October 2, 2017 – Tom Petty was born on October 20, 1950 in Gainesville Florida. Growing up in the town that houses the University of Florida, music became the young Petty’s refuge from a domineering, abusive father who despised Tom’s sensitivity and creative tendencies—but would later glom on to his son’s rock-star fame for status.
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.
Petty said in a later interview “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I knew 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.
Don Felder, who late became the lead guitarist for the Eagles was Tom’s first guitar teacher. 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.
Even through the end of Mudcrutch and formation of The Heartbreakers, there was a certain ethos that would form a foundation for the early days of Petty’s career and serve as guiding principles even decades later: a brotherhood with his bandmates in The Heartbreakers, and a defiant belief in the power of artistry and vision.
The rise to superstardom for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came when producer Denny Cordell famously swayed the band en route to Los Angeles to sign with London Records, when he convinced them to sign with Cordell’s Shelter Records after they stopped in Tulsa at his offices.
“At the end of the day, he wasn’t going for the biggest deal he could possibly get,” Cordell said in the ’90s. “But he was going for the chance to make good records.” Shelter was co-founded by Tulsa native Leon Russell, and the label released Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in 1975. The album flopped in America, but the band was a hit in the U.K.
Petty famously fought back against his label after Shelter Records’ distributor ABC Records was sold to MCA and he realized how much he was losing in a publishing deal he’d said he was forced to sign under duress. “My songs had been taken away from me before I even knew what publishing was,” Petty would later recall. And to free himself from the deal he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, an unprecedented approach to battling his record company. Such a bold tactic meant that Petty wasn’t just fighting his label MCA; he was in a battle against the record business itself.
As he and Cordell’s relationship dissolved and The Heartbreakers’ second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, foundered, the battle raged in the media. The Heartbreakers embarked on “The Lawsuit Tour” and sold merchandise that included “Why MCA?” T-shirts.
“As soon as they thought my action might set an industry precedent,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 1980, “they rolled out the big guns. That’s when I realized these guys were mean. It was like they were after me just because I had the potential to do something. For that, they would destroy me—fuck up my brain to where I couldn’t do it anymore—before they’d let me do it for anyone else.”
Damn the Torpedoes (1979) would be Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ first platinum-selling album, but with status came another headache. Petty once again found himself at odds with the industry after realizing MCA was planning to sell his fourth album Hard Promises at a then-staggering $9.98, “Superstar Pricing” that was designed to make up for financial losses labels were enduring in the late 1970s. Petty fought against the price hike and won the hearts of fans, as Hard Promises would also be a platinum-seller.
Petty established himself as the sort of authentic rock artist whose ethics seemed almost antiquated at the dawn of the MTV era and amid the excesses of the 1980s. As punk, funk, and New Wave gave way to hair metal and dance pop, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers stayed surprisingly fresh in changing times.
The video for their 1982 single “You Got Lucky” featured a Mad Max-inspired, apocalyptic storyline, evidence that the group wasn’t as resistant to the music video format as many of their peers. This would be more evident by 1985, with the release of the popular Alice in Wonderland-themed visual for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”—a synth-driven hit by Petty and co-written and co-produced with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” was a major hit from the Heartbreakers’ 1985 Southern Accents album, but the LP was a source of tension within the band. Accents had originally been conceived as a concept record about Southern culture, but the inclusion of Stewart muddied the theme. Nonetheless, on the Southern Accents Tour, Petty included merchandise and stage dressing that prominently featured the Confederate flag. It was a move he would come to regret.
“The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida,” Petty would say in 2015. “I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant. It was on a flagpole in front of the courthouse and I often saw it in Western movies. I just honestly didn’t give it much thought, though I should have.”
“In 1985, I released an album called Southern Accents. It began as a concept record about the South, but the concept part slipped away probably 70 percent or so into the album. I just let it go, but the Confederate flag became part of the marketing for the tour. I wish I had given it more thought. It was a downright stupid thing to do.”
A sticking point for Petty was when fans began to bring Confederate flags to shows. In 2010, Fred Mills of BLURT recalled seeing Petty live in 1990 (with Lenny Kravitz opening, no less) when a fan tossed a Confederate flag onstage.
“A certain yahoo element had already been making its presence in the crowd known, emitting whoops and raising beer cups whenever Petty would make a regional reference. It was starting to feel like a NASCAR rally in the arena. Now, as the band eased into the song’s signature piano intro, somebody tossed a folded-up object onto the stage,” said Mills. “Petty walked over, picked it up, and started unfolding it: a rebel flag, symbol of the Confederacy—and of a whole lot more. He froze, uncertain as to what he should do. Well, wave it proudly at all your fellow Southerners, you could almost hear the collective thought ripple through the air. Instead, Petty walked back to the mic, still holding the flag, and slowly began to speak, talking about how on the Southern Accents Tour a few years ago they’d included a Confederate flag as part of the stage set, but since then he’d been thinking about it and decided that it had been a mistake because he understood maybe it wasn’t just a rebel image to some folks. As a low rumble of boos and a few catcalls came out of the crowd, Petty carefully wadded the flag up and concluded, ‘So we don’t do’—nodding at the flag—‘this anymore.’ Glaring at it one last time and then chucking it back down, he glanced at the band then launched directly into the next song.”
Petty’s success continued in the late 1980s with the multiplatinum Full Moon Fever (his first official solo album), 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).
In 1988, Petty had joined George Harrison’s group, the Traveling Wilburys, which also included Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, a move that made him one of the more venerated “elders” of the MTV generation, and it also emphasized Petty as a conduit that connected three musical generations of rock.
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.
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.
Even as pop culture became dominated by grunge and gangsta rap in the 1990s, there was Tom Petty, consistently charting with hit singles like “Into the Great Wide Open” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” And he and The Heartbreakers had toured with Bob Dylan, played with Johnny Cash, and written hits with George Harrison and Roy Orbison. Even his most famous producers—Jimmy Iovine, Jeff Lynne, and Rick Rubin—represented entirely different generations and approaches to rock music.
In the 2000s, Petty continued to rankle the suits—albeit more as a cantankerous elder statesman than brash upstart – most notably on 2002’s The Last DJ, which railed against commercial radio and the hollowness of the modern music industry.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he and The Heartbreakers continued as one of rock’s most successful institutions. Along the way, there had been scars (the 1994 firing of long time drummer Stan Lynch, Petty’s 1996 divorce from his first wife Jane, which catapulted him into becoming a heroin addict for several years and then bassist Howie Epstein’s death at age 47 in 2003 from a heroin overdose) but Tom Petty seemed to be a permanent fixture in the musical firmament, forever playing a gig and being on tour and reminding fans everywhere just how many of his songs had been a part of their lives.
Tom Petty’s journey came to an unexpected end on Oct. 2, 2017 just a week after finishing his 40th Anniversary Tour, and it may be hard for some to recognize why this old rocker meant so much to so many people across so many generations. Tom Petty was possessed of the kind of easygoing coolness that you took for granted until it was staring you in the face, his songs sounded simple but burst with ideas and subtext, and his band was fucking sick without ever seeming showy. He was ballsy enough to do things his way and honest enough to admit when his way had been flat-out wrong. We’ll always have the songs. But man… we are really going to miss having him.
Tom Petty seemed to embody something that has always been perfect about rock ’n’ roll music. The spirit of the songs, at its purest, is one of freedom and unpretentiousness. It’s there in Chuck Berry’s odes to adolescent thrills, the nervous energy of Eddie Cochran, and the aching earnestness of Roy Orbison. And it’s there throughout the best songs from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
On January 18, 2018, Petty’s family and the Los Angeles County Coroner issued the following statement:
Our family sat together this morning with the Medical Examiner – Coroner’s office and we were informed of their final analysis that Tom Petty passed away due to an accidental drug overdose as a result of taking a variety of medications.
Unfortunately Tom’s body suffered from many serious ailments including emphysema, knee problems and most significantly a fractured hip.
Despite this painful injury he insisted on keeping his commitment to his fans and he toured for 53 dates with a fractured hip and, as he did, it worsened to a more serious injury.
On the day he died he was informed his hip had graduated to a full on break and it is our feeling that the pain was simply unbearable and was the cause for his over use of medication.
We knew before the report was shared with us that he was prescribed various pain medications for a multitude of issues including Fentanyl patches and we feel confident that this was, as the coroner found, an unfortunate accident.
As a family we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives. Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications.
On a positive note we now know for certain he went painlessly and beautifully exhausted after doing what he loved the most, for one last time, performing live with his unmatchable rock band for his loyal fans on the biggest tour of his 40 plus year career. He was extremely proud of that achievement in the days before he passed.
We continue to mourn with you and marvel at Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ incredible positive impact on music and the world. And we thank you all for your love and support over the last months.
Thank you also for respecting the memory of a man who was truly great during his time on this planet both publicly and privately.
We would be grateful if you could respect the privacy of the entire Heartbreaker family during this difficult time.
Dana Petty and Adria Petty.
Bowie is gone and Frey is gone and Prince is gone but Petty? HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HERE FOREVER! Here In people’s minds. Where rock music resides. Where Tom Petty forever shall be.