Arts & Entertainment

Rock legend Tom Petty dies; sold 80 million records

Tom Petty of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performs during their 40th Anniversary Tour at Bridgestone Arena on April 25, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Tom Petty of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performs during their 40th Anniversary Tour at Bridgestone Arena on April 25, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Sacks & Co

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Rock musician Tom Petty has died, according to a statement issued by his longtime manager on behalf of the family. Petty was 66.

The statement read:

On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40pm PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.

Petty, usually backed by his longtime band the Heartbreakers, was known for such hits as "Free Fallin,'" "Refugee" and "American Girl." The Gainesville, Florida native with the shaggy blond hair and gaunt features drew upon the Byrds, the Beatles and other musicians he loved while growing up in the 1960s. He was also a member of the impromptu supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, which included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.

Petty and the Heartbreakers had recently completed a 40th anniversary tour, one he hinted would be their last. Petty, whose worldwide sales topped 80 million records, was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in 2002.

Los Angeles Times pop music critic Mikael Wood, recalling Petty's legacy on KPCC's The Frame, said it would be difficult to understate Petty's influence on rock music:

[Tom Petty] if not invented, at least kind of cemented so much of what we think about American rock and roll. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, you look through their hits, and these are the songs that bands drew on for decades after that. [Songs with] a prominent guitar, kind of a stiff beat, great, carefully composed melodies, words that kind of talk about lofty ideas, but in plain-spoken language that made them relatable to anybody. So much of what rock and roll is, especially in a live context, Petty helped invent. 

Petty was born and raised in Gainesville, Fla.; as he told Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air in 2006, he was from what he called the “redneck, hillbilly” part of town. “It’s an interesting place,” he remarked, “because you can meet almost any kind of person from many walks of life because of the university. But it’s really surrounded by this kind of very rural kind of people that are — you know, they’re farmers or, you know, tractor drivers or, you know, just all kinds of — game wardens, you name it, you know. So it’s an interesting blend. My family wasn’t involved in the college, you know. They were more of just your white trash kind of … family. And so I have that kind of background, but I always kind of aspired to be something else, and I made a lot of different friends over the years that were — you know, passing through.”

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After being part of an early band called Mudcrutch, he first came to fame with his own band. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded its eponymous debut in 1976, an album that included two songs that became core songs in the rock ‘n’ roll canon: “Breakdown” and “American Girl.” The band released two more albums in quick succession: 1978’s “You’re Gonna Get It!” which went gold, and 1979’s “Damn The Torpedoes,” which included the group’s first Top 10 single, “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and “Refugee.” The title of that 1979 album was an indication of its difficult birth: When Petty’s former record label, Shelter, was sold to MCA, Petty was infuriated and declared that he rejected being “bought and sold like a piece of meat.” Petty took on the costs of recording Damn The Torpedoes himself — to the point of declaring bankruptcy. After the legal case was settled, Petty and his band released the album on a specially created imprint called Backstreet Records, and the album went to No. 2 on the charts.

After a string of further albums with the Heartbreakers, Petty teamed up with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison to record as The Traveling Wilburys; the supergroup’s first album, “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1,” was released in 1988 and resulted in Petty’s first Grammy Award. (Petty earned his first solo Grammy in 1995 for the song “You Don’t Know How It Feels”; he won best long form video in 2008 for Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary “Runnin’ Down A Dream.”) After Orbison’s death in December 1988, the remaining members of The Traveling Wilburys recorded one more album together: the intentionally misleadingly named “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3,” which was released in 1990.

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In 1989, Petty released his first solo title, “Full Moon Fever,” which went to No. 3 and included one of his most instantly recognizable singles: “Free Fallin‘.“ As Petty told Billboard last year, ”Free Fallin’” came fast. “Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song,” he recounted, “and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song, and I think Jeff said something like, ‘That’s a really good riff but there’s one chord too many,’ so I think I cut it back a chord and then, really just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing. Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling.’ And I went to sing that and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.’ So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast.” The next day, they recorded the song.

Petty and his Heartbreaker bandmates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

“Music,” Petty told host Melissa Block on All Things Considered in 2014, “is a real magic: It affects human beings, it can heal, it can do wonderful things. I’ve had two people contact me in my life about coming out of comas to their family playing a song to them of mine, that they had liked before they were injured. They credited the song having something to do with that. I find that fascinating. A lot of people have told me, ‘This music got me through a really hard time,’ and I can relate to that.”

This story has been updated.