Tom Petty Never Abandoned His Values, Or His Band, Over a Remarkable Career
The late Tom Petty‘s first group was a bust. Well, sort of.
The son of a Florida insurance salesman, Petty quit high school to start Mudcrutch at age 17 with Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. The three of them – later rechristened Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with the addition of some new members – ended up as rock and roll legends anyway, selling millions and millions of albums. All it took was a little tinkering, a lot of patience and the ability to take a proverbial punch.
Campbell and Tench subsequently began working with Ron Blair and Stan Lynch after Mudcrutch’s aborted search for fame and fortune in Los Angeles. One of their demos caught Petty’s attention and, in turn, sparked a new band: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ended up taking over the Mudcrutch record contract that Petty had initially secured with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records.
Tench “really handpicked the Heartbreakers. They were all Gainesville guys who had moved out to L.A., so I was invited to play the harmonica,” Petty told Billboard in 2005. “I went by the Village Recorder in Santa Monica, and I was like, ‘What a band!’ And being the cunning businessman that I am, I said, ‘You know, backing up Benmont’s fine, but there’s no reason you couldn’t have me in the band and I have a record deal, so you could circumvent the whole try-to-make-it thing and go in with me,’ and we were off.”
Petty was finally on his way. Well, sort of.
A self-titled debut album stalled at No. 55, but the song “American Girl” quickly put in place a heady mixture of vintage folk-rock, greasy Southern feel and then-new post-punk sounds which would one day form the basis of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ multi-platinum success. All they needed was a break. It came in the form of a U.K. tour opening for Nils Lofgren, later of E Street Band fame. They connected with audiences there, and that first studio project finally took off on the British charts – prompting the re-release of “Breakdown” in the U.S. The single ended up finally cracking the Top 40 nearly a year after Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was issued.
A foundational connection to the Byrds, ratified through the ringing sounds of Petty’s 12-string Rickenbacker, ran through the entirety of his work. Roger McGuinn covered their early single “American Girl” on 1977’s Thunderbyrd, and Petty returned the favor by including the Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” on 1989’s Full Moon Fever. His last collaboration completed this circle, with Petty serving as a producer on Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman’s 2017 album Bidin’ My Time.
Petty remained intent, however, on finding his own path. The Heartbreakers’ sophomore release, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, nearly cracked the Top 20. That’s when a pitched legal battle threatened to derail everything. Unable to renegotiate that early contract, Petty instead decided to file for bankruptcy. Months of litigation followed before Petty was finally able to rally around 1979’s triple-platinum Damn the Torpedoes – his long-awaited coronation. A No. 2 smash, the album spawned a pair of Top 20, career-defining hits in “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee.”
Watch Tom Petty Perform ‘Refugee’
Petty had finally made it, right? Well, sort of. Turns out, he wasn’t done battling with record labels. Petty challenged his new bosses at MCA when they tried to hike the price on 1981’s million-selling Hard Promises. He threatened to withhold the album, and even to organize protests, before they finally relented. That only bolstered what had always been Petty’s every-man, populist credentials.
“A lot of fans have been with us for a long time and I think they trust us,” Petty told The New York Times in 1981. “MCA has done a great job selling our records, but they couldn’t see the reality of what it’s like on the street. They couldn’t see that raising the album’s price wouldn’t be fair.”
As the decade continued, Petty began to branch out, though the Heartbreakers always remained a touchstone. He scored a hit duet with Stevie Nicks in 1981’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” produced Del Shannon’s early ’80s comeback album Drop Down and Get Me, co-founded the Traveling Wilburys and released his first solo album with Full Moon Fever.
Ron Blair departed after 1982’s Top 10 hit Long After Dark, and the retooled Heartbreakers spent a lengthy period trying to work out what Petty hoped would be a definitive look at his down-home cultural heritage. Southern Accents didn’t completely achieve those lofty goals, but the 1985 release returned the Heartbreakers to platinum-selling status behind the psychedelic, Dave Stewart-produced No. 13 smash “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
“I enjoy the fact that I don’t feel constrained to make a song like ‘Refugee’ over and over again,” Petty admitted in a talk with the Chicago Tribune. “I think your music has to grow as you grow as a person, and you have to constantly keep finding a way that you’re of some significance to the music. There’s no need to buy the 10th Tom Petty album if it’s not any different from the first nine.”
Next, Petty branched out on his own completely. Well, sort of. The five-times platinum smash Full Moon Fever featured contributions from members of the Heartbreakers – Campbell, for instance, was all over the record – as well as Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and George Harrison from the Traveling Wilburys.
“I didn’t want to leave the Heartbreakers behind,” Petty told Rolling Stone, “because I figured they were the best band I know, and because it just felt like there was a lot of unfinished business. But at the same time, I knew I was on a roll, and I didn’t want to just drop what Jeff and I had going.”
Watch Tom Petty Perform ‘Learning to Fly’
The Heartbreakers promptly got back together, again with Lynne co-producing, for Into the Great Wide Open – another multi-million-selling Top 20 hit. A 1993 greatest-hits album, powered by the new Rick Rubin-produced single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” ended up on the Billboard charts for more than six years. The Heartbreakers were also key contributors to Petty’s more stripped-down 1994 solo album Wildflowers, which was also co-produced by Rubin.
If anything, this so-called solo album pulled the Heartbreakers closer together, according to Tench. “Wildflowers sounded, for me, more like the Heartbreakers,” he told Ultimate Classic Rock’s Matt Wardlaw. “I think it’s one of the best things the Heartbreakers ever did: My taste leans in that direction, sounding more like just two guitars, bass, drums, and piano.”
The always-intense Petty was on a roll; more importantly, he was enjoying himself. “With some kind of flash of realization, I realized that I had actually never really enjoyed myself,” Petty told Q in 1989. “I’d done partying and I’d done work, but I’d never genuinely enjoyed myself. I’d been very reclusive and I didn’t know a lot of people, and I didn’t ever see many people. I wasn’t very social at all, because I was revved up all the time. And I just was not very happy. It was time to calm down.”
Unfortunately, those good times wouldn’t last. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers later collaborated on the soundtrack for Ed Burns’ 1996 film She’s the One, and served as a backing band for Johnny Cash‘s album Unchained that same year. But the Heartbreakers’ next studio project, 1999’s Echo, took on a much darker turn – perhaps because of trouble in Petty’s personal life: His decades-long marriage had ended. Later, it was revealed that he’d struggled with substance abuse, as well. Petty initially seemed unbent, however, taking on the state of the music business with 2002’s Top 10 hit The Last DJ – but he ended up falling silent for a few years.
“I was just not happy,” he said in Tom Petty: Rock and Roll Guardian. “I needed more than a hit album in my life. I needed to feel good about myself. I was in an unhappy marriage and I had to deal with that. I had to grow up in a lot of ways. If you do this all your life, you don’t have the normal experience. The rock and roll lifestyle does not encourage you to be responsible.”
By the time Petty returned, staging a reunion with Lynne for 2006’s Highway Companion, since-fired bassist Howie Epstein had died of a heroin overdose. Newly clean himself, Petty remarried and the Heartbreakers – with Blair back in the fold – got back to work. They gathered again for a 30th anniversary tour, even as director Peter Bogdanovich released the expansive documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream. A celebrated appearance at the 2008 Super Bowl followed.
Petty had finally accomplished everything he’d set out to do. Well, sort of. There was still the matter of Mudcrutch.
In the late ’00s, Petty decided to reform his lost band for the first of what would become two reunion albums – 2008’s Mudcrutch and 2016’s Mudcrutch 2. Both projects raced into the Top 10, providing long-awaited vindication. Even then, however, Petty remained ever true to the Heartbreakers.
Along the way, they released a final pair of well-received albums in 2010’s blues-soaked Mojo, a No. 2 hit that the band recorded live in the studio, and then 2014’s Hypnotic Eye – a scrappy finale which belatedly became Petty’s first-ever chart-topping album. Unlike so many of their classic-rock brethren, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers never became a nostalgia act.
Centered again, Petty had just finished a 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers when he fell ill. “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,” Petty told Esquire. “It’s all an artist can ask.”
Tom Petty Through the Years: 1976-2017 Photos