I still cannot believe that Tom Petty, one of my long-time favorite music artists, is gone. At 66 years, he was even younger than Walter Becker and Gregg Allman, two other giants who recently passed away at 67 and 69 years, respectively. Sure, let’s be honest here – all of these guys did drugs at some time in their lives, but as far as I know, they all had become sober long before they died. I also believe it is not known whether drugs may have had any role in Petty’s cardiac arrest, which preceded his untimely death.
Sadly, Petty’s death also illustrates the frenzy of today’s media world. TMZ broke the news Monday afternoon that Petty was taken to UCLA Santa Monica Hospital on Sunday night after he had been found unconscious and in full cardiac arrest at his Malibu, Calif. home. CBS News prematurely reported his death Monday evening, hours before he actually passed, apparently based on wrong information from the Los Angeles Police Department. E! News, Rolling Stone and other media outlets promptly picked up the story. This triggered immediate condolences from Bob Dylan and others from the entertainment world. It also reportedly prompted a blistering Instagram post from AnnaKim Violet Petty, one of Petty’s surviving three children. Very sad.
Thomas Earl Petty was born on October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Fla. He had a difficult childhood with an apparently abusive father. School wasn’t his thing, but he discovered his love for music early on and got his first guitar at the age of 12. One of his first guitar teachers was then-fellow Gainesville resident Don Felder, who later became a member of the Eagles. In the mid-’60s, Petty joined his first band, the Sundowners, playing local shows in the Gainesville area.
In 1970, Petty co-founded Mudcrutch together with guitarist and vocalist Tom Leaden. Among the other members of the line-up were Mike Campbell (guitar) and starting from 1972 Benmont Tench (keyboards), who together with Campbell later became part of Petty’s longtime band The Heartbreakers. Originally, The Heartbreakers, which Petty formed in 1976, also included Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums). Petty who had played bass and was the backing vocalist in Mudcrutch switched to guitar and lead vocals.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers released their eponymous debut album in November 1976. At first, the record received little attention in the U.S. That changed when it entered the U.K. charts in the wake of a British tour. Breakdown became a top 40 single in the U.S. The album also included American Girl, one of my favorite early Petty tunes that became a staple on rock radio. Here’s a cool clip from the Heartbreakers’ 2002 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction performance. I love Petty’s Rickenbacker guitar!
The band’s third record Damn the Torpedoes, which appeared in October 1979, brought significant commercial success in the U.S., reaching Triple Platinum certification and peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard albums chart. Among others, it included the Petty tune Don’t Do Me Like That, as well as Refugee and Here Comes My Girl, both co-written by Petty and Campbell. All three tracks were also released separately as singles and charted in the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a nice clip of Refuge from Farm Aid 1985.
In November 1982, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers released their fifth album Long After Dark. It featured another Petty-Campbell co-write that is one of my favorites: You Got Lucky. The song also became the album’s lead single and climbed to no. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here is a clip recorded in Newark, N.J. in June this year during the band’s 40th anniversary tour, which only concluded last week in Los Angeles. I saw the band twice, once in the late ’80s in Germany, and a second time in September 2014 at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. I had thought about catching them a third time during the 40th anniversary tour – now I wish I would have done it!
Another highlight in the Heartbreakers’ discography is Southern Accents, the follow-on to Long After Dark, which appeared in March 1985. The album generated three singles: Don’t Come Around Here No More, Rebels and Make It Better (Forget About Me). The first was co-written by Petty and the Eurhythmics’ Dave Stewart, while the last two were penned by Petty only. Rebels is my favorite of the three tunes. Here’s a clip of the studio version.
In 1988, Petty joined George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan in The Traveling Wilburys, a true “supergroup” that was initiated by Harrison. They released their debut album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 in October 1988. In December that year, Orbison passed away. The remaining four members recorded a follow-on album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, which appeared in October 1990. Here is a clip of Last Night, which was included on the first album and featured Petty and Orbison on vocals.
Petty also released three solo albums, the first which of which came out in April 1989. Recorded with members of both The Heartbreakers (Campbell, Tench and bassist Howie Epstein) and The Traveling Wilburys (Lynne, Orbison and Harrison), Full Moon Fever became Petty’s most popular record in the U.S. It reached no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and was certified five times platinum. The album spawned various singles, including the hits I Won’t Back Down and Free Fallin’. Both songs were co-written by Petty and Lynne. Here’s clip of Free Fallin’.
In 2007, Petty convened his former Mudcrutch bandmates to record their belated debut album. The furthest the band had gotten in the ’70s was to tape some demos. Mudcrutch was released in April 2008 and entered the Billboard 200 at no. 8. A second Mudcrutch record, Mudcrutch 2, came out in April last year. Petty supported both albums with tours. Here is a live clip of Scare Easy from the first album, which was captured during the band’s tour in Nashville last May.
Petty’s 13th and last studio album with The Heartbreakers Hypnotic Eye appeared in July 2014. Here is a clip of Red River, which was written by Petty and became the record’s second single. It was released on June 10 that year, ahead of the album.
Over his 40-year-plus career, Petty was nominated for multiple awards and won various of them. Among others, he won Grammy awards in 1990 (Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group; with Traveling Wilburys for Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1), 1996 (Best Rock Album; for Wildflowers solo album) and 2009 (Best Music Video, Long Form; with The Heartbreakers for Runnin’ Down a Dream). In 2002, Petty and The Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Following are some reactions from other music artists to Petty’s death. “It’s shocking, crushing news,” Dylan told Rolling Stone. “I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Separately in Rolling Stone, long-time J. Geils Band lead singer Peter Wolf wrote in an exclusive remembrance: “I first met Tom when he and the Heartbreakers were the opening act on a J. Geils tour back in 1977. It was a full circle honor for me to be his opening act on the 2017 Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour…he worked very hard at everything he did and always with a deep passion and a great sense of dignity. He certainly carved his own way and always stayed one of the good guys!”
Various artists also took to Twitter:
Bon Jovi: “I’m crushed… Praying for all those affected by Vegas last night. And now the loss of one of my great influences Tom Petty today.”
Ringo Starr: “God bless Tom Petty peace and love to his family I’m sure going to miss you Tom.”
Peter Gabriel: “Very sad to say goodbye to Tom Petty, he was a kind and generous man, an excellent musician…”
Steven Van Zandt: “Man this cannot be happening. Not Tom Petty please. Our deepest love and condolences to his family and band. A brother and true believer.”
The last word of this post shall belong to Petty. “Music is a real magic,” he told NPR’s All Things Considered in 2014. “It affects human beings, it can heal, it can do wonderful things. I’ve had two people contact me in my life about coming out of comas to their family playing a song to them of mine, that they had liked before they were injured. They credited the song having something to do with that. I find that fascinating. A lot of people have told me, ‘This music got me through a really hard time,’ and I can relate to that.”
Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone Fox News, YouTube