By Chris Zuver, A&E Editor
Tom Petty was a man so famous that upon mere rumors of his death, the media leapt up and prematurely assumed them to be true. He was reported dead by CBS and “Rolling Stone” after an unconfirmed source told them. The reality was that he was put on life support after suffering cardiac arrest. However, late on October 2, his passing was made official: his family had ordered a “do not resuscitate” order after unplugging him from life-support and arranging a prayer.
Even in life, Petty was a legend. He wrote some of the most memorable rock songs that everyone could enjoy, without trading integrity for sounding watered down or uninspired. His personality was that of a rebel, but with a laid-back aura. He championed the outsiders because he was one of them, and through expressing this in his many hits, he invaded the mainstream.
Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1950. Having a moderate interest in sports and other activities as a kid, he found music to be his calling as he grew up. At the age of ten, he met Elvis Presley on a movie set and instantly became a fan. He traded in his Wham-O slingshot for a stack of Elvis 45’s. But there was something else he saw in his childhood that changed him.
Petty recalled in an essay: “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.” He was also a fan of rock group, The Rolling Stones, whom he claimed in a CBC interview to be “my punk music.” He saw this band and realized that if they could make it, then he also had a shot.
Petty’s father, who dismissed his interest, gave in after sensing his passion. He bought him his first guitar for $28.
“I didn’t ever think he’d make anything in music,” the senior Petty said years later in an interview with “The Sun” in 1990. “But I admired him for doing it; it made me feel good having somebody in the family that could play a tune, because none of the rest of us could.”
Starting in 9th grade, Petty played in local group, The Sundowners. Two years later, they broke up and Petty joined The Epics. Due to his continuing obsession with the music, he often skipped school. Ultimately, he graduated high school and continued on to college. However, in 1970, Petty dropped out to continue his career in the band Mudcrutch.
However, the band, in its first incarnation, was short-lived. After signing a record deal and going into the studio to record, members became upset that the producer focused mostly on recording Petty’s songs. Shortly after Mudcrutch’s first single, “Depot Street” was cut as a single, the band parted ways.
Petty decided to make a solo record. However, after realizing that he wasn’t interested in working with studio musicians, he ended up reuniting with members of Mudcrutch in 1976, but under a new name: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
The band would go on to become a reckoning force in the music industry, with Petty at the helm. With his easy-going, yet passionate songs, he would lead the group to ever-growing heights from the late 70’s into the 90’s and 2000’s.
After a couple of moderately-received releases, the real launch for the band began in in 1979, when, after a legal battle, they released their third album, “Damn the Torpedoes,” which included hits “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” It was also the point where the band ultimately decided that Tom would lead the band, despite his namesake already taking top priority.
Petty and company would continue to find success in 1981 with the release of “Hard Promises,” which included the hit “The Waiting.” In 1985 the band played the infamous Live Aid music festival. The early and mid-80’s saw the band dabble with new wave with songs like “You Got Lucky” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More,”
In 1988, Petty joined The Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup consisting of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. The band would release two albums in 1988 and 1990.
In 1989, Petty released his first solo album, “Full Moon Fever,” which spawned the hits “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and arguably his most famous song “Free Fallin’.”
As the next decade dawned, Petty reunited with The Heartbreakers and in 1991 they released “Into the Great Wide Open,” which featured a hit single of the same name. The song tells the story of a young man who finds success as a rock star, but then faces problems. A music video was shot for the song and features Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway.
In 1993, the band released a Greatest Hits compilation that included two new recordings, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air.” The album was certified Diamond by the RIAA and is the only Petty album to this day that has received such an honor.
Throughout the two decades that followed, Petty went on to do a wide range of projects. He released two more solo albums as well as five albums with The Heartbreakers, one of which was a soundtrack to the film “She’s the One.” He also reunited with his heyday band, Mudcrutch, and released two albums.
Besides playing and recording music, Petty also began hosting a radio show called “Buried Treasure” on XM in 2005. In the show, Petty played songs from his personal record collection.
Petty also did some acting. He appeared in films including “FM,” “Made in Heaven,” and “The Postman.” He also had a voice-acting cameo as himself in The Simpsons as a one-off as well as a recurring role in King of the Hill, where he voiced the character Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt.
Of course, it is the music that Petty has been and will be remembered for. Some numbers have become so popular and universal that there have been cases of alleged and even admitted plagiarism by other artists.
In an interview with “Rolling Stone,” Petty was asked what he thought of the accusations many had made of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose song “Dani California” has a similar melody to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Petty replied, “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ for their song ‘Last Nite’, and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud.”
More recently, in 2015, the songwriters behind pop singer Sam Smith’s single “Stay with Me,” acknowledged its similarities to Petty’s hit “I Won’t Back Down.” Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne ended up receiving royalties for the song. In regards to the situation, Petty clarified in “Rolling Stone” that he did not believe Smith plagiarized him. He stated, “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.”
Petty was staunchly protective of his music and creative rights. However, his moderate approach to giving the benefit of the doubt made him not just a powerful songwriter, performer, and icon, but a class-act as well.
At the University of Florida, there is an urban legend that Tom Petty, during his time there as a groundskeeper, planted an Ogeechee lime tree on campus that survives to this day. Though Petty had claimed that he didn’t remember planting any trees, the rumors of the “Tom Petty tree” live on.
And so does the legacy of Petty. Immediately following the premature confirmation of his death, Bob Dylan spoke to “The Daily Beast,” stating “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.”
In a statement, singer/songwriter Eric Clapton said, “I’m shocked and saddened by the news of Tom’s passing, he’s such a huge part of our musical history, there’ll never be another like him.”
Many other musicians and groups conveyed their woes for Petty through social media including Slash, Bon Jovi, Jimmy Eat World, Paul Stanley, Peter Gabriel, John Mayer, and many more.
The day after Petty’s death, Dave Matthews, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin took the stage at the Moore Theatre in Seattle for a benefit show. During the performance, the four of them played an impromptu cover of Petty’s hit “Refugee.”
On October 5, country singer Gavin DeGraw was joined on stage by pro golfer John Daly at the Safeway Open Concert Series. The two of them went into a rendition of “I Won’t Back Down,” which the crowd sang along to with ovation while waving lighters.
And while it is already become a cliché to use the song’s title to describe Petty and his career, it is undoubtedly true: Tom Petty did not back down. As a child, he fought to earn his first guitar and enter the world of music. In his career, he fought for creative control of his songs and recording contracts. His lyrics were often bold and inspiring, unyielding and without apology. Even in his final hours, he held to life after headlines claimed he had passed.
Tom Petty was and is a legend and can serve as an inspiration for many the world over. Not just for musicians, but for any person who has a dream and must work their way against the grain to achieve it. Such a strong spirit is rare and the world will miss him. For many, there is a place in the heart that may never feel the same.