Tom Petty, Rock Iconoclast Who Led the Heartbreakers, Dead at 66
Tom Petty, the dynamic and iconoclastic frontman who led the band the Heartbreakers, died Monday. He was 66. Petty’s death was confirmed by Tony Dimitriades, longtime manager of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, on behalf of the family.
“On behalf of the Tom Petty family, we are devastated to announce the untimely death of of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends,” Dimitriades wrote.
On Sunday, Petty was found unconscious, not breathing and in full cardiac arrest at his Malibu home, according to TMZ, where he was rushed to the hospital and placed on life support. EMTs were able to find a pulse when they found him, but TMZ reported that the hospital found no brain activity when he arrived. A decision was made to pull life support.
“It’s shocking, crushing news,” Petty’s friend and Traveling Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recently completed a summer tour last Monday with three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. The trek marked the band’s 40th anniversary and found him playing rarely played deep cuts like their first album’s opener, “Rockin’ Around (With You),” and a selection of Wildflowers cuts. It was intended to be his “last trip around the country.” He told Rolling Stone, though, that it wasn’t his intention to quit playing. “I need something to do, or I tend to be a nuisance around the house,” he said.
In the late 1970s, Petty’s romanticized tales of rebels, outcasts and refugees started climbing the pop charts. When he sang, his voice was filled with a heartfelt drama that perfectly complemented the Heartbreakers’ ragged rock & roll. Songs like “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Learning to Fly” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” all dominated Billboard’s rock chart, and the majority of Petty’s albums have been certified either gold or platinum. His most recent release, Hypnotic Eye, debuted at Number One in 2014. Petty, who also recorded as a solo artist and as a member of the Traveling Wilburys and Mudcrutch, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, the son of an insurance salesman, on October 20th, 1950. He quit high school at age 17 to join the southern-rock group Mudcrutch, which was taking off at the time. The group’s lineup featured guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, two musicians Petty would collaborate with for much of the next five decades. But while the band was taking off, they broke up upon moving to Los Angeles in the early Seventies.
Petty started his career in earnest in 1975 when he cut a demo with Campbell and Tench that also featured bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. They called themselves the Heartbreakers and recorded their debut, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which came out in 1976. It failed to make an impact at the time – the album’s lead single “Breakdown” didn’t even chart – but they picked up heat after touring England as support for future E Street Band member Nils Lofgren. They soon became headliners on the tour, with the album topping the U.K. chart.
The label reissued “Breakdown” in the U.S. and it reached the bottom rung of the Top 40 a year after its release. Subsequent singles from the group’s second LP, You’re Gonna Get It!, such as “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know” charted in the upper half of the pop chart. Around this time, one of Petty’s most apparent influences, the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, recorded a cover of the self-titled album’s closing track, “American Girl,” proving Petty’s ability to write hits.
But before the decade was up, Petty found himself bankrupt after the record label MCA attempted to buy out his contract from ABC Records, which distributed Petty’s original label. It took nine months of litigation for Petty to secure a new deal so he could put out the biggest record of his career, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, which reached Number Two on the album chart and has since been certified triple-platinum. The album contained the singles “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee,” establishing him as a full-fledged hitmaker.
Within two years, he was able to leverage this credibility in a standoff with MCA, which wanted to charge $9.98 for the follow-up LP to Damn the Torpedoes; Petty threatened to titled it $8.98 until they backed down and released the record, which contained “The Waiting,” under the name Hard Promises, in 1981. He later scored a Number Three hit later that year with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a duet with Stevie Nicks that appeared on her Bella Donna LP.
The years that followed would prove to be tumultuous for Petty, seeing the departure of Blair from the lineup as they worked painstakingly on what would become 1985’s Southern Accents; during this time, Petty became so frustrated that he punched a wall and broke his left hand. Nevertheless, it served as home to the Number 13 hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The following year, just as the band was about to set out on a tour supporting Bob Dylan, Petty’s house burned down – with arson being suspected – destroying most of his possessions. His wife, Jane Benyo, and two daughters were able to escape.
The latter part of the Eighties was marked by both a commercial disappointment, 1986’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), and a success, 1988’s Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1. The latter found Petty collaborating with Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, and it made it to Number Three on the album chart and was certified triple platinum on the strength of singles like “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line.” Petty followed this success into his first solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever (home to “Free Fallin'”), which Lynne produced.
Around this time, Petty also began making small overtures into acting, appearing in the 1987 comedy Made in Heaven and later in the reviled 1997 action film The Postman, which starred Kevin Costner. He’d find his acting niche by providing his voice to Mike Judge’s southern-themed comedy King of the Hill as Lucky, the husband of protagonist Hank Hill’s niece-in-law Luanne.