Tom Petty Dead at 66
The band leader of the Heartbreakers and the Traveling Wilburys is gone.
The legendary American rocker Tom Petty has died of a heart attack at the age of 66.
LA Times (“Tom Petty, Heartbreakers frontman who sang ‘Breakdown,’ ‘Free Fallin” and other hits, dies at 66“):
Tom Petty rode to the pinnacle of pop music stardom with his beloved and long-running rock band the Heartbreakers, born out of the ashes of a group that flopped when he brought them from Gainesville, Fla., to California in the mid-1970s. He emerged as one of the most vocal and tireless champions of artistic integrity and musical purity in the record business.
Reportedly found unconscious at his Malibu home on Sunday night, Petty was rushed to UCLA’s Santa Monica hospital in full cardiac arrest and died Monday at 66. For hours, multiple media outlets reported his death only to retract those reports; his death was confirmed Monday night by his family’s spokeswoman. A cause has not been announced.
Petty had just completed an extensive tour to mark the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary. It concluded Sept. 25 with a three-night homecoming stand that sold out at the Hollywood Bowl.
“It’s shocking, crushing news,” his longtime friend and collaborator Bob Dylan said. “I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Petty and his mates distilled a signature sound that was as influenced as much by The Byrds as the Beatles, with the swagger of the Rolling Stones and some doses of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and soul stirrings of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke thrown in.
Initially lumped in with the burgeoning punk rock scene, and later affiliated more with the singer-songwriter-focused new wave movement, Petty and the Heartbreakers rose to fame in 1977 with their first Top 40 single, the sultry, bluesy hit “Breakdown.”
It was a breath of fresh air amid a rising tide of “corporate rock” bands — such as Kansas, Foreigner, Bad Company and Journey — that boasted stellar musicianship but produced often faceless music.
Petty and his cohorts rejuvenated a more stripped-down, passion-filled, elemental form of rock ‘n’ roll that they had soaked up in the ’50s and ’60s, and which manifested in nearly 30 singles that made Billboard’s Hot 100 sales ranking.
Songs like “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Free Fallin’,” “Listen To Her Heart,” “The Waiting,” “Learning to Fly” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” their collaboration with Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks for her solo album “Bella Donna,” quickly became staples of Top 40 and FM radio playlists.
The group churned out hit album after hit album as well. The biggest included: “Damn the Torpedoes” from 1979, “Hard Promises” in 1981, “The Last DJ” in 2002, and “Mojo” in 2010. (“Mojo” entered the chart and peaked at No. 2, 30 years into the band’s career.)
Petty also recorded several successful solo albums, which often included most or all members of the Heartbreakers performing. His first, 1989’s “Full Moon Fever,” reached No. 3, followed by “Wildflowers” in 1994 and “Highway Companion” in 2006.
He carved out a niche as one of rock’s most beloved figures, respected by both peers and fans. Far from textbook handsome rock stars like Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen, or an antihero such as Mick Jagger or Lou Reed, Petty had an everyman quality that he also brought to his songs, which often were collaborations with guitarist Campbell, who largely wrote music, leaving the lyrics to Petty.
Though couched as a cautionary note to a romantic rival, the song “Listen to Her Heart,” from the group’s 1978 sophomore album “You’re Gonna Get It,” was also an allegory about the music industry forces Petty felt were attempting to subvert the music he loved.
The Florida-bred singer and songwriter became a member of rock music’s elite, and in the late 1980s was central in creating one of its most revered supergroups, the Traveling Wilburys, a short-lived ensemble that featured Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, along with the Heartbreakers, collecting three Grammy Awards and 18 nominations over the years.
Rolling Stone (“Tom Petty, Rock Iconoclast Who Led the Heartbreakers, Dead at 66“) has a more detailed back story:
In the late 1970s, Petty’s romanticized tales of rebels, outcasts and refugees started climbing the pop charts. When he sang, his voice was filled with a heartfelt drama that perfectly complemented the Heartbreakers’ ragged rock & roll. Songs like “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Learning to Fly” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” all dominated Billboard’s rock chart, and the majority of Petty’s albums have been certified either gold or platinum. His most recent release, Hypnotic Eye, debuted at Number One in 2014. Petty, who also recorded as a solo artist and as a member of the Traveling Wilburys and Mudcrutch, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, the son of an insurance salesman, on October 20th, 1950. He quit high school at age 17 to join the southern-rock group Mudcrutch, which was taking off at the time. The group’s lineup featured guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, two musicians Petty would collaborate with for much of the next five decades. But while the band was taking off, they broke up upon moving to Los Angeles in the early Seventies.
Petty started his career in earnest in 1975 when he cut a demo with Campbell and Tench that also featured bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. They called themselves the Heartbreakers and recorded their debut, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which came out in 1976. It failed to make an impact at the time – the album’s lead single “Breakdown” didn’t even chart – but they picked up heat after touring England as support for future E Street Band member Nils Lofgren. They soon became headliners on the tour, with the album topping the U.K. chart.
The label reissued “Breakdown” in the U.S. and it reached the bottom rung of the Top 40 a year after its release. Subsequent singles from the group’s second LP, You’re Gonna Get It!, such as “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know” charted in the upper half of the pop chart. Around this time, one of Petty’s most apparent influences, the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, recorded a cover of the self-titled album’s closing track, “American Girl,” proving Petty’s ability to write hits.
But before the decade was up, Petty found himself bankrupt after the record label MCA attempted to buy out his contract from ABC Records, which distributed Petty’s original label. It took nine months of litigation for Petty to secure a new deal so he could put out the biggest record of his career, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, which reached Number Two on the album chart and has since been certified triple-platinum. The album contained the singles “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee,” establishing him as a full-fledged hitmaker.
Within two years, he was able to leverage this credibility in a standoff with MCA, which wanted to charge $9.98 for the follow-up LP to Damn the Torpedoes; Petty threatened to titled it $8.98 until they backed down and released the record, which contained “The Waiting,” under the name Hard Promises, in 1981. He later scored a Number Three hit later that year with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a duet with Stevie Nicks that appeared on her Bella Donna LP.
The years that followed would prove to be tumultuous for Petty, seeing the departure of Blair from the lineup as they worked painstakingly on what would become 1985’s Southern Accents; during this time, Petty became so frustrated that he punched a wall and broke his left hand. Nevertheless, it served as home to the Number 13 hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The following year, just as the band was about to set out on a tour supporting Bob Dylan, Petty’s house burned down – with arson being suspected – destroying most of his possessions. His wife, Jane Benyo, and two daughters were able to escape.
The latter part of the Eighties was marked by both a commercial disappointment, 1986’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), and a success, 1988’s Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1. The latter found Petty collaborating with Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, and it made it to Number Three on the album chart and was certified triple platinum on the strength of singles like “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line.” Petty followed this success into his first solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever (home to “Free Fallin'”), which Lynne produced.
The unexpected success of Full Moon Fever sent Petty into the 1990s with incredible momentum, more so than just about any artist from his generation. A second Traveling Wilburys record in 1990 failed to recapture the magic of the original, but the following year he brought the Heartbreakers into the studio with Jeff Lynne and cut Into The Great Wide Open, scoring radio hits with the title track and “Learning To Fly.” “That record gave us some of our most evergreen songs,” said Petty. “It’s our biggest record in Europe. But suddenly we were in a business where you could feel bad about selling only a million and a half records and recording some songs that live forever.”
In secret, Petty had signed a $20 million, six-album deal with Warner Bros. in 1992 and wanted to focus on his solo album, Wildflowers. He didn’t want any distraction but agreed to cut two songs for a Greatest Hits album against his will in 1993. It was the only way to appease MCA. One of the two songs was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which hit Number 14 on the Hot 100 and, thanks to a creepy video featuring Kim Basinger as a corpse, went into heavy rotation on MTV. It should have been a moment of triumph for the Heartbreakers, but drummer Stan Lynch grew tired of feeling like a hired hand and left the group the following year.
Petty would reemerge late the following year with Wildflowers, which he and producer Rick Rubin had cut down from a planned double LP. “It’s Good to Be King,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the title track would be key parts of his live show until the end of his career. Rubin would later draft Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to back Johnny Cash on the Man in Black’s Unchained LP in 1996; Petty would later join Cash on a recording of “I Won’t Back Down.”
Petty was one of the favorite artists of my youth but I’d lost touch with his work by the mid-1990s, having drifted to the music coming out of Nashville and then eventually to downloads and streaming, largely eschewing radio. The last fifteen years produced far fewer hits but several critically acclaimed albums, whether with the Heartbreakers or a reformed Mudcrutch.
I got reacquainted with Petty and his music a couple years back after listening to a Freakonomics podcast titled “Should Everyone Be in a Rock Band?” featuring an interview with Warren Zanes, who had recently published what will likely be the definitive Tom Petty biography. I promptly bought and read the book and downloaded the Petty catalog. While I appreciate the newer work and understand that it’s musically far superior to the likes of “Damn the Torpedoes,” I didn’t grow up with it and it doesn’t resonate with me as strongly.
It’s truly remarkable, though, that Petty was still putting out highly-regarded new music decades after his contemporaries had become cover bands of their younger selves. His sudden passing is shocking and sad. He left behind a treasure trove of recorded work and won’t soon be forgotten.