Tom Petty

Singer-song­writer whose heart­felt, melodic hits struck a chord with fans and fel­low mu­si­cians alike

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Death & Obituaries -

TOM Petty, the singer-song­writer, who died from a heart at­tack last Mon­day aged 66, was best known over here for a clutch of MTV-friendly hits in the late 1980s which in­cluded Free Fallin’ and I Won’t Back Down, as well as for play­ing in the era’s su­per­group The Trav­el­ing Wil­burys.

In his na­tive Amer­ica, how­ever, his pro­file and in­flu­ence was far greater. De­spite an overtly mod­est man­ner, and never be­ing pri­mar­ily a sin­gles artist, with his band the Heart­break­ers he sold more than 80 mil­lion records in a ca­reer that spanned four decades. His heart­felt, melodic sound, de­rived from his in­flu­ences such as The Byrds and The Rolling Stones, and res­o­nant of his life in Cal­i­for­nia, struck a chord with fans and fel­low mu­si­cians alike.

He was asked to join the Wil­burys in 1988 be­cause Ge­orge Har­ri­son re­alised that he had left a gui­tar at Petty’s house, where they of­ten jammed. The other mem­bers, who had al­ready planned to record to­gether, were Roy Or­bi­son, Bob Dy­lan and Jeff Lynne. Over­seen by Dave Ste­wart and with sleeve notes by Michael Palin, the al­bum The Trav­el­ing Wil­burys Vol 1 re­vived Or­bi­son’s rep­u­ta­tion shortly before his death and greatly en­hanced Petty’s stand­ing in the UK.

This led to his solo al­bum Full Moon Fever be­com­ing a hit the fol­low­ing year, al­though his record la­bel had ini­tially re­fused to re­lease it on the grounds it had no ob­vi­ous sin­gle. As it was, Free Fallin’, his hymn to life in Los Angeles, reached No 7 in the US.

The al­bum also fea­tured I Won’t Back Down, in the video for which Har­ri­son ap­peared with Ringo Starr. One ex­am­ple of the per­va­sive­ness of Petty’s mu­sic was that in 2015 he and Lynne, who had co-writ­ten that song, were cred­ited on Sam Smith’s hit Stay with Me, the re­frain of which owed a debt to the pair’s ear­lier song.

Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, on Oc­to­ber 20, 1950. His fa­ther, who sold in­sur­ance, could not abide a son with ob­vi­ous artis­tic in­ter­ests and reg­u­larly beat him.

The young Tom en­joyed school lit­tle more, but when he was 11 he briefly met Elvis Pres­ley through an un­cle who was work­ing on a film set. He im­me­di­ately swapped his cat­a­pult for a set of the King’s records. What proved still more in­flu­en­tial, how­ever, was see­ing The Bea­tles per­form on The Ed Sul­li­van Show, an ex­pe­ri­ence that made him want to put to­gether his own band.

While work­ing in part­time jobs, among them dig­ging graves, he learnt to play gui­tar; his teach­ers in­cluded Don Felder, later of The Ea­gles. He taught him­self to write songs by copy­ing down lyrics from tunes played on the ra­dio, hav­ing some­times to wait hours to hear a track again if he had missed a word. He also fixed on an im­age — long blond hair, of­ten topped by a hat and glasses — that would al­ter lit­tle.

By the mid-1970s, he had set­tled in LA and was gig­ging with his group Mud­crutch, which even­tu­ally evolved into the Heart­break­ers. Their early re­leases made lit­tle im­pact but a tour of Bri­tain in 1976 back­ing Nils Lof­gren gave them more ex­po­sure. Their third LP, Damn the Tor­pe­does, which fea­tured the sin­gle Refugee, broke through in the US, reach­ing No 2 in the al­bum chart, and by 1985 they were an act big enough to ap­pear at Live Aid.

The fol­low­ing year they played as Bob Dy­lan’s back­ing band on a tour. The day before it be­gan, Petty sur­vived the com­plete de­struc­tion of his house in an ar­son at­tack. De­spite ap­pear­ing laid-back, he had un­ex­pected re­silience. In the late 1990s, he over­came an ad­dic­tion to heroin, and before that had made a name for him­self in the busi­ness by stand­ing up to record com­pa­nies. Early in his ca­reer, he had gone bankrupt rather than be moved to a la­bel against his wishes, and in 1981, fol­low­ing his early suc­cess, he re­sisted plans by MCA to price his next re­lease at the “su­per­star” level of $9.98 rather than at the cus­tom­ary mark of a dol­lar less. The ex­ec­u­tives backed down when he threat­ened to call the al­bum Eight Ninety-Eight.

In the early 1990s, he charted again with the LP Into the Great Wide Open, the ti­tle track of which fea­tured a mem­o­rable video star­ring Johnny Depp. Petty him­self oc­ca­sion­ally ap­peared in cameo roles on screen, for in­stance in The Simp­sons. Dur­ing the past two decades he had con­tin­ued to record and per­form. His solo al­bum High­way Com­pan­ion reached No 4 in the US in 2006 and in 2014 the Heart­break­ers’ 13th LP, Hyp­notic Eye, gave them their first No 1 there.

They were in­ducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Two years later Petty was part of a stel­lar line-up there which paid trib­ute to Ge­orge Har­ri­son, trad­ing licks with Prince as the lat­ter played a cor­us­cat­ing ver­sion of While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps.

In 2008 Petty gave the half­time show at the Su­per­bowl — al­ways a barom­e­ter of sta­tus — and only last week the Heart­break­ers played the fi­nal gig of their 40th an­niver­sary tour, clos­ing at the Hol­ly­wood Bowl. Ear­lier this sum­mer they had per­formed in Hyde Park.

Tom Petty mar­ried first, in 1974 (dis­solved 1996), Jane Benyo, with whom he had two daugh­ters. He is sur­vived by them and by his sec­ond wife Dana York, to whom he had been mar­ried since 2001. ©Tele­graph

ROCK ICON: Amer­i­can mu­si­cian Tom Petty pic­tured per­form­ing with the Heart­break­ers in 2012

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