One of America’s most durable, iconic and beloved music stars, Tom Petty passed away on Monday, October 2nd at 8.40 pm, after suffering a cardiac arrest. His manager since 1976, Tony Dimitriades said in a statement, “On behalf of the Tom Petty family, we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT, surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.” Petty was found unconscious in his Malibu home on Sunday night and was rushed to hospital, but with no brain activity, the decision was made to terminate his life support.
Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida on October 20th 1950. His rock and roll epiphany came at the age of ten, when Petty met Elvis Presley on the set of “Follow That Dream”. After he saw the Beatles’ legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, he knew he had to be in a band. Following some guitar lessons with future Eagles member Don Felder, Petty formed The Epics, which soon evolved into Mudcrutch. The band, in which he played bass and sang, also featured Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench – two musicians who would work with Petty up until his death. Mudcrutch recorded two unsuccessful singles, after which the band split. Petty began a solo career, but eventually he was rejoined by Campbell and Tench and augmented by Ron Blair and Stan Lynch to record the “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” album in 1976. Overlooked in the US, it made waves in the UK where, following a British tour with Nils Lofgren, the album rose to number 24 on the album chart.
Tenaciously, the band built on each small success until they began to have hits – “American Girl”, “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know” are still staples of US radio to this day. His early career was dogged by financial issues, but after bankruptcy and nine months of litigation, the band released “Damn the Torpedoes” which reached number 2 in the US chart in 1979 and established him as a major artist with a string of top 10 albums. Tragedy struck in May 1987 when an arsonist set fire to Petty’s house in Encino, California destroying almost all of his personal possessions. He stepped away from the Heartbreakers in 1988 to join probably the most high-profile supergroup in rock history – the Travelling Wilburys. Consisting of Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, this group convened to record just one song – “Handle With Care” which was to be the ‘b’ side for a George Harrison song. The musicians were delighted with the result and two albums followed. In 1989, Petty released his first solo album “Full Moon Fever” which featured “I Won’t Back Down” “Freefallin’” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. With Petty at the height of his fame, the next Heartbreakers album “Into the Great Wide Open” in 1991, was their biggest seller to date in Europe.
In 1994, Petty released another solo album – “Wildflowers”, the first of three records produced by Rick Rubin. Rubin also asked Petty and the Heartbreakers to participate in the “Unchained” LP sessions for Johnny Cash. Following a separation from Jane Benyo, his wife of 22 years in 1996, Petty turned to Heroin for solace and it was this experience which informs “Echo”, his dark and brooding 1999 album. He married his second wife Dana York Epperson in 2001.
In 2007, Petty reformed Mudcrutch and released an eponymous, 14 track album. A second -“Mudcrutch 2” was released last year. Petty (as a solo artist and with the Heartbreakers) continued to release well received albums and in 2014, he achieved his first number one US album with “Hypnotic Eye”. Before the tour to promote this album, Petty hinted that it may be their last. Sadly, it was.
Petty leaves a huge legacy of American popular music. Along with Bruce Springsteen, he wrote songs for the working man, but he was influenced less by the rhythm and blues sounds which inspired Springsteen and looked towards the Byrds for inspiration, earning an admirer in Roger McGuinn, who covered “American Girl” in 1977. Petty would draw upon rock, folk, country, psychedelia and new wave for his source material which gives his considerable back catalogue a breadth which is rare in rock music. He too became an influence and artists as diverse as The Shins and Def Leppard have covered his songs. He took a relaxed view when it seemed his work had been plagiarised – songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Dani California”), the Strokes (“Last Night”) and Sam Smith (“Stay With Me”) all bear his trademark sound but he remained unconcerned. “I was like…good for you. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs”, he is quoted as saying.
When his friend and bandmate Bob Dylan heard the news of Petty’s death, he said “It’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Dylan can rest assured that Tom Petty will not be forgotten.