th, 1976. The album failed to receive much attention in the US, but topped charts in the UK during a tour there. After the UK tour, Petty and his band returned to the US. Their second single, “American Girl” was released in February 1977 and eventually reached number 9 on the US charts. After the success of “American Girl” Shelter moved quickly to capitalize on the band’s burgeoning success.
The second album, You’re Gonna Get It was released in May 1978. There were two singles from this album that made the US charts, “I Need to Know” and Listen to Her Heart,” though the album received less critical acclaim. In 1979, Petty teamed up with legendary producer Jimmy Iovine and recorded Damn the Torpedoes. Torpedoes reached number 2 in the US and spawned three of Petty’s biggest hits, “Don’t Do Me Like That,” Refugee,” and “Here Comes My Girl” and was The Heartbreakers first platinum album. Throughout the rest of the 1980s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded successfully and had a number of hits and toured extensively.
Also during the 1980s, Petty and the Heartbreakers collaborated with many artists, performing on their albums, touring and forming arguably the superest Rock supergroup ever. In 1981, Petty recorded “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Stevie Nicks for her solo debut album Belladonna. Though “Heart” was a song he had written for Hard Promises, he chose not to use it on the album. Petty and Nicks had formed a strong bond since they worked and socialized in the same circles. Nicks, admired Petty so much that she claimed that “if he had invited me to join the Heartbreakers I would have left Fleetwood Mac right away.” Though Nicks would never join The Heartbreakers, she and Petty continued to collaborate and remained close friends throughout the rest of Petty’s life. When The Heartbreakers toured in support of Bob Dylan and as his backing band in 1986 and 87 Nicks joined Dylan and the Hearbreakers on stage as a backup singer
The aforementioned supergroup was The Traveling Wilburys, which consisted of Roy Orbison as Lefty, Dylan as Lucky, George Harrison as Nelson Jeff Lynne as Otis and Petty as Charles T. Wilbury, Jr. were the result of a happy accident that occurred when Lynne, Petty, Orbison and Harrison were unable to find a studio to record a B-Side for Harrison’s song “This is Love” in 1988. After searching for a studio to record in, Lynne, who was producing Harrison’s album, contacted Dylan to use his home studio. Together they wrote and recorded “Handle with Care.” After is was done, Lynne believed that “Care” was too good to be a B-side. He convinced the others to record an entire album. The Traveling Wiburys Vol. 1 was released on October 18th, 1988. The band intended to tour in support of the Wilburys project, but Roy Orbison passed away unexpectedly in December 1988. The remaining members recorded another album, sassily entitled Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 in 1990 as a tribute to Orbison, and then disbanded.
During the Wiburys period, Petty wrote and recorded his debut solo album Full Moon Fever. Though billed as a solo album, Fever included the Heartbreakers on multiple tracks. Fever was released on April 24th, 1989 and was an immediate hit. The album spawned Petty’s first three Number 1 hits, “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “Free Fallin,’” and went 5x Platinum in the US. Later, Petty recalled that Fever was the most enjoyable album of his career, and it introduced his music to a new generation of listeners. The success of the album caused some friction with the members of the Heartbreakers when they went on tour with Petty to support the album. Particularly, drummer Stan Lynch claimed that he hated performing songs from Fever because it made him feel like he “was in a cover band.” Lynch’s bad feelings grew over the next few years, and in October 1994, he left the band.
Despite Fever being Petty’s most successful album to date, and the band’s bad feelings about not being included, when it was time to record a follow they got back together in the studio and recorded Into the Great Wide Open in 1991. The album spawned two radio hits, the title track and “Learning to Fly.” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ next release, a greatest hits compilation with only a pair of new tracks, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and a cover of thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit “Something in the Air” became the top selling album of Petty’s career, selling over 12 million copies in the US. The irony of Tom Petty and the heartbreaker’s Greatest Hits is that it was a contractually obligated recording that Petty released with great reservation.
After a much-needed break from over fifteen years of constant touring, recording and public life, Petty returned to the studio in 1993 with celebrated producer Rick Rubin and recorded Wildflowers. The album was recorded at a critical point in Petty’s personal life. His marriage to Jane, which had been strained for many years, began to unravel. The album reflects this conflict a melancholy and introspection that was not common in Petty’s previous recordings. The lead single, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was somewhat controversial and the lyric “Let me get to the point/Let’s roll another joint” was censored for radio, but the song won Petty a Grammy award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance in 1996. Petty would record two more albums with Rubin, Songs and Music from “She’s the One” in 1996 and Echo in 1999. Petty recorded three more albums during the 21st Century, The Last DJ in 2002, Mojo in 2010, and Hypnotic Eye in 2014. Curiously, Hypnotic Eye was Petty’s only album to debut at Number 1 on the US charts.
Though Petty slowed album output significantly after the turn of the 21st Century, he continued to tour extensively through 2010, averaging forty to fifty shows a year. After the 2010 tour in support of Mojo, even his touring began to slow. In 2017 Petty and the Heartbreakers embarked on a 40th anniversary tour, playing 49 dates across the US, three in Canada and a single show at Hyde Park in London on July 9th. At the outset of the tour Petty suggested that it might be his last. “We’re in the back sixties now” Petty said, “this can’t go on forever. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one” Those words would prove, tragically, to be prophetic. On October 2nd, just a week after closing out the 40th Anniversary Tour with three monumental shows at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, Petty was found unresponsive at home. He was rushed to UCLA Medical Center, and pronounced dead at 8:40 p.m. PDT.
After his death was confirmed, people across the nation mourned Petty. They remembered and remarked on all the ways that Petty’s songs had marked their lives. Many touring acts covered Petty in their live shows. Celebrities across the musical spectrum, from Paul McCartney and John Mayer to Elton John and Carole King paid tribute to Petty. Bruce Springsteen may have best captured the shock and loss that everyone felt best when he tweeted “Down here on E Street, we’re devastated and heartbroken over the death of Tom Petty.”
Though we all miss Petty, he was candid about death, encouraging everyone to appreciate the time we have here; “You get into your late fifties and people start falling like flies all around you. I don’t take life for granted any more. I’m really glad to be here.” Even in death, Petty’s voice can be heard, encouraging us to live every moment to the fullest. Maybe that’s his lasting impact.