Tom Petty Biography

Petty (Thomas Earl Petty, 20 October 1950, Gainesville, Florida, USA; guitar) and his formidible band the Heartbreakers were one of the most exciting bands to emerge from America out of the mid-70s, and marked a return to the virtues of classic rock ‘n’ roll on a rock scene dominated by heavy metal and progressive bands. They continued to enjoy commercial success in the 80s, thanks in no small part to a series of stunning videos that found popularity on the emerging MTV music channel.

The Heartbreakers were formed from the ashes of Petty’s first professional band, Mudcrutch, in 1975. Petty was joined by Mike Campbell (b. Michael Wayne Campbell, 1 February 1950, Panama City, Florida, USA; guitar), Benmont Tench (b. Benjamin Montmorency Tench III, 7 September 1953, Gainesville, Florida, USA; keyboards), Stan Lynch (b. Stanley Lynch, 21 May 1955, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; drums) and Ron Blair (b. Ronald Edward Blair, 16 September 1948, San Diego, California, USA; bass). Armed with a Rickenbacker guitar and a Roger McGuinn voice, their 1976 debut album on Denny Cordell’s Shelter Records label gained greater acceptance in England, a country where anything remotely Byrds -like would find an audience. McGuinn in fact later recorded ‘American Girl’ (and did a fine Petty impersonation). The tight-structured rock formula of the first album showed great promise and eventually it made a substantial impression on the US charts, over a year after release, and the single ‘Breakdown’ reached the US Top 40.

Having received rave reviews following their visit to Europe, the band released a highly praised second collection, You’re Gonna Get It! Petty was able to appeal both to the new wave and lovers of American west coast rock with his songs. Damn The Torpedoes (1979) followed a lengthy legal battle with the new owners of his contract, MCA Records, during which time the singer filed for bankruptcy. His cash flow soon improved as the album (released on the MCA subsidiary Backstreet) was only kept from the top of the US charts by Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and it went on to reach platinum status. Two singles from the album, ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’ and ‘Refugee’, reached the US Top 20.

The band’s subsequent albums were similarly satisfying but not as successful, although both Hard Promises (1981) and Long After Dark (1982) reached the US Top 10. In 1981, Petty and the Heartbreakers duetted with Stevie Nicks on the US number 3 hit ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’, complete with an MTV-style video, and Petty was one of the artists to encourage Del Shannon to record again, producing his album Drop Down And Get Me. Blair was replaced by Howie Epstein (b. Howard Norman Epstein, 21 July 1955, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, d. 23 February 2003, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA) following the release of 1982’s Long After Dark, which had prominently featured the new bass player.

In 1985, Petty and the Heartbreakers had another major transatlantic hit with ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ aided by an imaginative and award-winning Alice in Wonderland video depicting Petty as the Mad Hatter. During the recording of the attendant Southern Accents, Petty smashed his hand (in anger) on the recording console and had to have a metal splint permanently fixed, as the bones were too badly broken. Petty’s outburst failed to stop the album becoming another million-seller. That same year Petty and the Heartbreakers played Live Aid in Philadelphia. The following year they reunited with Nicks for a remake of the Searchers’ ‘Needles And Pins’. The live album Pack Up The Plantation: Live! delighted old fans, but failed to break any new ground. Meanwhile, Petty’s association with Bob Dylan prospered as they toured and wrote together, including the US Top 20 hit single ‘Jammin’ Me’.

By 1988, Jeff Lynne and Petty had struck up a friendship and together with George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Dylan, they formed the highly successful Traveling Wilburys supergroup. Lynne’s high-tech and over-crisp production was in evidence on 1989’s Full Moon Fever (Petty’s first solo project) and 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open, but fortunately the strength of Petty’s songs won through. Both albums showcased Petty’s great gift for combining melody with irresistible middle eights, and acknowledged influential bands including the Beatles, the Byrds and the Searchers. Full Moon Fever established itself as Petty’s most successful project, reaching number 3 on the US charts and spawning a number of superb transatlantic hit singles, including ‘I Won’t Back Down’, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’, and the magnificent ‘Free Fallin’. Into The Great Wide Open, meanwhile, became Petty and the Heartbreakers’ most successful UK album, reaching number 3 on the charts and spawning the hit single ‘Learning To Fly’.

A strong greatest hits album was released in 1993 and became a huge hit in Petty’s homeland. His final release for MCA, it served as an introduction to a younger audience who had seen Petty cited as a major influence on many 90s guitar-based rock bands. Two new tracks were produced by Rick Rubin, with ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ reaching the US Top 20. This new wave of success inspired Petty to deliver the beautiful Wildflowers, a 1994 solo project that is probably the most satisfying album of his later years. On this overtly acoustic and mellow collection, Petty’s lower and more mature vocal delivery and Rubin’s understated production gave the singer’s lyrics a chance to be heard clearly.

Following the album’s release, seasoned session drummer Steve Ferrone (b. 25 April 1950, Brighton, East Sussex, England) replaced the long-serving Stan Lynch, and with Epstein transformed the nucleus of Petty, Tench and Campbell into an unbeatable live band. (Lynch went on to become a hugely successful songwriter, now based in Nashville). Petty reunited with the Heartbreakers in the studio to provide the soundtrack to Edward Burns’ movie, She’s The One, an album which retreated further away from the bombastic production style of the Lynne-era albums with Petty and Campbell co-producing with Rubin. The 1999 follow-up Echo, Petty’s first proper album project with the Heartbreakers since 1991, was an excellent, muscular set of songs informed by the singer’s divorce from his wife of over 20 years. The set was again produced by Petty, Campbell and Rick Rubin.

The band’s first recording of the new millennium, The Last DJ, contained a number of songs with fairly harsh criticisms of the music industry. Original bass player Ron Blair returned to the line-up to help record the album, while there were also guest appearances from Lindsey Buckingham and Scott Thurston and production was shared by Petty and George Drakoulias. Lynne was recalled to produce Petty’s third solo album, 2006’s Highway Companion, although Lynne’s former production style had by now reverted to a much lighter and less cluttered sound. For his next project, Petty reunited with the original members of Mudcrutch (Campbell, Tench, drummer Randall Marsh and guitarist Tom Leadon) to record an album.

Although Petty’s name is out front, he is very much part of a working band. Each member of the Heartbreakers deserve praise, none more so than the inventive Tench and the quietly brilliant Campbell. The excellent Peter Bogdanovich documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, which was released on a 3-DVD/1 CD box set in 2007, examines their career in great detail. The modest Petty has succeeded in a fickle marketplace by playing honest, unpretentious catchy rock with irresistible chord chnges and hooklines. He is one of the most durable American artists of the past four decades, and when motivated is still capable of being creative and not dwelling on past glories.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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