Tom Petty at Summerfest 2013 in Milwaukee, WI. (Source: Larry Philpot)
Tom Petty, singer, songwriter, guitarist, and record producer; suffered cardiac arrest and passed away this Monday, October 2, 2017, in Santa Monica, California at the age of 66.
Just 2 weeks ago, Petty and his band The Heartbreakers had their 40th anniversary tour at the end of three sold-out nights at Hollywood Bowl. On the last day, September 25, Petty ended the concert with “American Girl”, one of the fans’ all-time favorites from their debut album.
By that point of time, he had played “American Girl” hundreds of times. “If I was a fan and they didn’t play ‘American Girl’ or ‘Free Fallin’’ I’d be disappointed.” Petty told Rolling Stone before the tour. After the encore performance, Petty and the band bowed and thanked the screaming audience. The fan, Kim Roberts, who recorded the encore performance would probably not expect that it would become Petty’s last performance on the stage.
Born and raised in Florida, Petty first earned his prominence in the late 70s with his band, the Heartbreakers, and moved to California. They quickly gained popularity with the mainstream audience with their second album You’re Gonna Get It! first entering Top 40, and their third album Damn the Torpedoes selling nearly 2 million copies.
Since the 1980s, Petty started experimenting with various subgenres, ranging from classic, southern, country to New Wave, Grunge, dance pop – “Anything that was rock n’ roll.” No matter which subgenre that Petty was into, he kept his music down-to-earth. In 1988, He joined Traveling Wilburys, which also included some of Petty’s early influences: Bob Dylan, Roy Orbinson, and Jeff Lynne. When Petty released his first solo album Full Moon Fever in 1989, it took his musical career to a new level. As he sang in the hit song “I Won’t Back Down” from the album: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I won’t back down.” Petty always spoke for underdogs with hardheaded lyrics.
Petty refused to follow the trend in rock that became more “glamorous” in the late 80s. He later proved that his music is enduring as The Heartbreakers’ 1993 collection of “Greatest Hits” stayed on the Billboard album chart for six years. By the end of the 20th century, Petty had sold 80 million records worldwide, and the “Greatest Hits” alone had sold 10 million copies and received diamond certification by RIAA. Even today, Petty maintains the record of 28 top 10 hits on the Mainstream Rock songs airplay charts.
Petty had been a hard-working musician throughout his career, with constant productivity on songwriting and producing. In his last interview with Randy Lewis from Los Angeles Times, he compared songwriting to fishing, “It’s kind of a lonely work, because you just have to keep your pole in the water.” He said, “I just remember being excited when I had a song done, and I knew I had a song in my pocket, I always felt really excited about it.”
The reporter, Lewis, was in grief as he wrote about his last interview with Petty, “As we sat, just a few days earlier, he was vibrant, full of enthusiasm, still the epitome of the coolest rock star you’d want to sit down for a chat with.” We are with Lewis, mourning the loss of the talented and prolific musician. May his unyielding soul rest in peace.