Tom Petty, Heartbreakers frontman who sang 'Breakdown,' 'Free Fallin' ' and other hits, dies at 66

By RANDY LEWIS
Los Angeles Times
October 03. 2017 3:02AM
Singer Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform during the halftime show of Super Bowl XLII between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3, 2008. (REUTERS/Jeff Haynes/File Photo)

LOS ANGELES — Tom Petty rode to the pinnacle of pop music stardom with his beloved and long-running rock band the Heartbreakers, born out of the ashes of a group that flopped when he brought them from Gainesville, Fla., to California in the mid-1970s. He emerged as one of the most vocal and tireless champions of artistic integrity and musical purity in the record business.

Reportedly found unconscious at his Malibu home on Sunday night, Petty was rushed to UCLA’s Santa Monica hospital in full cardiac arrest and died Monday at 66. For hours, multiple media outlets reported his death only to retract those reports; his death was confirmed Monday night by his family’s spokeswoman. A cause has not been announced.

The family’s spokeswoman, publicist Carla Sacks, released this statement Monday night: “On behalf of the Tom Petty family, we are devastated to announce the untimely death 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. — Tony Dimitriades, longtime manager of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on behalf of the family.”

Petty had just completed an extensive tour to mark the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary. It concluded Sept. 25 with a three-night homecoming stand that sold out at the Hollywood Bowl.

“It’s shocking, crushing news,” his longtime friend and collaborator Bob Dylan said. “I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”

Petty and his mates distilled a signature sound that was as influenced as much by The Byrds as the Beatles, with the swagger of the Rolling Stones and some doses of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and soul stirrings of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke thrown in.

Initially lumped in with the burgeoning punk rock scene, and later affiliated more with the singer-songwriter-focused new wave movement, Petty and the Heartbreakers rose to fame in 1977 with their first Top 40 single, the sultry, bluesy hit “Breakdown.”

It was a breath of fresh air amid a rising tide of “corporate rock” bands — such as Kansas, Foreigner, Bad Company and Journey — that boasted stellar musicianship but produced often faceless music.

Petty and his cohorts rejuvenated a more stripped-down, passion-filled, elemental form of rock ’n’ roll that they had soaked up in the ’50s and ’60s, and which manifested in nearly 30 singles that made Billboard’s Hot 100 sales ranking.

Songs such as “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” featuring Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks, “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Free Fallin’,” “Listen To Her Heart,” “The Waiting,” and “Learning to Fly” quickly became staples of Top 40 and FM radio playlists.

The group churned out hit album after hit album as well. The biggest included: “Damn the Torpedoes” from 1979, “Hard Promises” in 1981, “The Last DJ” in 2002, and “Mojo” in 2010. ("Mojo” entered the chart and peaked at No. 2, 30 years into the band’s career.)

Petty also recorded several successful solo albums, which often included most or all members of the Heartbreakers performing. His first, 1989’s “Full Moon Fever,” reached No. 3, followed by “Wildflowers” in 1994 and “Highway Companion” in 2006.

He carved out a niche as one of rock’s most beloved figures, respected by both peers and fans. Far from textbook handsome rock stars such as Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen, or an antihero such as Mick Jagger or Lou Reed, Petty had an everyman quality that he also brought to his songs, which often were collaborations with guitarist Campbell, who largely wrote music, leaving the lyrics to Petty.

Though couched as a cautionary note to a romantic rival, the song “Listen to Her Heart,” from the group’s 1978 sophomore album “You’re Gonna Get It,” was also an allegory about the music industry forces Petty felt were attempting to subvert the music he loved.

“You think you’re gonna take her away / with your money and your cocaine / You keep thinking that her mind is gonna change / But I know everything is OK / She’s gonna listen to her heart.”

The Florida-bred singer and songwriter became a member of rock music’s elite, and in the late 1980s was central in creating one of its most revered supergroups, the Traveling Wilburys, a short-lived ensemble that featured Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, along with the Heartbreakers, collecting three Grammy Awards and 18 nominations over the years.

Meeting Elvis at 10

Thomas Earl Petty was born Oct. 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Fla., the first child of Earl and Katherine “Kitty” Petty. Petty had a difficult relationship with his father, and cited a particularly brutal beating he received at age 5 that stayed with him for life.

The young Petty showed little interest in school, and was more interested in watching favorite TV westerns such as “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Rifleman.” When an uncle facilitated a film shot in Florida, Petty’s aunt invited him to the set. There, at 10 years old, he met one of his biggest musical heroes, Elvis Presley, who was starring in “Follow That Dream.”

“Within days, Petty says, he traded his slingshot for a box of 45s, many of them Presley classics,” musician and author Warren Zanes wrote in his 2015 book “Petty: The Biography.” “Elvis became a symbol of a place Tom Petty wanted to go. In time, the Beatles would be the map to get there.”

As with so many young music fans at the time, The Beatles’ appearance on Feb. 9, 1964, on “The Ed Sullivan Show” had an equally galvanizing effect.

“When I was a kid, I would have loved to have been a rock ’n’ roll star,” he told Zanes. “I just didn’t understand how you got to be one. How did you suddenly have a mohair suit and an orchestra? But the minute I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan — and it’s true for thousands of us — there was a way to do it.”

One of his earliest groups was called the Sundowners, and among the first songs they learned, to perform at a local dance for teens, was Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs’ 1965 Tex-Mex party hit “Wooly Bully.”

“The first time you count four and, suddenly, rock ’n’ roll is playing — it’s bigger than life itself,” Petty told Zanes. “It was the greatest moment in my experience, really.”

After the Sundowners, he played in the Epics, which evolved into Mudcrutch, a blues-R&B-rock-soul group that included guitarists Mike Campbell and Tom Leadon, keyboardist Benmont Tench III, drummer Randall Marsh and Petty, then playing bass.

Early on, Petty recognized the importance of writing original material, so he, Campbell and other band members tried their hands at songwriting. They also took note of what happened when Leadon’s older brother — multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon — had abandoned Gainesville for Los Angeles: After playing with the influential country-rock group the Flying Burrito Brothers, he was invited to join a new group blending country and rock elements called the Eagles.

Mudcrutch threw what little resources they had together, piled in a couple of vehicles and headed west. Along the way, they were invited to stop at the Tulsa, Okla., offices of Shelter Records, where they made a few recordings before continuing on to L.A. In 1975, Shelter released a debut single from Mudcrutch, “Depot City,” which quickly flopped.

Other labels turned down the group, which then disbanded. Tench landed some free recording studio time at the Village in west Los Angeles, and without money to hire other musicians, he invited Petty and Campbell, along with a couple of other musicians who’d made the cross-country trek from Florida, drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair.

When Petty showed up, he often said later, he quickly determined that the revised unit had potential. They began working on new songs, and recorded what would be released in 1976 as their debut album, “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.”

One of the earliest supporters of the act was the Los Angeles Times’ then-pop music critic Robert Hilburn, who initially wrote a qualified endorsement of the album: “It’s all in the formative stage, but promising.”

After spending more time with it, and going to see the group perform in San Francisco, Hilburn took an unusual step for a major media critic — he gave it a second, much more enthusiastic review, which longtime manager Tony Dimitriades said helped to galvanize industry interest.

“Like the best of the Rolling Stones, Petty’s music gains with repeated playing,” Hilburn wrote. “What appeared initially to be slightly off-center and fragmented has become a strikingly seductive, expertly woven rock ’n’ roll mosaic. It’s the strongest dose of pure, mainstream rock by an American band since Aerosmith’s ’Rocks.’ ”

The debut album peaked at No. 55 in Billboard. The follow-up, “You’re Gonna Get It,” pushed the group into the Top 30, reaching as high as No. 23 in 1978.

The big breakthrough came with the Heartbreakers’ introduction to an engineer who would become one of the entertainment world’s biggest movers and shakers. For their third album, “Damn the Torpedoes,” Jimmy Iovine took over as their producer, and the album’s creation story has become part of music industry mythology.

As the recording got underway, Shelter Records hit financial hard times and the company’s assets and artist roster was transferred lock, stock and barrel to parent company MCA Records. Petty objected, saying he wasn’t interested in being part of such a corporate giant.

In a risky but ultimately successful legal gambit, he declared bankruptcy, which nullified old contracts. Starting from scratch, he was able to negotiate a label imprint of his own, Backstreet Records. It was on this label that he eventually released “Damn the Torpedoes,” which found the band at a new creative peak, bristling with vibrant songs including “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers” and “Louisiana Rain.”

His batting average remained impressively high over 40 years, and he even got a couple of victory laps for Mudcrutch, which reunited in 2008 to record a proper album. “Mudcrutch” reached No. 8 in Billboard, an honorable valedictory performance.

The reunited quintet went on a limited tour in small-scale theaters, which Petty, Campbell and Tench said was a liberating change from the large-scale facilities the Heartbreakers were used to playing, and recorded a second album last year, “Mudcrutch 2,” peaking at No. 10, and another tour was organized.

But the pendulum swung back once again to the Heartbreakers, and in April, the group embarked on what the band members called the longest, most taxing, most lucrative and most rewarding tour of their career.

Petty’s death was a shock to fans and friends alike. In August, a case of laryngitis forced him to postpone some performances on the 40th anniversary tour.

“It was scary,” he told the Times last week, in one of his final interviews. “It was very scary.”

But after several days of vocal rest, he was able to complete those shows, albeit a week late, then make a headline performance on Sept. 17 at the KaaBoo Music Festival in Del Mar, Calif., en route to the homecoming shows at the Bowl on Sept. 21, 22 and 25.

Two days after the final performance, he rejected reports that the 40th anniversary string of shows would be the group’s swan song.

“Why would we quit?” he said. “The band is playing better than ever.”

Petty survivors include his wife, Dana; two daughters, Adria and Annakim; Dana’s son, Dylan; and Petty’s younger brother, Bruce. No services have been announced.


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