Tom Petty, part of the fabric of American Rock Music for over forty years died last night at age 66 of a massive heart attack, leaving fans, friends, and family devastated by the sudden news. Petty had just wrapped up his 40th Anniversary tour with his band The Heartbreakers, last week at The Hollywood Bowl, which would fittingly be his final performance ever.
Having been a guitar student of Don Felder, later of The Eagles; Petty came from Gainesville, Florida in the early 1970s to Hollywood to find a record deal for his first band Mudcrutch. He recounted that time in his early days to author Paul Zollo in the 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty(CWTP):
“We fell in love with L.A. within an hour of being there. We just thought this is heaven. We said, ‘Look — everywhere there’s people making a living playing music. This is the place.'”
Ultimately the Mudcrutch dream was put on hold while Petty got a deal for himself and his newly formed band The Heartbreakers, who stormed the airwaves with three hit albums: 1976’s eponymous début (Shelter Records), 1978’s You’re Going To Get It (also Shelter) and 1979s Damn The Torpedoes (MCA). In a decade when even hit-making artists were robbed blind, Petty’s fought in court to the point of bankruptcy when his label Shelter was sold to MCA. He remained a staunch advocate of artists rights and equitable royalties in his career.
But it was the songs that made his career. Oh the songs. Channeling his early influences of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, The Allman Brothers, Glen Campbell, and more, Petty catapulted into the consciousness of American rock music with not just a string of hits, but back to front great albums. He made a mark with a blend of rock, country, blues, affecting each sub-genre after he touched it. With a wide palette of musical inspiration to cull from, Petty’s often wry, and philosophical lyrics mused about love and life, and highlighted his phenomenal songcraft. He touched on class issues and socially conscious lyrics before it was popular amongst rock stars; and at the same time when he would have massive hit singles, like his duet with Stevie Nicks, on ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’.
After over a decade of hits with the Heartbreakers, Petty launched a solo career with 1989s Full Moon Fever, followed by the even bigger Wildflowers album in 1994. He got to work with his heroes like George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Dylan and Cash. Work with the former led to the 1980s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys in 1988. At that moment no one even doubted that Petty belonged with these rarefied artists and the unpretentious singer/guitarist was one of the standouts of their two albums together. He was capable of shining in any setting. Especially so later in his career when he reunited with Mudcrutch and they toured the US.
Along with the Heartbreakers, Petty received many accolades including induction into The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and many others. Although Petty’s career is one that has been revered, and examined for a long time as the subject of several books and documentaries, he has been as vital in recent years as ever. Albums such as Echo (1999), The Last DJ (2002), Mojo (2010) and Hypnotic Eye (2014) still hold up compared with his best work. He was also known for his charitable works, notably being awarded the Music Cares Man of The Year award earlier in 2017.
Petty had early credibility and MTV star power, but the musical legacy he left is indelible. He seemed to be comfortable with stardom and his many talents, but not so much that is changed him from the kid he was in Florida when he fell in love with music in the first place. Rock’s everyman guitar slinger and singer felt like a friend you could drink beers with, not a guy on an untouchable pedestal like some others. As much as anything else, that is the secret to his appeal and his legacy.