Earlier this month a musical icon passed away. Thomas Earl Petty. A man with a back catalogue to rival many in the industry; the world was shocked to hear of his cardiac arrest which eventually killed him. At the age of 66 it feels too soon. Many of his peers flocked to pay homage with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Mayer leading the tributes along with a host of stars from the musical and entertainment world. He has sold over 80 million records worldwide and written some of the most recognisable music to ever grace our ears.
As a Florida born boy he grew up idolising Elvis and The Beatles, with the latter’s knack for exquisite pop writing and melody being evident throughout Petty’s career.
He began his career in the band Mudcrutch (formerly known as Epics) a band who lean heavily on the country and southern rock sound Tom infused into his work with the Heartbreakers. Mudcrutch would not release a full album until 2008 over 30 years after they were birthed. Both albums charted in the top 10 and received good reviews from critics, Mudcrutch 2 turned out to be his last studio album.
In 1976 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers rose from the ashes of his aforementioned band whilst bringing two of his mates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench along with him. They released their self-titled debut in the same year to little fanfare before a tour across the pond gave them deserved exposure. It features two of Petty’s biggest singles in “Breakdown” and American Girl” meaning it is now considered to be a highly influential album in rock history. The Strokes have admitted to lifting the famous riff in “American Girl” for their own hit “Last Nite”, something which has happened numerous times in his career with Red Hot Chili Peppers and famously Sam Smith. But ever the gentlemen he never sued believing it wasn’t worth his time and instead taking it as a compliment. Believing that sometimes these things can simply happen by accident.
The follow up “You’re Gonna Get It” released in 1978 also garnered little praise with album sales only faring slightly better than its predecessor. His signature sound and the bands excellent song writing are demonstrated in abundance. It would only be a matter of time until Tom and his band got admiration from fans and critics alike. This came in the form of “Damn the Torpedoes” which has gone triple platinum in the US alone, and was his first foray into the top 3 on the charts. An album which starts off with two of his biggest hits in “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl” but it features a truckload of quality deep cuts resulting in a well-rounded gem.
The subsequent releases kept the hits coming, with his song writing evolving and his pop sensibilities coming to the fore. Free Fallin’ and Last Chance with Mary Jane (my personal favourite) being amongst his more recognisable household tracks. The supergroup The Traveling Wilburys with the Dylan, Springsteen, Jeff Lynch, Roy Orbison and George Harrison were born around the time of the height of Toms fame. He has subsequently mentioned this time period with the band as being some of his most creatively exhilarating, without a singular star in the group he felt everyone was equal and could write music without pressure. It spoke volumes to his character and talent that other legends considered him their equal, but that’s something we already knew.
Venturing into film Tom was never afraid to do things his own way and extending his creative vision into other formats. Being a champion of artistic freedom, even fighting his record labels to gain control. He steered his own ship.
He continued to write music up until the present day and extensively toured in his later life after a brief stint out of the limelight whilst dealing with addiction problems. He serves as a stalwart of American rock music being introduced into the Rock’n’Roll hall of fame in 2002 and winning 3 Grammy’s.
Tom Petty served as an inspiration to many artists and performers throughout his lifetime, and will remain one of the most beloved musicians ever. He will be sourly missed.