By Golda Fulmer
Tom Petty—a renown musician and singer—passed tragically, at the age of 66, on October 2, 2017, at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, CA. The cause of death was cardiac arrest early that morning, and his death was officially confirmed later that night, despite the confusion that afternoon. Petty was famous for being a part of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Traveling Wilburys, as well as having his own solo career.
Thomas Earl Petty was born on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida. By the age of 10, he developed a fascination for rock-and-roll, thanks to Elvis Presley, and his desire to be a part of a band came about when The Beatles performed live on the Ed Sullivan show. “I had never been hugely into sports…I had been a big fan of Elvis. But I really saw in the Beatles that here’s something I could do. I knew I could do it,” said Petty in a 2006 interview. He was so inspired that at the age of 17, Petty dropped out of high school to pursue playing bass in his first band.
Tom Petty’s life was filled with people in the limelight, which only further developed his interest in music. In 1961, Petty’s uncle worked on the set of Elvis Presley’s movie Follow That Dream, and Petty got to meet the King himself while visiting the set. In addition, he had the tutelage of Don Felder, one of the Eagles members, as one of his first guitar teachers. With all these influences building up his immense passion of rock n’ roll, Petty paved his humble way to eventually being one of the greatest rockers in modern history.
However, this path for his life was no bed of roses—the one person in Petty’s life that did not support his passion for the arts was his father. Regularly, his father would abuse him—verbally and physically—which needless to say resulted in a strained relationship between the two. Thankfully for Petty, he had his mother and his brother to fall back on when he needed support.
Tom Petty’s very first band was originally called The Epics, which later changed to Mudcrutch. They were popular in Gainesville and even released a single called “Depot Street” in ‘75, but it never made it to the charts. When the band split up, Petty went solo for a time, but still kept in touch with former members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, who later formed his own band. Eventually, the three reunited and recruited Ron Blair and Stan Lynch, forming Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It wasn’t long before the band gained popularity with their 1976 debut album entitled Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in America and an even greater following in Britain, so they then toured the United Kingdom. The band’s second album You’re Gonna Get It! spiked to their first Top 40 album, and their third album Damn the Torpedoes rapidly went platinum. And with these successes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were quickly peaking to global fame.
By 1979, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were touring in the U.S.A. and within the next couple years, they were collaborating with famous artists like Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead. However, in 1988, Petty was recruited to join the Traveling Wilburys, a band formed by former Beatles member George Harrison and had other music legends like Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne. With a few albums made and major hits like “End of the Line” and “Handle with Care,” the band thrived from 1988 until 1991, but Petty still continued to throw in these songs on his own tours in the 2000’s. During 1989, Tom Petty also continued to release music as a solo artist which includes songs like “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down” on his album Full Moon Fever. This album, though part of his solo career, was made possible with members from both Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Traveling Wilburys like Mike Campbell, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison.
In 1989, Petty secretly signed over to Warner Brothers Records, where the Wilburys were also signed, while still under contract with MCA Records. Eventually, in ‘91, he reunited with the rest of the Heartbreakers and released many popular singles which were featured on soundtracks for movies like She’s the One and a number of other films. He also still made albums and singles under his solo career and would collaborate with artists like Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac on the single “Walls” and Johnny Cash on his 1996 album Unchained. In 1999, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their last album titled Echo which reached to number 10 in the U.S. album charts.
As well as tribute performances, headlining many music festivals, and even some acting gigs, Petty continued to do what he did best until the day he died. His whole life could be due in large part to the little boy who looked up to renown rockers and musicians from an early age and the journey he made to create that life for himself—with some help along the way. His footprint in the music world will surely last for decades to come, and his presence in this world will be missed by millions around the globe. Rest easy, Tom.