[Update: Following earlier confusion over Tom Petty’s condition, his manager issued a statement Monday evening on behalf of Petty’s family confirming his death.]
It was barely a week ago that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concluded their triumphant 40th anniversary tour at the Hollywood Bowl. Petty and the band couldn’t have been in better spirits on their three-night stand. The singer alluded that this could be the band’s final large scale tour, but no one knew it would be on account of his death today after suffering from massive cardiac arrest. He was 66.
Born and raised in Gainesville on Oct. 20, 1950, Petty moved to Los Angeles in 1974 after he disbanded his first outfit, Mudcrutch. He quickly became one of the voices synonymous with the city’s rock sound. As became entrenched in the LA music scene – something he constantly alluded to at his final show – Petty’s hit-laden catalog became some of the most popular and recognizable songs in rock history.
Whether that be recognizable riffs of “American Girl” which got things started, to singing about going “West down Ventura Blvd.,” in “Free Fallin’” and tender moments throughout the Wildflowers album, Petty was as versatile of a songwriter as any. That doesn’t even factor in the magnificent dueling vocals with Stevie Nicks on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which proved to be one of his biggest, and most unexpected hits. Petty’s songs were the perfect soundtrack for the treacherous Southern California commute. But, his top-down sound made any car ride bearable. His keen storytelling, quick-witted observations and lyrics were relatable, and singalong to.
Early-era Petty saw the singer/songwriter team up with producer Jimmy Iovine, which was chronicled in HBO’s The Defiant Ones documentary. Petty’s monster hits of the early ‘80s allowed him to famously fight – and win – an album pricing battle with his then-label MCA where his fans didn’t have to fork over extra dinero for Hard Promises.
Accolades aside, there was certainly a darker edge that fueled Petty. His Encino home was famously the target of an arsonist, and he battled drug problems throughout the ‘90s. Despite all of that, his music never suffered, nor did he ever lose his swagger. He teamed up with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne to form the Traveling Wilburys in 1988. The success of those loose sessions allowed for his solo album, Full Moon Fever, of which he worked on with Lynne proved to be one of his most popular works. On top of “Free Fallin,” anthems like “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Yer So Bad” became live and radio staples.
The ‘90s saw Petty continue his cultural relevance, even as his music pointed more inwards. His video for “Last Dance With Mary Jane” starred Kim Basinger, and the stop-along “You Don’t Know How It Feels” remain classics, and his work with Rick Rubin on solo material remains poignant. Recent years have seen him become a jam band favorite, and he appeared at Super Bowl XLII as the halftime act. Since 1999, Petty’s club shows – like Irving Plaza in 1999, Chicago’s Vic Theatre in 2003, and the Fonda in 2013 – were as intimate as the rarities he dusted off, and showcased him as a performer who could be comfortable in front of an audience regardless of size.
Dying at 66 for a guy who admittedly lived as hard as Petty did was a victory in itself. As he heads into the great wide open, Tom Petty should and will be remembered as one of the most iconic rock stars of all time. Listen carefully, and the few rock songs you hear on the radio are slightly Petty-infused. Petty was one of the greats, and will be missed.