Bringing something of the harshness of the seventies new-wave music to the sixties guitar rock tradition, Tom Petty and his group the Heartbreakers melded the ringing guitars of the Byrds with the harder edge of the Rolling Stones.
He was born Thomas Earl Petty in 1950 in Gainesville, Florida, the first child of Earl and Kitty Petty. In 1969 Petty joined Florida group Mudcrutch which included Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards. The group dissolved in 1974, soon after securing a recording contract with Leon Russell and Denny Cordell’s Shelter label in Los Angeles.
The trio regrouped as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers adding Stan Lynch on (drums) and Ron Blair (bass), releasing an eponymous album in 1976. It contained the distinctly Byrds-like ‘American Girl’ which went on to become a huge hit on college radio and a firm favourite of American teenagers. The album also contained ‘Breakdown’, which was a belated hit in 1978.
Soon after this minor success their record label Shelter was sold to MCA Records. Afterwards, Petty found himself in extended litigation with the record company. The dispute was settled when MCA set up the nominally independent label Backstreet for Petty and Nils Lofgren in 1977.
The new deal bore immediate fruit with the release of the album Damn the Torpedoes in 1979 which brought Petty his first American Top Ten single ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’, and ‘Hard Promises’, which also became a hit in 1981.
He was firmly established as a top line artist and was in regular demand by other artists. These included Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, with whom he would record the bestselling ‘Stop Dragging My Heart Around’ from her Bella Donna album.
With his star on the rise he had a Top Twenty hit ‘You Got Lucky’ from his Long after Dark album. His next album was Southern Accents which found Petty staunchly expounding his southern upbringing and family life and included the hit ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’, produced by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart.
In 1988 Tom Petty recorded an album with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. The band became the Travelling Wilburys. This record became one of the success stories of that year and brought about one of Petty’s most fruitful periods of his career.
In 1989 he set about recording the highlight of his musical output to date when he recorded a solo album which had the title Full Moon Fever. The record was produced by ELO’s and fellow Wilbury Jeff Lynne and would become his biggest selling record to date, selling nearly 9 million copies worldwide and taking him in to another level within the music business.
The Album itself turned out to be a pop masterpiece and included a number of top selling singles including ‘Free Fallin’, ‘ I Won’t Back Down’ and ‘Yer So Bad’, all of which became top ten hits in the US, but failed to set the UK charts on fire, although all three singles were huge radio hits across Europe.
With the success of Full Moon Fever, Tom Petty recorded a second Wilbury’s album, called Volume 3, which was released in 1990 but did not have the success of its predecessor.
After this he reformed the Heartbreakers to record the album Into the Great Wide Open, which was again produced by Jeff Lynne and enjoyed similar success to Full Moon Fever. The album was considered a resounding success, and included the single ‘Learning to Fly’ which again enjoyed big sales in the US.
In 1993 he released a greatest hits package which went on to become his biggest selling record of an outstanding career, selling almost 15 million copies around the world.
Tom Petty went on to form an alliance with most sought-after producer Rick Rubin, who would strip down his production values and give him a rawer sound for his next offering which was Wildflowers, considered by many critics as his best record, including the brilliant ‘King for a Day’ and ‘Time to Move On’.
Rubin’s production values gave the record a very reflective edge and so became his most thoughtful album from a lyrical point of view.
In 2002 The Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Petty would of course continue touring and recording right up to 2017 and played his final show at the Hollywood Bowl a week before his death.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been one of America’s most authoritative and entertaining rock groups over the last 40 years. Magnificent live, they combine musical clout and restrained power with songs which often champion the underdog.
When he announced his final tour he had hinted that he was thinking about retirement, but by the time it had ended he was quoted as saying “why would we quit? The band is playing better than ever.” Whatever the case as I look back on his entire career, he struck me as a man who, to quote one his song titles, was ‘Runnin’ down a Dream’.