Petty’s songs were down-to-earth with lyrics that spoke for the underdog

Tom Petty obituary: Born October 20th, 1950 – Died October 2nd, 2017

Tom Petty, a songwriter who melded California rock with a deep, stubborn southern heritage, died after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 66, and had lived in Los Angeles.

Recording with the Heartbreakers, the band he formed in the mid-1970s, and on his own, Petty wrote pithy, hardheaded songs that gave a contemporary clarity to 1960s roots. His voice was grainy and unpretty, with a Florida drawl he proudly displayed.

Petty's songs were staples of FM rock radio through decades, and with hits like Refugee, Don't Come Around Here No More, Free Fallin' and Into the Great Wide Open, Petty sold millions of albums and headlined arenas and festivals well into 2017. He played the Super Bowl halftime show in 2008, and entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

But his songs stayed down-to-earth, with sturdy guitar riffs carrying lyrics that spoke for underdogs and ornery outcasts. In his 1989 hit I Won't Back Down he sang: "You can stand me up at the gates of hell/But I won't back down."


Petty’s songwriting was shaped by the music he heard growing up: the ringing folk-rock guitars of the Byrds, the crunch of the Rolling Stones, the caustic insights of Bob Dylan, the melodic turns of the Beatles, the steadfast backbeat of southern soul and the twang of country-rock. Onstage, the Heartbreakers sometimes expanded songs toward psychedelia-tinged jams. But across styles Petty kept his songwriting tight-lipped, succinct and evocative.


There was scrappy defiance in both his lyrics and his career choices. “I turned anger into ambition,” he told one interviewer. “Any sort of injustice would outrage me. I couldn’t contain myself.”

In the late 1980s Petty teamed up with some of his elders and influences to form the Traveling Wilburys, writing and recording with Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. With his death, only Dylan and Lynne survive from that group. Orbison died in 1988 and Harrison in 2001.

Dylan responded immediately to reports of Petty’s death with a statement: “It’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”

For more than 40 years, Petty made music with the Heartbreakers, who started officially in 1976 in Los Angeles but grew out of Mudcrutch, the band Petty joined as a teenager in his hometown, Gainesville, Florida. Through decades of performing, Petty and the Heartbreakers steered clear of elaborate showmanship to let their songs and their musicianship speak for themselves.

Rough childhood

Thomas Earl Petty was born October 20th, 1950. In Warren Zanes' Petty: The Biography (Macmillan, 2015), Petty recalled a rough childhood with frequent beatings by his father. He did poorly in school, but turned to music, getting his first guitar in 1962 and soon, under the influence of the Beatles, growing long hair and switching to electric guitar. He joined his first band, the Sundowners, in the mid-1960s, and was soon gigging around Gainesville.

Mudcrutch, which got started in 1970, included guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who would become mainstays of the Heartbreakers. It built a large local following in Florida, got a recording contract with Shelter Records and relocated to Los Angeles. But the label lost confidence in the band and dropped it, keeping only Petty under contract. In 1974, Petty married his first wife Jane Benyo.

Petty tried recording with session musicians, but preferred a steady band. He formed the Heartbreakers in late 1975 with Campbell, Tench and other musicians from Gainesville: Stan Lynch on drums and Ron Blair on bass. “I think we made the most of not knowing what the hell we were doing,” Petty said in Zanes’ biography.

The band's 1976 debut album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, made little impact until a tour of England put the album on the British charts; then the single Breakdown made its way on to American radio, reaching No 40 on the Top 40.

Live Aid

Through the 1980s Petty and the Heartbreakers maintained a steady cycle of recording and touring, including a performance at the Live Aid concert broadcast worldwide in 1985. Their hit singles included You Got Lucky and Don't Come Around Here No More; Petty also had a hit duet with Stevie Nicks Stop Draggin' My Heart Around.

He and the Heartbreakers had million-selling albums with Hard Promises in 1981, Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) in 1987 and Into the Great Wide Open in 1991, as well as Southern Accents in 1985.

Complacency did not set in. At one point during mixing sessions for Southern Accents – an album intended to examine Perry's southern roots – a frustrated Petty punched a wall so hard he severely fractured his left hand.

In 1986, Petty and the Heartbreakers played a 60-concert world tour with Dylan, performing their own songs and then backing up Dylan.

The Traveling Wilburys were initially convened by Harrison, but their songs turned into jovial rockers with tag-team vocals on the two Traveling Wilburys albums that were released in 1988 and 1990. In another notable collaboration, Petty and most of the Heartbreakers backed Johnny Cash on his 1996 album Unchained.

Full Moon Fever, released in 1989, was billed as a Petty solo album, recorded with members of both the Heartbreakers and the Traveling Wilburys. With the Top 10 hit Free Fallin' it became Petty's most popular album, selling 5 million copies in the US alone. A second nominally solo album, Wildflowers in 1994, had Petty backed by most of the Heartbreakers; it also was a multimillion-seller with the hit You Don't Know How It Feels.

But Wildflowers, Petty said in The Biography, was also the harbinger of his divorce from Benyo in 1996. Living alone, Petty fell into a heroin addiction that he overcame through rehab before his 2001 marriage to Dana York.


Petty's productivity briefly slowed, but never stopped. He recorded one of the starkest Heartbreakers albums, Echo, which was released in 1999 and reached the Top 10.

Petty's songs repeatedly proved their durability. A 1993 collection of "greatest hits", including the single Mary Jane's Last Dance, stayed on the Billboard album chart for six years.

The campaigns of Michele Bachmann and George W Bush received cease-and-desist letters to deter them from playing Petty's songs at campaign events. And in 2015, Sam Smith belatedly realised that the chorus of his hit Stay With Me had all too much in common with I Won't Back Down, written by Petty and Lynne; he quickly shared the songwriting credit.

“A musical accident no more no less,” Petty wrote in a typically laconic statement. “In these times we live in this is hardly news.”