Thomas Earl Petty (October 20, 1950 – October 2, 2017) was an American rock musician, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer. Petty served as the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He was also a member and co-founder of the late 1980s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, and his early band Mudcrutch.
Petty recorded a number of hit singles with the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist. In his career, he sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time. In 2002, Petty was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Petty was born October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida, the first of two sons of Kitty (Avery) and Earl Petty. His interest in rock and roll music began at age ten when he met Elvis Presley. In the summer of 1961, his uncle was working on the set of Presley’s film Follow That Dream in nearby Ocala, and invited Petty to come down and watch the shoot. He instantly became an Elvis Presley fan, and when he returned that Saturday, he was greeted by his friend Keith Harben, and soon traded his Wham-O slingshot for a collection of Elvis 45s.
In a 2006 interview, Petty said that he knew he wanted to be in a band the moment he saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show—and it’s true of thousands of guys—there was the way out. There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. It was something I identified with. I had never been hugely into sports. … I had been a big fan of Elvis. But I really saw in the Beatles that here’s something I could do. I knew I could do it. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place.” He dropped out of high school at age 17 to play bass with his newly formed band.
In an interview with the CBC in 2014, Petty stated that the Rolling Stones were “my punk music”. Petty credited the group with inspiring him by demonstrating that he and musicians like him could make it in rock and roll.
One of his first guitar teachers was Don Felder, a fellow Gainesville resident, who would later join the Eagles. As a young man, Petty worked briefly on the grounds crew for the University of Florida, but never attended as a student. An Ogeechee lime tree that he planted while employed at the university is now called the Tom Petty tree (Petty stated that he did not recall planting any trees). He also worked briefly as a gravedigger.
Petty also overcame a difficult relationship with his father, who found it hard to accept that his son was “a mild-mannered kid who was interested in the arts” and subjected him to verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis. Petty was extremely close to his mother, and remained close to his brother, Bruce.
1976–1987: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Shortly after embracing his musical aspirations, Petty started a band known as the Epics, later to evolve into Mudcrutch. Although the band, which featured future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, were popular in Gainesville, their recordings went unnoticed by a mainstream audience. Their only single, “Depot Street”, was released in 1975 by Shelter Records, but failed to chart.
After Mudcrutch split up, Petty reluctantly agreed to pursue a solo career. Tench decided to form his own group, whose sound Petty appreciated. Eventually, Petty and Campbell collaborated with Tench and fellow members Ron Blair and Stan Lynch, resulting in the first lineup of the Heartbreakers. Their eponymous debut album gained minute popularity amongst American audiences, achieving greater success in Britain. The single “Breakdown” was re-released in 1977, and peaked at No. 40 in early 1978 after the band toured in the United Kingdom in support of Nils Lofgren. The debut album was released by Shelter Records, which at that time was distributed by ABC Records.
Their second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, marked the band’s first Top 40 album and featured the singles “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart“. Their third album, Damn the Torpedoes, quickly went platinum, selling nearly two million copies; it includes their breakthrough singles “Don’t Do Me Like That“, “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee“.
In September 1979, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed at a Musicians United for Safe Energy concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. Their rendition of “Cry to Me” was featured on the resulting No Nukes album.
Bass player Ron Blair quit the group and was replaced on the fifth album (1982’s Long After Dark) by Howie Epstein; the resulting line-up would last until 1994. In 1985, the band participated in Live Aid, playing four songs at Philadelphia‘s John F. Kennedy Stadium. Southern Accents was also released in 1985. This album included the hit single “Don’t Come Around Here No More“, which was produced by Dave Stewart. The song’s video featured Petty dressed as the Mad Hatter, mocking and chasing Alice from the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then cutting and eating her as if she were a cake. The ensuing tour led to the live album Pack Up the Plantation: Live! and to an invitation from Bob Dylan—Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers joined him on his True Confessions Tour. They also played some dates with the Grateful Dead in 1986 and 1987. Also in 1987, the group released Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) which includes “Jammin’ Me” which Petty wrote with Dylan.
1988–1991: Traveling Wilburys and solo career
In 1988, Petty joined George Harrison‘s group, the Traveling Wilburys, which also included Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. The band’s first song, “Handle with Care“, was intended as a B-side of one of Harrison’s singles, but was judged too good for that purpose and the group decided to record a full album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. A second Wilburys album, mischievously titled Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 and recorded without the recently deceased Orbison, followed in 1990. The album was named Vol. 3 as a response to a series of bootlegged studio sessions being sold as Travelling Wilburys Vol. 2. Petty incorporated Traveling Wilburys songs into his live shows, consistently playing “Handle with Care” in shows from 2003 to 2006, and for his 2008 tour adding “surprises” such as “End of the Line” to the set list.
In 1989, Petty released Full Moon Fever, which featured hits “I Won’t Back Down“, “Free Fallin’” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream“. It was nominally his first solo album, although several Heartbreakers and other well-known musicians participated: Mike Campbell co-produced the album with Petty and Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, and backing musicians included Campbell, Lynne, and fellow Wilburys Roy Orbison and George Harrison (Ringo Starr appears on drums in the video for “I Won’t Back Down“, but they were actually performed by Phil Jones).
Petty and the Heartbreakers reformed in 1991 and released Into the Great Wide Open, which was co-produced by Lynne and included the hit singles “Learning To Fly” and “Into the Great Wide Open“, the latter featuring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway in the music video.
Before leaving MCA Records, Petty and the Heartbreakers got together to record, live in the studio, two new songs for a Greatest Hits package: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and Thunderclap Newman‘s “Something in the Air“. This was Stan Lynch’s last recorded performance with the Heartbreakers. Petty commented “He left right after the session without really saying goodbye.” The package went on to sell over ten million copies, therefore receiving diamond certification by the RIAA.
1991–2017: Move to Warner Bros. Records
In 1989, while still under contract to MCA, Petty secretly signed a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. Records, to which the Traveling Wilburys had been signed. His first album on his new label, 1994’s Wildflowers(Petty’s second of three solo albums), included the singles “You Don’t Know How It Feels“, “You Wreck Me”, “It’s Good to Be King”, and “A Higher Place”. The album, produced by Rick Rubin, sold over three million copies in the United States.
In 1996, Petty, with the Heartbreakers, released a soundtrack to the movie She’s the One, starring Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston (see Songs and Music from “She’s the One”). The album’s singles were “Walls (Circus)” (featuring Lindsey Buckingham), “Climb that Hill”, and a song written by Lucinda Williams, “Change the Locks”. The album also included a cover of “Asshole”, a song by Beck. The same year, the band accompanied Johnny Cash on Unchained (provisionally entitled “Petty Cash”), for which Cash would win a Grammy for Best Country Album (Cash would later cover Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” on American III: Solitary Man).
In 1999, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their last album with Rubin at the helm, Echo. Two songs were released as singles in the U.S., “Room at the Top” and “Free Girl Now”. The album reached number 10 in the U.S. album charts.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played “I Won’t Back Down” at the America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit concert for victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The following year, they played “Taxman“, “I Need You” and “Handle with Care” (joined for the last by Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison, and Jim Keltner) at the Concert for George in honor of Petty’s friend and former bandmate George Harrison.
Petty’s 2002 release, The Last DJ, was an album-length critique of the practices within the music industry. The title track, inspired by Los Angeles radio personality Jim Ladd, bemoaned the end of the freedom that radio DJs once had to personally select songs for their station’s playlists. The album was a commercial success, and peaked at number 9 on the Billboard 200 album chart in the United States.
In February 2006, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers agreed to be the headline act at the fifth annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Following that announcement came the itinerary for Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “30th Anniversary Tour”. Special guests included Stevie Nicks, Pearl Jam, the Allman Brothers Band, Trey Anastasio, the Derek Trucks Band, and the Black Crowes (who also opened for Petty on their 2005 Summer Tour). Nicks would join Petty and the Heartbreakers on stage for “a selection of songs”, notably the rendition of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around“.
In July 2006, Petty released a solo album titled Highway Companion, which included the hit “Saving Grace“. It debuted at number 4 on the Billboard 200, which was Petty’s highest chart position since the introduction of the Nielsen SoundScan system for tracking album sales in 1991. Highway Companion was briefly promoted on the tour with the Heartbreakers in 2006, with performances of “Saving Grace”, “Square One“, “Down South” and “Flirting with Time”. In 2006, the American Broadcasting Company hired Petty to do the music for its National Basketball Association playoffs coverage.
During the summer of 2007, Petty reunited with his old bandmates Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh along with Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell to reform his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch. The band originally formed in 1967 in Gainesville, Florida, before relocating to California where they released one single in 1974 before breaking up. The quintet recorded this self-titled new album of 14 songs that was released on April 29, 2008 (on iTunes, an additional song “Special Place” was available if the album was pre-ordered). The band supported the album with a brief tour of California in the spring of 2008.
In 2007, artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Lenny Kravitz, and Paul McCartney paid tribute to Fats Domino on the double-CD covers set Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. The album’s sales helped buy instruments for students in New Orleans public schools and they contributed to the building of a community center in the city’s Hurricane Katrina-damaged Ninth Ward. Petty and the Heartbreakers’ contributed a critically acclaimed cover of “I’m Walkin’” to the package.
In January 2008, it was announced that the band would be embarking on a North American Tour that was set to start on May 30, following their appearance at Super Bowl XLII.Steve Winwood served as the opening act, who joined Petty and the Heartbreakers on stage at select shows, starting on June 6, 2008, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Winwood performed his Spencer Davis Group hit “Gimme Some Lovin’“, and occasionally he performed his Blind Faith hit “Can’t Find My Way Home” before it.
On February 3, 2008, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed during the halftime-show of Super Bowl XLII at the University of Phoenix Stadium. They played “American Girl“, “I Won’t Back Down“, “Free Fallin’” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream“, in that order. “I Won’t Back Down” was used in the closing credits of the coverage on BBC Two.
In November 2009, Petty told Rolling Stone that he was working on a new album with the Heartbreakers, saying, “It’s blues-based. Some of the tunes are longer, more jam-y kind of music. A couple of tracks really sound like the Allman Brothers—not the songs but the atmosphere of the band.”
The band’s twelfth album Mojo was released on June 15, 2010, and reached number two on the Billboard 200 album chart. To promote the record, the band appeared as the musical guests on the finale of the 35th season of Saturday Night Live on May 15, 2010.
The release of Mojo was followed by a North American summer tour, which began on June 1, 2010. In spring 2012, the band went on a world tour that included their first European dates in 20 years and their first ever concerts in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Prior to the tour, five of the band’s guitars, including two owned by Petty, were stolen from their practice space in Culver City, California in April 2010. The items were recovered by Los Angeles police the next week.
On July 29, 2014, Reprise Records released Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ thirteenth studio album, Hypnotic Eye. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, becoming the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album to ever top the chart.
In 2017, the Heartbreakers embarked on a 40th Anniversary Tour of the United States. The tour began on April 20 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and ended on September 25 with a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, California. The Hollywood Bowl concert, which would ultimately be the Heartbreakers’ final show, ended with a performance of “American Girl“.
Petty’s first appearance in film took place in 1978, when he had a cameo in FM. He later had a small part in 1987’s Made in Heaven and appeared in several episodes of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show between 1987 and 1990, playing himself as one of Garry Shandling‘s neighbors. Petty was also featured in Shandling’s other show, The Larry Sanders Show, as one of the Story within a story final guests. In the episode, Petty gets bumped from the show and nearly comes to blows with Greg Kinnear.
Petty appeared in the 1997 film The Postman, directed by and starring Kevin Costner, as the Bridge City Mayor (from the dialogue it is implied that he is playing a future history version of himself).
In 2002, he appeared on The Simpsons in the episode “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation“, along with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello, and Brian Setzer. In it, Petty spoofed himself as a tutor to Homer Simpson on the art of lyric writing, composing a brief song about a drunk girl driving down the road while concerned with the state of public schools. Later in the episode, he loses a toe during a riot.
In 2010, Petty made a five-second cameo appearance with comedian Andy Samberg in a musical video titled “Great Day” featured on the bonus DVD as part of The Lonely Island‘s new album Turtleneck & Chain.
Views on artistic control
Petty was known as a staunch guardian of his artistic control and artistic freedom. In 1979, he was involved in a legal dispute when ABC Records was sold to MCA Records. He refused to be transferred to another record label without his consent. In May 1979, he filed for bankruptcy and was signed to the new MCA subsidiary Backstreet Records.
In early 1981, the upcoming Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, which would become Hard Promises, was slated to be the next MCA release with the new list price of $9.98, following Steely Dan‘s Gaucho and the Olivia Newton-John/Electric Light Orchestra Xanadu soundtrack. This so-called “superstar pricing” was $1.00 more than the usual list price of $8.98. Petty voiced his objections to the price hike in the press and the issue became a popular cause among music fans. Non-delivery of the album and naming it Eight Ninety-Eight were considered, but eventually MCA decided against the price increase.
In 1987, Petty sued tire company B.F. Goodrich for $1 million for using a song very similar to his song “Mary’s New Car” in a TV commercial. The ad agency that produced the commercial had previously sought permission to use Petty’s song but was refused. A judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting further use of the ad and the suit was later settled out of court.
Some have claimed that the Red Hot Chili Peppers single “Dani California“, released in May 2006, is very similar to Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance“. Petty told Rolling Stone, “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ‘American Girl‘ for their song ‘Last Nite‘, and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you’ … If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe [I’d sue]. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”
In January 2015, it was revealed that Petty and Jeff Lynne would receive royalties from Sam Smith‘s song “Stay with Me” after its writers acknowledged similarities between it and “I Won’t Back Down“. Petty and co-composer Lynne were awarded 12.5% of the royalties from “Stay with Me”, and the names of Petty, Lynne, joined James John Napier (known professionally as Jimmy Napes) in the ASCAP song credit. Petty clarified that he did not believe Smith plagiarized him, saying, “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement”.
Petty married Jane Benyo in 1974, and they divorced in 1996. Benyo disclosed to Stevie Nicks that she had met Petty at “the age of seventeen.” Nicks misheard Benyo, leading to Nicks’ song “Edge of Seventeen“. Petty and Benyo had two daughters; Adria is a director, and AnnaKim Violette an artist. Petty married Dana York on June 3, 2001, and had a stepson, Dylan, from York’s earlier marriage.
In May 1987, an arsonist set fire to Petty’s house in Encino, California. Firefighters were able to salvage the basement recording studio and the original tapes stored there, as well as his Gibson Dove acoustic guitar. His signature gray top hat, however, was destroyed. Petty later rebuilt the house with fire-resistant materials.
Petty was found unconscious at his home, not breathing and in full cardiac arrest, early in the morning of Monday, October 2, 2017. He was taken to the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, California, where he died at 8:40 pm PDT that evening.
After reports of Petty’s hospitalization, premature reports of his death spread quickly and widely, and without official denial or confirmation, continued throughout the day until the band’s management issued official confirmation shortly after Petty’s actual death Monday evening. While the official announcement said Petty collapsed early Monday morning, original reports claimed the incident happened Sunday night.
Petty owned and used a number of guitars over the years. From 1976 to 1982, his main instrument was a sunburst 1964 Fender Stratocaster. He also used a number of Rickenbacker guitars from 1979 onward, notably a 1965 Rose Morris 1993 and 1987 reissue of the Rose Morris 1997, a 1967 360/12 and 1989 660/12TP. The Rickenbacker 660/12TP was designed by Petty (specifically the neck) and featured his signature from 1991 to 1997.
For acoustic guitars, Petty had a signature C.F. Martin HD-40, and wrote virtually all of his songs on a Gibson Dove acoustic saved from his 1987 house fire. He also used a Gibson J-200 in a natural finish and a late 1970s Guild D25 12-string acoustic.
Awards and honors
In April 1996, Petty received the UCLA‘s George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement. The next month, Petty won the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers‘ Golden Note Award.
Petty received the Billboard Century Award, the organization’s highest honor for creative achievement, at a ceremony on December 6, 2005, during the Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
In September 2006, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers received the keys to the city of Gainesville, Florida, where he and his bandmates either lived or grew up. From July 2006 until 2007 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, featured an exhibit of Tom Petty items; much of the content was donated by Petty during a visit to his home by some of the Hall’s curatorial staff.