Tom Petty: A quiet, unassuming rock legend
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first album in 1976, few could have imagined they would become one of America’s biggest touring bands.
They were a scrappy, gritty garage band – initially lumped in with the punk and New Wave scenes.
But Petty, the son of a Florida insurance man, had an uncanny knack for melody that turned the band into one of the biggest acts of the 1980s.
Songs like Free Fallin’, Running Down A Dream and American Girl (the final track on that debut album) have become rock standards.
They’re so integral to the fabric of popular music that Sam Smith unintentionally lifted the melody for I Won’t Back Down on his breakthrough single, Stay With Me.
Ever the gentleman, Petty refused to take Smith to court, and declared he had “no hard feelings” towards the British star.
“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.”
He was eventually given a co-writing credit on the song.
According to legend, the singer devoted his life to music after shaking Elvis Presley’s hand in the 1950s. He traded his slingshot for a box of records and never looked back.
Aged 17, he dropped out of school to join Mudcrutch with future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards).
The band learned their craft by listening to pop radio, he once told NPR.
“When I was 15 or 16, we used to sit in the car and try to write the lyrics down as the song was playing,” he said.
“We’d assign each person a verse. Sometimes you’d wait an hour for it to come on again so you could finish it off.”
They practised the hits of the Yardbirds, The Beatles and The Byrds – all of whom you can trace in the hits of the Heartbreakers.
In the early 1970s, they moved to Los Angeles in the hope of scoring a record contract. Petty succeeded, but the band fell apart soon after.
It wasn’t until 1975 that they reunited – after Petty heard a demo that Campbell and Tench were working on with Ron Blair and Stan Lynch.
The Heartbreakers were duly formed, and the quintet released their self-titled debut a year later.
It tanked in the US, but the band started to gain a reputation in the UK, where they were the support act for Nils Lofgren. Within a few months, the band was headlining its own tour, and the album entered the chart on both sides of the Atlantic.
But it was their third record, Damn the Torpedoes, that cemented the band’s reputation.
Featuring their first bona fide hit singles, Don’t Do Me Like That and Refugee, the record went triple platinum in the US. Rolling Stone magazine praised the record for capturing the “sound of a live band playing”, and neatly summarised Petty’s appeal.
“If Bruce Springsteen was tracking down the specifics of place and a particular class experience, making little movies in song, Petty was making music that, on the surface, seemed far less ambitious. But he created modest scenes that listeners could identify with in deep, lasting ways.”
That became his stock in trade – calmly searching lyrics that resonated with millions of Americans.
His craftsmanship won the admiration of former heroes like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison, with whom he formed The Traveling Wilburys at the end of the 80s.
“The great thing about the Wilburys was that none of us had to take the heat by ourselves,” he recalled. “I was just a member of the band. Nobody felt like he was above anybody else. We had such a good time.”
The project was a necessary antidote after a turbulent couple of years.