Tom Petty, Heartbreakers frontman who sang ‘Breakdown,’ ‘Free Fallin” and other hits, dies at 66 – Los Angeles Times
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.
“On behalf of the Tom Petty family,” said Tony Dimitriades, longtime manager of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “we are devastated to announce the untimely death of 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.”
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 like “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,” “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 like 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 you 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 in 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.
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-and-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.