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Tom Petty Never Backed Down

American singer-songwriter Tom Petty, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, performing at the Hammersmith Odeon, 14th May 1977. (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty Images)

Of the millions of kids who watched the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, thousands would attempt a career in music. Of that cohort, a vanishingly small number—maybe a dozen, who knows—had also met the Fab Four’s idol, Elvis Presley. Gainesville, Florida’s Tommy Petty was one of those fortunate few. His uncle, Earl Jernigan, made a living working on TV and film productions set in Florida; his biggest claim to fame was his work on Lloyd Bridges’ series Sea Hunt. In 1961, Jernigan was hired to do prop work on a middling Elvis Presley film titled Follow Your Dream. He invited his nephew down to Ocala, where the 11-year-old got to shake hands with the King himself. “I caught the fever that day,” Petty later noted, “and I never got rid of it.”

That kind of luck was the subtext of both Petty’s songs and his life. (Petty passed away on Monday night, after being hospitalized for cardiac arrest.) He was born in Gainesville on October 20, 1950, the son of an abusive alcoholic. In a 2015 biography, Petty recalled his father whipping him with a belt after he had nailed a car with his slingshot—the same slingshot, according to legend, he soon swapped for a stack of Presley records. After the Beatles’ catalyzing performance, Petty set about learning guitar, eventually taking lessons from a high school classmate, future Eagle Don Felder. He joined The Epics—whose lead guitarist, Tom Felder, was Don’s brother—as a bassist; soon afterward, Petty found himself auditioning a drummer named Randall Marsh. As luck would have it, Marsh’s friend Mike Campbell was around, and he was quickly added as a second guitarist. By this time, Petty had dropped out of high school, and was earning extra money both as a gravedigger, and a groundskeeper at the University of Florida. (There’s a “Tom Petty Tree” on campus, but as he joked to the Hollywood Reporter, “I don’t remember planting anything… What I did plant certainly wasn’t at the University of Florida.”)

In 1970, the two Toms founded Mudcrutch, with Marsh and Campbell in tow. The band soon added an old friend of Petty’s, Benjamin Montmorency “Benmont” Tench III, who had happened to catch Mudcrutch opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd while on break from Tulane University. He started filling in on keyboards, and Petty—who had already gotten Campbell to bail on his educational ambitions—convinced Tench’s father to let Benmont quit to pursue music full-time. In 1974, Mudcrutch signed to Shelter Records, founded by Leon Russell and Denny Cordell. Shelter had offices in Tulsa (from which they signed J.J. Cale, the Gap Band, and Dwight Twilley) and L.A.: Mudcrutch’s first single, like all of Petty’s records, was cut in Southern California. Though their name implied sludge, “Depot Street” was quite nimble, combining Twilley’s power-pop smarts with Petty’s firm sense of place: He spends the first verse plotting a map of Gainesville over judicious guitar flicks. But the single went nowhere, and by ’74 Mudcrutch was done. Petty stayed in LA to work on a solo career (with Campbell’s help), but he couldn’t figure the sound.

But he did like the sound of Tench’s new band, which included Campbell and two other Gainesville transplants, Ron Blair and Stan Lynch. They were called the Heartbreakers, and though Petty joined as a harmonica player, he convinced the band that their best chance of success lay in backing him, as he still had a contract with Shelter. Playing a repertoire of mostly Petty originals, the band became an LA mainstay, eventually connecting with Nils Lofgren, who hired the band as his opening act for a tour of England. Their self-titled November ‘76 debut (produced by Cordell) hadn’t made an impact Stateside, but England cottoned to them, and they sent two Petty singles—the punchy “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” and the skittery heartland anthem “American Girl”—into the top 40. In America, the band was still an unknown quantity until they landed “Breakdown” (which had previously flopped as a single) onto the soundtrack to FM, an Airheads precursor that bombed as a film but killed as a soundtrack. A reissued “Breakdown” hit No. 40, right around the time Petty and the Heartbreakers released their second album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!

At first, the industry treated these Heartbreakers like their New York precedents (who had to rename themselves “Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers” after Petty hit the charts). “We ain’t no punk band,” Petty snarled to Rolling Stone in 1977, and while CBGB’s regulars might not have been fooled, the Heartbreakers’ sound—a combination of Byrds-inspired power pop and taut, insouciant riff-rock—was quite the puzzle to solve. (The working title of You’re Gonna Get It! was the very punk Terminal Romance.) In Sweden, Philips issued an LP with Petty’s band on the B-side and the Ramones on the A. It didn’t help Petty’s industry rep when Shelter and its distributor were sold to MCA: Petty believed his contract was null, and took the unprecedented step of declaring bankruptcy. He personally bankrolled sessions for the Heartbreakers’ third album, making sure someone hid each day’s recordings so he could state in court that he didn’t know where they were.

Eventually, MCA caved, allowing Petty to release Damn the Torpedoes on his own subsidiary, Backstreet Records. Produced by studio wunderkind Jimmy Iovine, Torpedoes’ fuller, brighter sound yielded two top 20 singles (“Don’t Do Me Like That” and the Campbell co-write “Refugee”) and a weeks-long residency as the country’s No. 2 album. MCA was convinced Petty was the real deal, and tabbed the Heartbreakers’ next record for its “superstar pricing,” a dollar increase they’d previously applied to Steely Dan’s Gaucho and the Xanadu soundtrack. Petty balked. ”The record company isn’t the enemy,” he told the New York Times, “but sometimes there’s a communications breakdown and, when that happens, you just have to stand up for yourself.” The ensuing fight—which saw Petty threaten to withdraw the record, or (shades of Crass Records) to title it Eight Ninety-Eight—was settled in the musician’s favor, and Hard Promises was released in 1981. The album produced one top-40 single (“The Waiting”) but the sessions spawned two: Petty handed “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” to Stevie Nicks, who loved the tune and had sung on two Torpedoes cuts.

Suddenly, Petty encountered a promotional force even stronger than his label: MTV. The Heartbreakers had made videos before, taping a staid, primary-colored clip for “The Waiting.” For “You Got Lucky,” the lead single off 1982’s Long After Dark, they concocted a post-apocalyptic cyberhick setting, featuring a hover car from the Logan’s Run TV adaptation. The single hit the Top 20, boosted in part by the music video, and partly by contributions from Tench—who played the dry synth riff—and new bassist/backing vocalist Howie Epstein. Long After Dark was released a mere 18 months after Hard Promises, but it wasn’t a harbinger.

Buoyed by success, Petty entertained the idea of recording a double album in tribute to the Deep South. But the writing proved beyond his ken—the band’s substance abuse didn’t help—and it took outside assistance (the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart co-wrote three songs, and the Band’s Robbie Robertson arranged the weedy horn parts for closer “The Best of Everything”) to finish 1985’s Southern Accents. The only song to hit the Top 20 was “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” inspired by a kiss-off reportedly delivered by Stevie Nicks to the Eagles’ Joe Walsh. The video was an Alice in Wonderland riff, and the song showcased Stewart’s oozing, paisley electric sitar. But Petty toured behind his original concept, flying a Confederate flag at many of the Heartbreakers’ shows, to his later embarrassment. (He eventually recalled the live album Pack Up the Plantation so a photo of the band performing in front of the flag could be excised.)

The Southern Accents sessions were fraught, but the Heartbreakers got a reprieve when Bob Dylan recruited them (and Stevie Nicks) as his backup for the True Confessions tour. When the arrangement wrapped in ‘86, the Heartbreakers commenced recording Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), their first record produced solely by band members (Petty and Campbell). Unfortunately, Tench’s synths were just out of time, and whatever looseness the band uncovered didn’t translate to chart success (save the Dylan co-write “Jammin’ Me,” which is mercifully not a reggae song). But Petty had a hell of an extracurricular distraction, joining the Traveling Wilburys, George Harrison’s improbable supergroup. Petty was the youngest of the Wilburys (Roy Orbison, Dylan, Harrison, ELO’s Jeff Lynne, and Tom)—the only one born in the ‘50s, in fact—but his pop-rock sensibility meshed with theirs, and the project, recorded at Dave Stewart’s place, kept him busy ‘til his solo debut.

His debut, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, wasn’t a complete break: all the Heartbreakers save drummer Stan Lynch played on the record, and it was recorded in Mike Campbell’s studio. But Lynne joined Campbell and Petty behind the boards, and the Wilburys’ camaraderie seeped into the tracks. Full Moon Fever marked the first (and only) time Petty notched three Top 40 hits from one record. The tuff throwback “I Won’t Back Down” boasted soaring harmonies; the chooglin’ “Running Down a Dream” namechecked boyhood favorite Del Shannon, who appeared on the album (Tom Petty met Howie Epstein when they both worked on Shannon’s 1981 LP Drop Down and Get Me). The album’s biggest hit—and the highest-charting single of Petty’s career—was leadoff cut “Free Fallin’”. Petty wrote the song as a goof—something to make Lynne laugh—but his friend convinced him to dig his heels into the chorus. The accompanying video is a classic, with a crane-seated Petty—whose symmetric part and toothy sneer made an effortless visual transition from to the irony-soaked ‘90s—presides over a slo-mo Los Angeles of air-guzzling skaters, bored mallgoers, and heartbroken blonde girls. (He even digs into Valley geography with the same care he took on the sole Mudcrutch single.)  

Lynne returned for the follow-up record, 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open. It was credited to Petty and the Heartbreakers, and boasted a couple mainstream rock No. 1s: the hopeful, spangled “Learning to Fly,” and the disillusioned “Out in the Cold”. Splitting the difference was “Into the Great Wide Open,” a snide narrative about a rocker who parlays his girlfriend’s lessons into a hit and little else. The songs featured Petty’s funniest lyric (“His leather jacket had chains that would jingle/They both met movie stars, partied and mingled/Their A&R man said, ‘I don’t hear a single’), but at the dawn of the Alternative Age, no one cared that it was his meanest. His buzz-bin bonafides were burnished with the 1993 release of the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits album, which spawned another big hit in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the first fruits of Petty’s collaboration with Rick Rubin. Rubin convinced Petty to flesh out “Last Dance,” and he delivered. A gothic meditation on small-town damnation, it’s the eeriest thing in Petty’s catalog, stuffed with Campbell’s bone-dry rhythm guitar and Petty’s graveyard harmonica.

Released in 1994, the Rubin-produced Wildflowers was another success. Lead single “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” another harmonica-guided pop hit, was a power-pop tune dragged through quicksand. The rock-radio staple “It’s Good to Be King” was a spiritual sequel to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” but its theme of decay was better suited to Rick’s concurrent work with Johnny Cash. Rubin also produced the band’s soundtrack for the 1996 Ed Burns film She’s the One; it was Petty’s first album with two covers, and only the original “Walls” was even a minor hit. 1999’s Echo made no impact on Top 40 radio, but by then Petty’s work was done. He and the Heartbreakers were in the classic-rock firmament. For kids who first knew Petty on the airwaves, his penchant for clean production and tight arrangements made it hard to tell just when a given hit was released. He was a thoroughly modern songwriter indebted to the rock ‘n’ roll and folk of his youth; a vocalist of shrunken range whose laconic yowl turned his songs into conversations. And, of course, he had the Heartbreakers, quiet craftsmen just as likely to punch up their leader’s compositions as to write their own hits.

The Heartbreakers suffered a major loss when Howie Epstein died in 2003; he had been addicted to heroin for a number of years, and his erratic behavior led to his ouster from the band. He was replaced by original Heartbreaker Ron Blair, who had reunited with the group for their 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (In 2015, Petty disclosed to his biographer that he had also struggled with heroin addiction for a number of years.) Firmly established as an all-time American act, Petty began working through his legacy. The band authorized Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour career retrospective Runnin’ Down a Dream in 2007; around that time, Petty reassembled Mudcrutch, releasing two albums with his old pals. Three years after 2002’s The Last DJ, a sour music-industry broadside, Petty strapped on the cans for SiriusXM’s Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure, playing tunes from his youth. He also picked up the odd acting gig, most notably in a recurring role on King of the Hill. He voiced a genial schemer that the writers envisioned as “Tom Petty without the success”; the character’s name was Lucky.

The Heartbreakers released two more albums this decade: 2010’s Mojo and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. Remarkably, Eye—a typically sturdy effort—was the band’s first #1. That same year, Petty landed a hit on the Hot 100, in a fashion: he was eventually credited as the co-writer of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” due to the song’s melodic interpolation of “I Won’t Back Down”. Last year, with the 40th anniversary of the Heartbreakers’ debut looming, the band announced a national tour. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one,” Petty told Rolling Stone. The tour—which concluded September 25th in Petty’s adopted hometown of Los Angeles—received universal acclaim. The Heartbreakers were still a force, and in 40 years Tom Petty had made them a veritable rock jukebox, loaded with wry, melodic tales of average Americans, looking for a bit of luck.