Biography of Tom Petty
Tom Petty – American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, and actor.
Name: Thomas Earl Petty
Date of Birth: October 20, 1950
Place of Birth: Gainesville, Florida, U.S.
Date of Death: October 2, 2017 (aged 66)
Place of Death: Santa Monica, California, U.S.
Occupation: Singer, Songwriter, Multi-Instrumentalist, Record Producer, Actor
Father: Earl Petty
Mother: Katherine Petty
Spouse/Ex: Jane Benyo (m. 1974 – div. 1996), Dana York (m. 2001)
Children: Adria, Annakim
Tom Petty, American singer, and songwriter whose roots-oriented guitar rock arose from the new-wave movement of the late 1970s and resulted in a string of hit singles and albums, was born October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida, the first of two sons of Kitty (Katherine) Petty, a local tax office worker, and Earl Petty, who worked in a grocery store. He was the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, formed in 1976. He previously led the band Mudcrutch. He was also a co-founder of the late 1980s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. He was best known as the frontman of the popular band ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’.
Petty became interested in music at the age of ten after a meeting with the legendary singer Elvis. He began his career with a group called the Mudcrutch. After the group’s disbandment, he proceeded to form the band which would eventually become known as ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’. Their self-titled debut album was a success, becoming a hit in the UK, and later in the US as well. The band enjoyed continued success in the coming years. Petty also flourished as a solo artist and won several awards over the course of his career. With time, he became one of the world’s bestselling artists and was inducted into the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’.
Petty was also an occasional actor, having made his debut in the film ‘FM’. He played an important role in the epic adventure film ‘The Postman’ as well, which unfortunately was a commercial and critical disaster. He passed away in 2017 after suffering a cardiac arrest following an accidental prescription drug overdose.
Childhood, Family and Educational Life
Tom Petty, in full Thomas Petty, was born on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida, in the US. He was the oldest son of Earl and Kitty Petty and had one younger brother, Bruce. He had a bitter relationship with his father who was known to be physically and verbally abusive.
Petty’s inclination towards music and its components started at a very young age. This desire of his continued to burn after he came in contact with iconic singer and actor Elvis Presley. He crossed paths with the musical big shot in 1961 when his uncle worked behind the scene of Elvis’ film. He fell in love with the singer’s style that he didn’t hesitate to trade his toy for a collection of Elvis’ songs.
From an early age, Petty sought refuge in music and learned to play the guitar. During his high school years, he joined a local band named the Epics, where he played bass. He dropped out of school at the age of seventeen after forming a new band named Mudcrutch. He became the group’s frontman and also the primary songwriter. Soon they gained a strong local following.
One of his first guitar teachers was Don Felder, a fellow Gainesville resident, who later joined the Eagles. As a young man, Petty worked briefly on the grounds crew of the University of Florida, but never attended as a student. An Ogeechee lime tree that he allegedly planted while employed at the university is now called the Tom Petty tree (Petty stated that he did not recall planting any trees). He also worked briefly as a gravedigger. Petty also overcame a difficult relationship with his father, who found it hard to accept that his son was “a mild-mannered kid who was interested in the arts” and subjected him to verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis. Petty was close to his mother and remained close to his brother, Bruce.
Tom Petty first married to Jane Benyo in 1974. The marriage which lasted for over twenty years as a model for many couples in the industry at the time until the couple split in 1996. More than twenty years after the divorce, Petty revealed the reason behind the failure of his first marriage to be his struggle with heroin addiction. They had two daughters, Adria, who became a director, and AnnaKim, who became an artist.
Petty later became a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation.
In 2015, Petty publicly disclosed that he had struggled with heroin addiction following the end of his first marriage. Petty married Dana York on June 3, 2001, and had a stepson, Dylan, from York’s earlier marriage.
In May 1987, an arsonist set fire to Petty’s house in Encino, California. Firefighters were able to salvage the basement recording studio and the original tapes stored there, as well as his Gibson Dove acoustic guitar. His signature gray top hat, however, was destroyed. Petty later rebuilt the house with fire-resistant materials.
Career and Works
Shortly after embracing his musical aspirations, Petty started a band known as the Epics, later to evolve into Mudcrutch. The band included future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and was popular in Gainesville, but their recordings went unnoticed by a mainstream audience. Their only single, “Depot Street”, released in 1975 by Shelter Records, failed to chart.
After arriving in Los Angeles, the band quickly disintegrated, but in 1975 Petty and two former members, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, joined Ron Blair and Stan Lynch to form ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’. The band’s eponymous debut album, released in 1976, initially caused little stir in the United States, but the single “Breakdown” was a smash in Britain, and, when it was re-released in the U.S., the song made the Top 40 in 1978. Damn the Torpedoes (1979), featuring the hits “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee,” shot to number two, and, though the group’s success in the 1980s leveled off, there were several hits, including Petty’s duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (1981), and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985). The band also gained notice for its music videos.
Their next album ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ was released in 1978 and became an average success. Their third album ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ was one of the band’s most successful albums. It was accredited 2x platinum in the US and 3x platinum in Canada. The band continued to enjoy success with their next albums including ‘Hard Promises’ (1981), ‘Long After Dark’ (1982), ‘Southern Accents’ (1985) and ‘Let Me Up’ (1987). In 1986, they also embarked on a tour with Bob Dylan, performing on their own and also serving as Dylan’s backup band.
Tom Petty made his acting debut with a role in the 1978 film ‘FM’. He next appeared in the 1987 film ‘Made in Heaven’ in an unaccredited role. He also appeared in several episodes of the American sitcom ‘Its’ Garry Sandlings’ Show’. He played a neighbor of the lead titular character.
In September 1979, ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ performed at a Musicians United for Safe Energy concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. Their rendition of “Cry to Me” was featured on the resulting album, No Nukes. The 4th album Hard Promises, released in 1981, became a top-ten hit, going platinum and spawning the hit single “The Waiting”. The album also featured Petty’s first duet, “Insider” with Stevie Nicks.
Another group, the Heartbreakers was formed but Petty was not part of it. The Heartbreakers was made up of Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, Ron Blair, and Stan Lynch. The group released several albums and later teamed up with Petty and performed songs in concerts. Tom in 1988 became a member of the Travelling Wilburys formed by George Harrison. The group dished out several albums which did very well commercially.
In 1985, the band participated in Live Aid, playing four songs at John F. Kennedy Stadium, in Philadelphia. Southern Accents was also released in 1985. This album included the hit single “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, which was produced by Dave Stewart. The song’s video featured Petty dressed as the Mad Hatter, mocking and chasing Alice from the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then cutting and eating her as if she were a cake. The ensuing tour led to the live album Pack Up the Plantation: Live! and an invitation from Bob Dylan – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers joined him on his True Confessions Tour. They also played some dates with the Grateful Dead in 1986 and 1987. Also in 1987, the group released Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) which includes “Jammin’ Me” which Petty wrote with Dylan.
In 1984 Petty shattered his hand after punching a studio wall in frustration, but, to the surprise of doctors, he recovered to play guitar again. The Heartbreakers backed Bob Dylan on tour in 1986, and later Petty joined Dylan, former Beatle George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne (formerly of the Electric Light Orchestra) in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, with whom Petty garnered his first Grammy Award in 1989. That year Lynne produced Petty’s first solo album, “Full Moon Fever”, putting Petty back on the charts with the hit single “Free Fallin’.” This renewed popularity was followed in the 1990s with more group and solo albums, including the multimillion-selling Wildflowers (1994), which was presented as a solo album but featured contributions from the Heartbreakers, most notably guitarist Campbell, ever Petty’s essential collaborator.
It was a critical and commercial success, peaking at the 3rd position on the US Billboard 200. Despite his solo success, he did not leave his band. In 1991, they released their eighth album ‘Into the Great Wide Open’, which was a critical and commercial success. In 1996, they released their ninth album ‘Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One.”
Petty and the Heartbreakers reformed in 1991 and released Into the Great Wide Open, which was co-produced by Lynne and included the hit singles “Learning To Fly” and “Into the Great Wide Open”, the latter featuring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway in the music video. Before leaving MCA Records, Petty and the Heartbreakers got together to record, live in the studio, two new songs for a Greatest Hits package: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”. This was Stan Lynch’s last recorded performance with the Heartbreakers. Petty commented, “He left right after the session without really saying goodbye.” The package went on to sell over ten million copies, therefore receiving diamond certification by the RIAA.
Tom Petty was seen in the 1997 film ‘The Postman’ where he played an important role. The film was a disaster: it made less than $20 million on an $80 million budget and received negative reviews. The critics opined that it was one of the worst films of the year. He also had a voice role in the famed animated sitcom ‘The Simpsons’ in one episode, and in a few episodes of another popular sitcom ‘King of the Hill’. In 2010, Petty made a five-second cameo appearance with comedian Andy Samberg in a musical video titled “Great Day” featured on the bonus DVD as part of The Lonely Island’s new album Turtleneck & Chain.
In 1999, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their last album with Rubin at the helm, Echo. Two songs were released as singles in the U.S., “Room at the Top” and “Free Girl Now”. The album reached number 10 in the U.S. album charts. Petty and the Heartbreakers played “I Won’t Back Down” at America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit concert for victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The following year, they played “Taxman”, “I Need You” and “Handle with Care” (joined for the last by Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison, and Jim Keltner) at the Concert for George in honor of Petty’s friend and former bandmate George Harrison.
His second solo album ‘Wildflowers’ also became a commercial success. It was met with positive reviews as well. Over the next two decades, he released four other albums with his band, which included ‘Echo’ (1999), ‘The Last DJ’ (2002), and ‘Mojo’ (2010) and ‘Hypnotic Eyes’ (2014). He also released a solo album named ‘Highway Companion’ in 2006. It peaked at the 4th position on the Billboard 200 chart and was praised by the critics.
In 2008 Petty and the Heartbreakers reached another benchmark of exalted status as pop music icons by performing during the Super Bowl halftime show. Petty, who was known for his devotion not only to the roots of rock and roll but also to his own musical roots, reunited with Mudcrutch to produce new albums and undertake tours in 2007 and 2016.
It was definitely not the end for Petty who released a solo album Highway Companion in 2006. The album peaked at number 4 on the Billboard 200 and was a huge commercial success. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came together again towards the end of the first decade in the new millennium and released another album Mojo. Their 13th album Hypnotic Eye came in July 2014. Tom and the Heartbreakers celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2017 the same year that the legendary musician lost his life.
Tom Petty owned and used a number of guitars over the years. From 1976 to 1982, his main instrument was a sunburst 1964 Fender Stratocaster. He also used a number of Rickenbacker guitars from 1979 onward, notably a 1965 Rose Morris 1993 and 1987 reissue of the Rose Morris 1997, a 1967 360/12 and 1989 660/12TP. The Rickenbacker 660/12TP was designed by Petty (specifically the neck) and featured his signature from 1991 to 1997. For acoustic guitars, Petty had a signature C.F. Martin HD-40 and wrote virtually all of his songs on a Gibson Dove acoustic saved from his 1987 house fire. He also used a Gibson J-200 in a natural finish and a late 1970s Guild D25 12-string acoustic. Petty’s later amplifier setup featured two Fender Vibro-King 60-watt combos.
Awards and Honor
(Hollywood Walk of Fame)
In April 1996, Petty received UCLA’s George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement. The next month, Petty won the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ Golden Note Award.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999, for their contribution to the recording industry.
In December 2001, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York.
Tom Petty was honored as MusiCares Person of the Year in February 2017 for his contributions to music and for his philanthropy.
Death and Legacy
Tom Petty passed away on 2nd October 2017 following a massive cardiac arrest caused by an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Petty had been beset by a fractured hip, knee problems, and emphysema. On October 16, 2017, His funeral took place at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
On January 19, 2018, the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner announced that Petty had died accidentally from mixed drug toxicity, a combination of fentanyl, oxycodone, acetyl fentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl (all opioids); temazepam and alprazolam (both sedatives); and citalopram (an antidepressant).
One of Tom Petty’s important works was ‘Damn the Torpedoes,’ his band’s third album. Released on the eve of his 29th birthday, the album became a huge success commercially, selling more than three million copies in the USA. With singles such as ‘Refugee’ ‘Here Comes My Girl’ and ‘Even the Losers’, the album appeared in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2003.
On September 28, 2018, four days before the first anniversary of his death, Petty’s wife Dana gave an interview to Billboard about her husband’s death saying that Petty put off hip surgery his doctors had recommended for some time. “He would do anything to help anyone his bandmates, the crew, the fans and that’s why he did the last tour with a fractured hip. He was adamant. He found out a few days before the tour was gonna start and that he had emphysema.” Dana said that he was relying on drugs on the road to keep his hip pain under control but was looking forward to not needing them anymore. “That’s why he wouldn’t go to the hospital when his hip broke. He’d had it in mind it was his last tour and he owed it to his long-time crew, from decades some of them, and his fans.” Dana said that Petty was in a good mood the day before his death, excited about the future saying, “He had those three shows in L.A. and the day before he died he was pounding his chest going, ‘I’m on top of the world!’ Never had he been so proud of himself, so happy, so looking forward to the future and then he’s gone.”
‘Full Moon Fever’ was the debut solo album by Tom Petty. The album became a commercial success and was certified 5x platinum in the US. It peaked at the 3rdposition on the US Billboard 200 and charted in several other countries as well, including Sweden, Norway, and the UK. It contained singles, such as ‘I Won’t Back Down’, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ and ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’.