“Well, I won’t back down. You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down,” Tom Petty sang in one of his many signature hits, which was recorded with The Beatles’ George Harrison on guitar, vocals, and a musician’s brew to help the lead singer and songwriter of The Heartbreakers record the vocal through a cold. Petty proved there ain’t no easy way out, finally succumbing to the heart attack that had conflicting reports of his death or his battle to cling to life at 8:40 p.m. at the UCLA Medical Center-Santa Monica. The multi-instrumentalist died as he lived, surrounded by family, friends, and members of his bands.
Thomas Earl Petty was born on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida. According to his biography, he had a strained relationship with his father, and was too big an attraction not to distract from the funeral of his mother. Petty was crazy about Elvis, who he met when he was a young teen, and would one day play as an equal member of a group of musical legends including Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynn called The Traveling Wilburys and as a coveted vocal partner to Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks.
Petty joined his first band, the Sundowners, in the mid-1960s. He quit high school when he was 17 to alternate between bass and guitar duties for the southern-rock group Mudcrutch, which featured future Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. He was discovered by the legendary Leon Russel and made his bones noodling around Shelter Studios with rock star session players.
Petty, Campbell, Tench, bassist Ron Blair, and drummer Stan Lynch released the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album in 1976. The lead single, “Breakdown,” didn’t chart, but the band’s following grew due to their live shows on a tour of England supporting Nils Lofgren. The album went to number one in the U.K. At first Petty’s hard melodic songs like “American Girl” were lumped in with punk and new wave bands.
The Heartbreakers’ second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, from 1978 featured the singles “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know.” But MCA bought Shelter Records and contract negotiations left Petty bankrupt.
Petty broke through in 1979 with the Damn the Torpedoes album. The singles “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee” were solid hits, the album hit No. 2, and MCA decided to make an example of Petty’s success by using the follow-up album as an introduction to “superstar pricing,” which would make the album a dollar more than the usual $8.98 an LP cost at the time. Petty protested the label and kept the price down. 1981’s Hard Promises hit the top ten, and featured the single “The Waiting,” and Petty’s first duet with Stevie Nicks on the song “Insider.” Stevie and Tom had a bigger hit with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”
Howie Epstein replaced Blair on bass for 1982’s Long After Dark. The band played Live Aid in 1985, the same year the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart produced their Southern Accents album, which had the hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The tour was captured on the Pack Up the Plantation: Live! album and Bob Dylan invited Petty and the Heartbreakers to join his True Confessions Tour. The band also played dates with the Grateful Dead. In 1987, the band put out the Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) album which had a song Petty wrote with Dylan called “Jammin’ Me.”
Petty joined The Traveling Wilburys in 1988. They recorded two albums, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, after the death of Orbison. Petty released his first solo album Full Moon Fever in 1989. It included the hits “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin'” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
Petty & the Heartbreakers released Into the Great Wide Open in 1991, which included the singles “Learning To Fly” and “Into The Great Wide Open.” Petty left MCA for Warner Bros records after the Tom and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits package which included new songs “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air.”
Petty released the solo album Wildflowers in 1994. Rick Rubin recorded Petty and the Heartbreakers’ soundtrack to the movie She’s the One, and the band backed Johnny Cash on the album Unchained, which won the Best Country Album Grammy in 1996. Rubin also recorded the 1999, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album Echo.
Petty released the album The Last DJ in 2002. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers headlined the fifth annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival with guests included Stevie Nicks, Pearl Jam, the Allman Brothers, Trey Anastasio, the Derek Trucks Band, and the Black Crowes.
In July 2006, Petty released the solo album Highway Companion before reforming Mudcrutch in 2007. In 2008, The Heartbreakers appeared at Super Bowl XLII. In 2010, Petty and the Heartbreakers released the Mojo album. In 2014, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their thirteenth studio album, Hypnotic Eye, which debuted at number one.
Petty would have been 67 in eighteen days.