Tom Petty: 8 fascinating facts about the beloved rock icon
The legendary musician created decades of hits — but was also forced to fight through many tribulations.
by Jennifer Van Evra
Rock 'n' roll fans are mourning the loss of one of the genre's most beloved and respected musicians, Tom Petty. After suffering a massive cardiac arrest in his Malibu home, Petty died last night in hospital. He was 66.
Petty is the musician behind decades of enduring rock hits, from early singles "Refugee" and "Don't Come Around Here no More" to 1980s and '90s staples including "Free Fallin'" and "Learning to Fly," to 2014's acclaimed album Hypnotic Eye.
But despite his many successes, Petty's life was also marked by major challenges that he was forced to overcome, and became defining moments.
So, in honour of Tom Petty and his remarkable career, here are eight fascinating facts about the rock icon.
1. Meeting Elvis changed his life
Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, Fla., on Oct. 20, 1950. His father was an insurance salesman who reportedly beat Petty, but music provided an escape. His love of rock 'n' roll officially began in the summer of 1961, when he was just 11 years old, and met none other than Elvis Presley, who was shooting a film in nearby Ocala. Petty's uncle, Earl Jernigan, owned a film-developing business and worked on location shoots when they came through town, and his aunt picked up Petty so he could go to the set. Hundreds of fans screamed as The King pulled up in a line of white Cadillacs.
"He stepped out radiant as an angel. He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I'd ever seen in my life. At 50 yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like. And he came walking right towards us," remembered Petty, who stayed on set to watch the filming for the rest of the day. He was smitten by all of it — the cars, the fans, but mostly Elvis's swagger.
After that, he listened obsessively to Elvis records. "That's what kicked off my love of music. And I'd never thought much about rock 'n' roll until that moment."
2. He dropped out of high school to join a band
Much of Petty's story reads like rock 'n' roll legend, including the fact that he dropped out of high school at 17 to join his first band, the southern rock group Mudcrutch.
After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, the band broke up before releasing an album — but guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench would later become members of the Heartbreakers and work with Petty for the better part of five decades.
In 2008, Mudcrutch reunited for a new album and tour, shocking everyone — especially Petty's early bandmates. "I keep waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and go, 'Uh, Tom, this is a dream and it's time to wake up,'" said guitarist Tom Leadon, who hadn't played with Petty since 1972, in a 2016 interview. "What a wonderful turn of events this is."
"Tom is in a position where he could do anything he wants with anyone he wants," said Campbell. "The beauty of this is that he wants to reconnect with his old friends, not for money, but the pure joy of revisiting the energy that we started with. It's been very, very spiritual. It's commendable that he'd do something so generous."
3. He had a string of bad business deals
As with many musicians of the era, Petty got stung by the business end of the record business. According to the New York Times, early in his career he signed away 100 per cent of his publishing rights to his songs for a meagre $10,000 and was forced to fight for a new deal that gave him half the royalties after his fourth album.
Soon after, another legal fight forced Petty into bankruptcy and delayed the release of his next album until a deal was reached. That album was 1979's Damn the Torpedoes, which, with singles including "Don't do me Like That" and "Refugee," proved to be the biggest of his career. The album has since been certified triple platinum.
"I'm not usually as concerned with record company business as you might think," he said in 1980. "I like to devote my time and energy to being a musician. But sometimes there's a communications breakdown and, when that happens, you just have to stand up for yourself.''
In 2001, he released The Last DJ, an album that served up a scathing indictment of the record industry.
"Everywhere we look, we want to make the most money possible," he said in 2002. "This is a dangerous, corrupt notion. That's where you see the advent of programming on the radio, and radio research, all these silly things. That has made pop music what it is today. Everything — morals, truth — is all going out the window in favor of profit."
4. At a particularly painful time, Petty turned to heroin
In addition to his business battles, Petty suffered a string of personal hardships, including an arson fire that destroyed his house and all of his possessions, and the breakup of his marriage of 22 years.
For a time, Petty turned to heroin, but a therapist convinced him to go to detox. "They shoot this drug into you that literally drives the heroin out and your body goes into spasms," he told biographer Warren Zanes. "It forces the detox process. When I woke up from that, I felt different. And I said to the nurse, 'So, it went OK?' She says, 'Yeah, it went OK.' I said, 'How long have I been asleep?' She says, 'Two days.'"
Those tumultuous times inspired Echo, the darkest of Petty's albums, and produced songs such as "Room at the Top," "Counting on You" and "Free Girl Now," which Petty refused to play after the tour wrapped up.
"I recently had a fan stop me and tell me how much that record had helped her through a bad time," Petty said in 2013. "And she said, 'I know you don't like it.' And I was like, 'It's not that I don't like it. It was just a really hard period in my life.'"
5. He became a Traveling Wilbury by accident
When George Harrison first formed the Traveling Wilburys in the late 1980s, it included Harrison, Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. As legend has it, the musicians went to Bob Dylan's home studio to record a B-side to their single, "This is Love." Harrison had accidentally left a guitar at Petty's house, and when he went to retrieve it, he asked Petty if he wanted to join the session.
The musicians had such a good time that they decided to record a full album — and the song they recorded that day, "Handle With Care," became one of their biggest hits.
6. Full Moon Fever almost didn't get released
Petty's 1989 album, Full Moon Fever, produced a wave of enduring hits, among them "Free Fallin'," "I Won't Back Down" and "Runnin' Down a Dream," but it almost didn't get released. Petty's label, MCA, thought it would flop.
"When my record company rejected Full Moon Fever, I was hurt so bad," Petty said in 2006. "I was pretty far along in my career at that point. I'd never had anything rejected; I'd never really even had a comment. So when that happened, it was really just a board to the forehead."
But, showing his legendary resilience, Petty picked himself up, dusted himself off and forged ahead.
"I said, 'I'm not buying this, there's nothing wrong, I really like this record.' And then I waited a while, until the top regime at the record company changed," he said. "And I came back and I played them the same record, and they were overjoyed. It turned out to be a huge hit."
7. Petty predicted his recent tour would be his last
Amazingly, Petty's critically acclaimed 2014 record Hypnotic Eye became the first number 1 album of his career.
The band went on tour in the U.S., then returned to the road in 2017 for an expansive 40th-anniversary tour that went from Florida to Washington, and California to Connecticut. It also included Canadian stops in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.
The tour ended with three nights at the Hollywood Bowl, and two solo shows in New York.
"I'm thinking it may be the last trip around the country," Petty said before the tour kicked off. "It's very likely we'll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don't think so. I'd be lying if I didn't say I was thinking this might be the last big one. We're all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I'd like to see as much as I can. I don't want to spend my life on the road."
8. He was happy with his legacy
Over the course of his career, Petty had to fight many uphill battles — but again and again, he won. By 2006, the rock 'n' roll icon, who influenced generations of musicians with his distinctive style, was happy with his musical legacy.
"As you're coming up, you're recognized song for song or album for album. What's changed these days is that the man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work — the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say. And that's a wonderful feeling," he said in an interview. "It's all an artist can ask."