Today, Tom Petty’s backing band’s name became very apt when we heard the news that Tom Petty had died aged just 66. He had been in good health because just two weeks ago Tom and the Heartbreakers had completed a 40th anniversary tour concluding with a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Tom was born Thomas Earl Petty in Gainesville, Florida on October 20 1950 and his interest in music began in 1960 when he was fortunate enough to meet Elvis Presley. He dropped out of High School to join the band Mudcrutch. He said in a 2006 interview with Fresh Air, “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show — and it’s true of thousands of guys — 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 decided to learn guitar and one of his early teachers was former Eagle Don Felder. In 1976 he formed a band that called The Epics which later evolved into the Heartbreakers, the band included his long-term keyboard player Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell to whom Tom once said “You’re gonna be in my band forever” after he saw him perform a version of Johnny B. Goode. The other two members in the original line-up were Ron Blair on bass and Stan Lynch on drums. In a 2017 interview in Rolling Stone, Campbell said, “We grew up together and we love playing together more than playing with anybody else. We’ve been through so much together. I don’t want to name names, but a lot of bands go out together and they just don’t like each other. They’re making a lot of money and just clocking in. We’ve never been like that, and we have a chemistry and a telepathy between us that is really rare.”
He first hit the US came in November 1977 with Breakdown but had to wait two years for his first top 10 hit which was Don’t Do Me Like That. He charted 28 American hit singles, the biggest being Free Fallin’ which reached number seven in 1989. In the UK his chart career was less successful first appearing in 1977 with Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll which got to 36, but his biggest UK hit was I Won’t Back Down which peaked at number 28 in 1989 and featured George Harrison on backing vocals. Clearly 1989 was his best year.
In addition to his career with and without the Heartbreakers, he was, in 1988, invited to join the Traveling Wilbury’s, a supergroup that included Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Their debut single, Handle With Care, was co-written by all members and originally intended as a b side to a George Harrison single, but the record company decided it was too good to be tucked away on the flip, so decided to release it as an a side and it went to number 21. The track was produced by Otis & Nelson Wilbury who were Jeff Lynne and George Harrison respectively. Roy was known as Lefty, Dylan as Lucky or Boo and Tom was Charlie T. Jr. or Muddy Wilbury. Their follow-up, End of the Line nearly was because, bizarrely, it stalled at number 52.
In 2002 he released the brilliant album The Last DJ, which fairly criticised the music industry of being greedy and belittling its worth by using half dressed women in video’s to sell music. The title track was very much in the vein of Harry Chapin’s W.O.L.D and Mark Germino’s Rex Bob Lowenstein which both had a fair swipe at radio for becoming bland and boring and playing almost non-stop pop songs as well as losing the personality DJ.
In 2007 he was one of a number of artists who recorded a tribute album to Fats Domino who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina. Tom recorded I’m Walkin’ and all money raised helped to pay for new musical instruments a various schools in New Orleans.
In 2014, Tom charted his 18th UK album with Hypnotic Eye which gave him his second highest charting album and his first top 10 studio album since 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open. The American TV station TMZ were, as usual, the first to break the news and reported that Tom had suffered a full cardiac arrest and was found unconscious and not breathing in his Malibu home Sunday night. He was on a life-support machine but he was taken off it when he was showing no sign of brain activity.
Towards the end of the recent tour he gave an interview to Rolling Stone saying, “It’s very likely we’ll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don’t think so. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one. We’re all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road. This tour will take me away for four months. With a little kid, that’s a lot of time.”