In an era of throbbing disco beats, ponderous prog rock, and angry loud punk, Tom Petty’s rootsy, guitar-jangling sound was like a breath of fresh air blowing through the late 70’s radio airwaves. Petty was a Southern boy, but didn’t fit the ‘Southern Rock’ mode of the Allman Brothers or Marshall Tucker. Instead, he and his band The Heartbreakers were influenced by the stylings of The Beatles and The Byrds, crafting tight-knit pop tunes for the ages.
The Florida-born Petty was an artsy type of kid, an outsider in a world of machismo. He met his idol Elvis Presley when The King was making the 1961 film FOLLOW THAT DREAM on location, and three years later, when The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, Tom knew what he wanted to do with his life. By age 17, he’d dropped out of high school, and three years later started Mudcrutch, a successful Gainesville group that included future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Mudcrutch never broke through outside the Florida/Georgia line, and when they broke up Petty joined his mates in forming The Heartbreakers, who signed with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records and got lots of FM airplay with the single. “Breakdown”:
Their 1978 album “You’re Gonna Get It!’ went gold, but when Shelter was sold to conglomerate MCA, Petty refused to have his music released by them, beginning a long tradition of the musician standing up for his artistic rights. The band wound up on MCA’s new Backstreet label, and had their biggest success to date with 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes”, featuring the hit “Refugee”:
1981’s “Hard Promises” contained Petty’s first #1 single “The Waiting”:
… and hit after hit followed: “You Got Lucky”, “Change of Heart”, and 1985’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, complete with a bizarre Alice in Wonderland-themed video that sparked some controversy and won an MTV Music Video Award:
Petty and the Heartbreakers’ tour with Bob Dylan led to him being invited to join The Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup composed of Petty, Dylan, Beatle George Harrison, rock legend Roy Orbison, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne. The kid from Gainesville had made good! A 1993 “Greatest Hits” compilation scored another hit record, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”:
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were now firmly ensconced as rock elite, but they never compromised their musical integrity, despite continued success and being one of the most popular touring bands. When Tom Petty passed away last night of a massive heart attack, news reports were at first premature. I learned the sad news this morning that Tom was indeed gone, but his music will remain with those of us who love pure rock and roll, and remember when those jangling guitars and that unique voice breathed new life into the artform. Rest in peace, Tom Petty.