One of the most iconic rock musicians of his era, Tom Petty, died at his Malibu home in California. He suffered a cardiac arrest. Petty was taken to the hospital, but all attempts to revive him went in vain. Petty, best known as the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, breathed his last later in the evening on October 2.
Tom Petty was born to Earl Petty and Kitty Petty in Gainsville, Florida on October 20, 1950. While his relationship with his father, an insurance man, was always rough, Petty was very fond of his mother. Not much interested in studies, Tom had a natural inclination to music. Angry at his son’s interest in arts, Earl Petty regularly inflicted violence on Tom. Subjected to verbal and physical abuse from his father, Tom found solace in music. However, Tom was steadfast in pursuing his passion for music. His greatest influences were the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Beginning of His Music Career
While in school, Petty started a group called the Epics. By 17, the Epics had evolved into Mudcrutch, and Petty emerged as the band’s frontman. With Petty’s soulful writing accompanied by some cool music, the band soon developed a decent local following.
Starting with Failure
Encouraged by its local success, the band planned to reach out to a wider audience and moved to Los Angeles. The band was signed by Shelter Records, but their only single, “Depot Street” turned out to be a damp squib. Mudcrutch quickly disintegrated, but the record label encouraged Tom Petty to go solo. Petty was deeply disappointed with this early failure, but he never gave up.
Laying the Foundation for Success
While agreeing to go solo, Petty was always fascinated with his own band. So, he kept working on putting together a group. Things went full circle with Petty bringing back his Mudcrutch bandmates, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. With Stand Lynch and Ron Blair joining as well, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was born in 1976. The band’s self-titled debut album came out in 1976 with abysmal sales. Things, however, changed with a tour of the United Kingdom. Eventually, the album became a massive hit in Britain. In the US, though, it still found only limited success. But, the band was persistent. It re-released the single, “Breakdown” in the US where it reached No. 40 on the charts. It was the band’s first real success in the US.
The band’s second album, You’re Gonna Get it, was an even greater hit. It reached No. 23 on charts. The album featured their smash hits, “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know.”
The band was going well when fate put a spanner in the wheel. MCA brought Shelter Records, and Tom Petty tried to renegotiate the contract with MCA. He refused his transfer to MCA without his consent. The legal proceedings left Petty hassled, frustrated, and bankrupt.
Irrespective of all the distractions and financial distress, Petty and his band continued striving to make good music. Their third album, Damn the Torpedoes, released in 1979 and went on to sell close to three million albums. The band had well and truly arrived. Their faith in their art and skills had paid off. Featuring several great songs, the album had class written all over it and quickly reached No. 2 on charts. Singles such as “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” made even the non-followers sit up and take notice.
Standing His Ground
When MCA decided to increase the price of their next album from $8.98 to $9.98, Petty put down his foot. The label budged and retained the standard price of $8.98. The album, Hard Promises, gave the group its first No. 1 single, “The Waiting.”
Petty displayed his strong belief on always siding with music fans against the might of record labels. In 1999, he insisted on the single, “Free Girl Now,” to be offered as a free download. He also strongly advised against increasing the ticket price for his worldwide tour shows.
Paying the Price of Fame
With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ success reaching new heights, frictions and tiffs were inevitable. The band members started having differences, with the drummer, Ron Blair quitting the band. The band also tried experimenting with new musicians and backup singers, which didn’t come off well. Petty grew frustrated and much disappointed with the constant bickering and clashes. Petty’s marriage too went through a rough patch.
Facing problems on all fronts, Tom Petty dug in his heels deep and continued working on the next album, Southern Accents.
The album was a moderate success, featuring some brilliant songs such as “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
In 1986, Petty and his family faced a threat when their house was gutted in a fire. It was an arson attack that destroyed most of Petty’s belongings, but he along with his family escaped. Petty later recalled, “It’s very hard to even believe that someone wants to kill you.” The incident, instead of scaring him, made him even more resolute. That resulted in his new song titled, “I Won’t Back Down.” His record label, MCA, refused to go with his debut solo album featuring the song saying it’s an average record.
Not satisfied with just creating albums in the studio, Petty always strived to reinvent himself. While still being part of his band, the later years saw Tom Petty collaborating with legendary artists such as Bob Dylan and George Harrison. Petty’s partnership with Harrison, Jeff Lyne, and Roy Orbison resulted in Traveling Wilburys. The self-titled album went triple platinum and won a Grammy as well.
Petty convinced MCA to go ahead with his solo album, unchanged, that the label had refused to release earlier. The album, Full Moon Fever, turned out to be the biggest selling album of Petty’s career. “Free Fallin” went on to become a rage and played a great role in the album’s success.
Despite finding success as a solo artist and collaborating with other musicians, Petty never left his original bandmates. In 1991, the band’s new album, Into the Great Wide Open, came out that went multi-platinum. The band and Petty toured heavily around the world in the coming years.
In 1996, Petty and his wife divorced, ending years of their tumultuous personal lives. During that period, Petty also developed heroine addiction. By the turn of the next millennium, however, Petty presented his new self. He had successfully kicked away his heroine addiction and married Dana York. Petty and the Heartbreakers released their 11th album, The Last DJ, in 2002, the same year Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ron Blair, who had left earlier, also rejoined the group. In 2005, Petty received Billboard Century Award, the highest honor from Billboard acknowledging unmatched creative achievements.
2008 witnessed Petty going back to his roots, forming again Mudcrutch and re-recording their debut album. 2014 saw Hypnotic Eye, the 13th album from Petty and the Heartbreakers. The album reached No. 1 on charts, the band’s first one to do so.
Tom Petty has been a true representative of the spirit of Strive. Starting from a difficult childhood, he believed in himself and his music and constantly strived to make great music. His perseverance, hard work, and never-say-die spirit made him one of the greatest rock musicians ever.
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