On Tom Petty’s birthday, October 20, we remember 6 reasons why we loved the man and his music.
I’ve been listening to Tom Petty since the womb. My mom is undoubtedly his biggest fan. She calls him, simply, “Thomas” and always has. My first concert? Tom Petty. The first time music brought me to tears? Tom Petty. My first crush? The girl from Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” video. That “good girl” who loves her mama, Jesus, America, Elvis, horses and her boyfriend too.
I’ve been obsessed with Tom Petty my whole life. I’ve learned most of his songs on guitar. I’ve seen Runnin’ Down a Dream, Peter Bogdanovich’s excellent documentary on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and savored every word of Paul Zollo’s Conversations With Tom Petty and Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes — all of which I highly recommend.
So when news hit on October 2, 2017, that Tom Petty had suddenly died at 66 years old, it hit hard. A piece of me — a piece of all of us — died. And the world got a little less cool.
Tom Petty was an American legend. Here are six reasons why.
1. Tom Petty was a multi-instrumentalist.
Tom Petty is almost always depicted with a guitar, from the awesome Rickenbacker on the cover of Damn the Torpedoes, to a variety of gorgeous Gibson acoustics. And rightly so. As the leader of the Heartbreakers, he most often played rhythm guitar.
But in one of his first groups, Mudcrutch, formed in 1970, he played bass guitar. And when Mudcrutch re-formed in 2007, he picked the bass back up and set his guitar aside. The song “Crystal River” from their self-titled album features some groovy bass playing by “Thomas.”
Throughout his career, he also played harmonica, piano, organ, keyboards and tambourine, and on the 2006 album Highway Companion, he took a seat behind the drum kit in addition to playing virtually everything else on the album (with some help from Mike Campbell and Jeff Lynne).
Playing so many different instruments helped make Petty one of the greatest songwriters and bandleaders in American history.
2. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were once Bob Dylan’s backup band.
In 1986 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers went on tour with Bob Dylan, whom Petty cites as one of his biggest songwriting influences. But the True Confessions Tour was no ordinary one, because Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers acted as Dylan’s backup band, playing sets that were heavy on Dylan’s material with a few choice Petty cuts interspersed.
“If you’re going to play with Bob,” said Petty, “it’s a little like playing with a jazz artist. They improvise…. Every night we’d do something we hadn’t done…. I learned so much from Bob Dylan. He gave us a kind of courage that we never had…. You really learned the value of spontaneity…. It was good for me to step back and see what it’s like to back somebody up.”
3. They were also once Johnny Cash’s backup band.
When Johnny Cash recorded his 1996 album Unchained, he was backed in the studio by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (along with some additional special guests). Produced by Rick Rubin, who produced Petty’s ’90s albums Wildflowers and Echo, as well as the hit song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Unchained features a stellar version of Petty’s “Southern Accents.”
On working with Johnny Cash, Petty said in his typical no-nonsense way, “We were kinda interested in all forms of American music — pure forms of it. Not what they would call country today. What they would call country today is sort of like bad rock groups with a fiddle.”
4. Tom Petty was an actor.
In addition to starring in his own groundbreaking music videos — most famously as the Mad Hatter in the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” — Petty had a side gig as an actor stretching back to a cameo in 1978’s FM.
His biggest credit was playing the character Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt on King of the Hill, a hillbilly who “slipped on pee pee at the Costco” and received a cash settlement. But he also appeared on The Larry Sanders Show and as the Bridge City mayor in Kevin Costner’s The Postman, not to mention his memorable guest spot teaching a lyrics workshop on The Simpsons.
5. Tom Petty wrote his biggest solo hit, “Free Fallin’,” as a joke.
Songwriting can be an arduous process — or a surprisingly simple one. In the case of “Free Fallin’,” the song practically wrote itself, and it all started as a joke.
In 1989 Petty collaborated with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne to produce his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, a collaboration that also eventually spawned Into the Great Wide Open and Highway Companion, as well as two albums by the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup Petty formed with Jeff Lynne (“Otis Wilbury”), Bob Dylan (“Lucky Wilbury”), Roy Orbison (“Lefty Wilbury”) and George Harrison (“Nelson Wilbury”). Petty’s nickname in the group was Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr.
According to Petty, “Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song, and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song…. Then, really just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing. Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff, but then I got to the chorus of the song, and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling.’
“And I went to sing that and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.’ So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘free,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast…. So we went in and made the record that [next] day.”
If you read the lyrics of “Free Fallin’,” especially the opening verse, it does seem rather like a joke, but aside from “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Stevie Nicks, “Free Fallin’” was the biggest hit of Petty’s 40-year career — a career defined by hit songs.
6. Tom Petty fought to keep record prices down and stood in opposition to greedy record companies trying to take advantage of fans and artists.
In 1978, early in Petty’s career, he signed over 100% of the publishing rights to his songs for a $10,000 advance, believing that “publishing” only referred to sheet music and songbooks. He found out later that he’d signed over the copyrights and, therefore, the royalties to his songs. His record deal at the time wasn’t much better. Suffice it to say, Petty was pissed.
The story is somewhat convoluted and involves a protracted legal battle with MCA records, but the end result was that Petty filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. “If you’re bankrupt,” he said, “all contracts are void.” He used this power play and his leverage as a star to eventually sign a much better deal with MCA, regaining some of his publishing rights as well.
In 1981, however, MCA wanted to release his new album Hard Promises with the new list price of $9.98. The usual list price of a record at that time was $8.98. Petty fought the price hike in the press and threatened to not deliver the album or to change its title to Eight Ninety-Eight, an action which resulted in MCA releasing the album at the standard list price of $8.98.
In the early 2000s, Petty once again stood against greed in the music industry, capping his concert ticket prices at $65 (comparable artists were charging about $150 for similar tickets at that time). He wanted to ensure that as many fans as possible could afford to see his concerts, and, even with the price cap, Petty still admitted he made “millions on the road.”
In 2002 Petty released his most topical album, The Last DJ. It was in many ways a concept album about greed in the music industry and other things that pissed Petty off. Throughout his career, Petty always stood up for fans and artists.
There’s a famous quote about the music industry, often incorrectly attributed to Hunter S. Thompson, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” Maybe that’s why we love Tom Petty so much. His songs are great — some of the best rock songs ever written — but the man himself is also a legend. To function within that “cruel and shallow money trench” for 40 years and to remain true to himself and his fans is nothing short of a miracle.