Tom Petty, one of the great songwriters of the 70s through 90s, died this week aged 66. He is one of the best selling musicians of all time, having sold over 80 million records. He leaves behind a vast string of hits from both a solo career and predominantly as part of the group the Heartbreakers, as well as a successful stint with short lived supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with other rock legends, such as George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra) and Roy Orbison. Petty has also recorded and toured with Fleetwood Mac icon Stevie Nicks and they shared the stage at this summer’s British Summer Time festival. Petty’s hits ranged from 1989’s ‘Free Fallin” to ‘Running Down a Dream’ and ‘Won’t Back Down’, all radio staples of the late 80s and 1990s.
Petty grew up in Florida in the 1950s; he claimed his musical interest started with the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in the early 1960s. Petty dropped out of school aged 17 to pursue a musical career, initially as a bassist. One of Petty’s first guitar teachers, was Don Felder, who lived locally to Petty, and would go on to enjoy international success with the Eagles. The Heartbreakers breakthrough record was 1977’s ‘Breakdown’, and following this, Petty and the Heartbreakers had a consistent period of success. In 1988 Petty joined the aforementioned Travelling Wilburys with Petty singing lead vocals on a few tracks on their debut album including Last Night, as well as having stints on the hit single ‘End of the Line’, which plays over the closing credits of the hit show Parks and Recreations.
radio staples of the late 80s and 1990s
Petty and the Heartbreakers have left a profound musical legacy influencing a string of U.S. and U.K. acts, among those to pay tribute to Petty following his passing were Kings of Leon, with lead singer Caleb Followill stating that the first record he purchased was a Tom Petty record. British producer Mark Ronson has said that growing up in MTV-era America, he found Petty to have had an enormous influence on him. Petty received a writing credit on Sam Smith’s single ‘Stay With Me’, after similarities were found to Petty’s earlier hit, ‘Won’t Back Down’. Petty’s style influenced other acts, with similarities being drawn between his single ‘Running Down a Dream’ and the Strokes’ ‘Last Nite’. Further similarities were drawn between the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s ‘Dani California’ and Petty’s ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’.
Petty’s legacy as one of the great American rock acts of the 1970s and 1980s will endure and hopefully, over time, his music will be appreciated by a new generation of fans, who will be ‘Learning to Fly’ with Tom Petty. This also further stresses that these music icons will not be around forever, so should be respected while we still have them. It’s fair to say that Tom Petty had a profound influence on pop/rock music til the present day, although one perhaps a little more subtle than some other artists.