It’s incredibly hard to discuss the landscape of American rock & roll music in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s without including Tom Petty in that discussion. Petty was a multi-talented musician, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer, who, during his incredibly long career, sold more than 80 million albums.
Petty also formed a supergroup with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison, and spent his free time fighting for the rights of every musician who wanted to step on a stage and share their art with the world.
One Of Rock & Roll’s Greatest
Petty also battled his own demons, was nearly killed by an arsonist, and didn’t score his first #1 album until he was in his 60s. Sadly, Petty died on October 2, 2017, after he suffered from cardiac arrest and was unable to be revived by doctors at UCLA Medical Center.
In January of 2018, Tom Petty’s family made the startling announcement that the singer’s death three months earlier had been the result of an accidental drug overdose. Many fans were surprised by this revelation, as Petty had expressed some pretty strong views on drugs and alcohol during his life.
The coroner’s report listed “multi-system organ failure” due to “mixed drug toxicity” as the official cause of death. The dangerous opioid drug fentanyl, along with oxycodone, citalopram, temazepam, Xanax, despropionyl fentanyl, and acetyl fentanyl were discovered in his system during the autopsy. Petty had been in excruciating pain after completing a 53-show tour on a fractured hip. While touring, Petty’s fracture worsened to a full-blown break.
Petty Wrote The Book On Better Contract Negotiations
In 1979, Tom Petty was a rock star but he was also broke. The singer/songwriter filed for bankruptcy even though he had his next album ready to be released. Petty refused to release "Damn the Torpedoes" until his record label, MCA, gave him a better contract.
The tactic worked and Petty was able to sign a new contract with one of the company’s subsidiaries. Petty’s negotiation tactics would soon be copied by other artists who earned more money by following his advice in the years to come. He would continue to fight for artist pay and rights throughout his entire illustrious career.
He Hated Price Gouging And Fought Against It
Petty refused to release his album "Hard Promises" after he learned his label wanted to increase the price of the album from $8.98 to $9.98. The famous artist didn’t believe in gouging customers on price and he ended up winning that battle.
Even as the years went on, the cost of attending a Tom Petty show was considerably cheaper than many of the rock & roll legends that he often outsold and outperformed over the years. Even when he was facing his own money problems in the early days of his career, Petty always sided with giving his fans an affordable experience.
Petty’s Guitar Teacher Was Don Felder of The Eagles
Legendary Eagles guitarist Don Felder is four years older than Tom Petty and has the distinction of teaching the rock legend to play guitar. In an interview with WROR Boston, he recalled that Petty was playing bass in a band called "Epics" but the frontman desperately wanted to learn the guitar. "He really didn’t want to be the singing bass player," Felder explained.
Soon the two men were jamming out in the guitar shop where they met and at Petty’s house. It’s hard to imagine Tom Petty fronting The Heartbreakers while jamming out to the bass and what would have become of his famously simple rhythms if he didn’t learn to play the guitar.
He Was Luanne Platter’s Husband On King Of The Hill
Tom Petty wasn’t just a singer/songwriter, he also dabbled in acting and voice work. Fans of Mike Judge’s animated TV series King of the Hill were treated to Petty’s voice talents while he played the sweet but dim-witted character named Lucky. Luanne Platter’s husband appeared on the TV series for five years and he was a hit among viewers.
Judge would later say that Petty was the "most impressive" guest spot in the program’s history. Judge has joked that Lucky is what Petty would look like "without the success" and that’s why they made a shot in the dark to land the singer, who quickly agreed to the gig.
An Arsonist Tried To Kill Petty And His Family
Tom Petty was sitting down to breakfast with his family on May 17, 1987, when they started to smell smoke inside their Encino, California home. The house was soon engulfed in flames. Petty managed to escape the blaze with his wife and five-year-old daughter. His housekeeper suffered minor injuries after helping Petty fight the fire. Petty and his family lost more than $1 million because of the fire.
Investigators soon learned that the blaze was intentionally started by an arsonist who drenched the house’s back staircase in lighter fluid. Petty had trouble using the word "fire" in songs after that day but his massive hit "I Won’t Back Down" spoke to the experience, especially the lyrics, "I’ll stand my ground / And I won’t back down."
His First Multi-Platinum Album Was Rejected — At First
Record executives at MCA rejected "Full Moon Fever" and it allegedly "knocked down" the famous singer, despite his recent successes. Shortly after the rejection, Petty was invited to a dinner that was also attended by Warner Bros. boss honcho Mo Ostin and Warner President Lenny Waronker.
After they heard Petty play "Free Fallin’" for the first time the men immediately offered to sign Petty to their label. The singer jumped ship from MCA and released arguably his best record of all time. MCA would go on to release "Fever" but the damage was already done and in 1994 Petty released "Wildflowers" under the Warn Bros. insignia.
He Nearly Convinced Dave Grohl To Join The Heartbreakers
Following the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain, drummer Dave Grohl was suddenly left with a decision to make. Should he go forward with his own solo project or join an established band? Petty offered Grohl the chance to replace Heartbreakers’ drummer Stan Lynch.
We know what decision Grohl rightfully made but the idea of a grunge drummer joining the mellow laid back sounds of The Heartbreakers is fascinating. The guys did get together to play a gig on Saturday Night Live. Both bands went on to sell millions of albums with their own sounds. It’s hard to imagine either band not existing just as they did.
Speaking Of SNL — Petty Is Part Of An Exclusive Club
Saturday Night Live is very selective of the company it keeps and the "five-timers club" is even more exclusive. Petty was a big hit on the show for years and performed eight times. Petty appeared on episodes that featured a bunch of other five-timers including Buck Henry, Steve Martin, John Goodman, Tom Hanks, and the ever-present Alec Baldwin.
He may not have hosted the show as many times but he’s appeared more than most actors and that’s impressive for any musician on SNL. His performances on the show always wowed the audience and his unique rock & roll sound will be missed.
He Turned Down An Incredibly Popular Don Henley Song
In 1984, Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell was composing a song that he hoped the band would record for their next album. The song, "The Boys Of Summer," was not well received by Tom Petty because of its heavy use of synthesizers. Campbell approached Don Henley who loved the track and wrote lyrics for the composition.
In all fairness to Petty, it was likely the combination of composition and lyrics that turned this song into a big hit. Petty was right though, it most certainly didn’t sound like a song his band would record and perform in front of a live audience.
Tom Petty’s First #1 Album Wasn’t Released Until 2014
Despite selling more than 80 million albums around the world during his amazing career, Tom Petty did not score his first #1 album until 2014. The release of "Hypnotic Eye" was the first time the singer topped the charts. The album sold 131,000 copies in its first week.
Tom Petty was 64-years-old at the time of the album’s release and "Hypnotic Eye" topped the Billboard 200. Petty may not have released a #1 album for a very long time but he has four decades of impressive music that proves he really was doing it for the love of the craft.
Stevie Nicks Wanted To Be A Heartbreaker
Stevie Nicks is a music legend in her own right but for a brief period in 1981, she wanted to be a Heartbreaker. The band worked with Nicks on the classic "Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around" which appeared on the singer’s first solo album.
Nicks would later reveal that she would have fled Fleetwood Mac if Petty and his band had given her the chance to join their group. "Had Tom Petty called me up one day and said, ‘If you want to leave Fleetwood Mac to be in the Heartbreakers, there’s a place for you,’ I might well have done it!" she told Rolling Stone.
Tom Petty’s Worst Critic Was — Tom Petty
Tom Petty made a lot of bad albums. Don’t believe us? He was the first person to admit that some of his work was trash. Petty told Rolling Stone that the 1999 album "Echo" was recorded right after his divorce when his life was in shatters. For his 1982 album "Long After Dark" he says it felt like "treading water."
The biggest critique of his own work though was reserved for his 1996 soundtrack for the movie "She’s the One." Petty told Men’s Journal of that production, "I hated that record — the whole idea of it offended me. I only did it because I didn’t have anything else to do. I liked [director] Ed [Burns], and thought he was pretty sharp, so I wrote him a couple of songs. And then it kept mushrooming."
Tom Petty Dropped Out Of School At 17
Tom Petty was a bass-playing dropout. When he was just 17-years-old he decided the rock and roll lifestyle was right for his future. He dropped out of school and formed the band "Mudcrutch" in the late 1960s. He would eventually leave that group to form Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
In 2007, Petty announced a new album with Mudcrutch, it was well received but would mark the end of his recording time with his former bandmates. He might have lacked a formal education but Petty helped transform the musical landscape for more than 40 years prior to his death on October 2, 2017.
One Of His Best Friends Was A Beatle
Tom Petty and George Harrison became really good friends and stayed in contact for decades. Despite their close friendship, Petty rarely talked about their time together. Petty later revealed to NPR that he didn’t talk about the relationship because "The Beatles are so special that people might see it as boasting or something."
He referred to Harrison like having an older brother in the music industry who could provide their experience. He said Harrison was one of the first people he would approach when facing difficult troubles or when certain questions would arise. The men did sing together with the Traveling Wilburys.
He Changed His Mind About The Confederate Flag
When touring throughout the 1980s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers used the Confederate flag as part of their show’s symbolism. During a Rolling Stone interview in 2015, Petty said the flag was the "wallpaper of the South" and growing up in Florida, he never gave any thought to the negative connotations of the symbol.
Petty would eventually send cease-and-desist letters to prominent members of the Republican party who attempted to use his music during their campaigns. Petty would spend a good portion of his time fighting for anyone who he believed needed their voices to be heard, especially people who were marginalized by the South, including members of the LGBT community.
Petty Hated The Streaming Music Industry — But It Wasn’t About Him
Petty didn’t like the increase in streaming music services that he witnessed over the last decade. The famed rockstar wasn’t concerned about his own well-being, after all, he became very wealthy during his forty-year career. Instead, the rocker once claimed that music streaming was a "slap in the face" to new artists who haven’t established themselves enough to make big money touring and selling merchandise and albums to their fans.
"There are artists far less fortunate than me that make their living [making music], and I think it’s a slap in the face to them to think that you can take their work for free."
He Hated Alcohol But Got Addicted To Heroin
Petty revealed that he didn’t drink alcohol because the feeling of being "buzzed" never sat well with him. The famous rock & roll legend also admitted that he couldn’t find any alcohol he really liked the taste of which helped him avoid drinking.
While Petty didn’t like to get wasted after a show, he was a huge supporter of legalized marijuana. While he wouldn’t touch alcohol he did get addicted to heroin for a short time in the 1990s. He never opened up about his addiction over the fear that it would "glamorize" the drug and lead his fans down a similar path of self-destruction.
Petty Admitted He Was Abused By His Dad
Petty admitted 30 years into his career that he didn’t have a safe relationship with his father. Petty said it was hard for his dad to accept he had a son who was “a mild-mannered kid who was interested in the arts.” His dad allegedly subjected him to both verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis.
Petty says he clung to his mother, who he was extremely close with and also his brother, Bruce. Petty was always known as a singer/songwriter who could weave together incredibly vivid stories in his songs, perhaps his early emotional experiences led the way.
His Death Was Eerily Timed With His ‘Last Big’ Tour
After more than 40 years of music recording and touring, Petty told reporters his 40th-anniversary tour would be his “last big one.” The famed rocker still wanted to write and record music, but his days of non-stop shows were likely behind him. Petty appeared in three sold-out concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, which closed out the tour.
The final sold-out appearance happened on September 25th. One week later the singer would pass away after suffering full cardiac arrest at the young age of 66. His longtime manager, Tony Dimitriades said the singer passed away at UCLA Medical Center while surrounded by family and friends.
Petty Made Some Bad Business Decisions
When his first big break arrived, Petty signed a contract that gave away 100% of his publishing rights for every song he recorded. The cost of securing those rights? $10,000. Petty played hardball for his fourth album and won 50% of the album’s publishing rights.
Petty also was forced to claim bankruptcy because of another legal fight that caused him to delay his next album. After various business failures, he was finally propped up by the success of his biggest selling singles, “Don’t do me Like That” and “Refugee. It makes sense that he would spend much of his career fighting for artists rights after what he personally experienced.
Petty Was Infatuated With Elvis After A Childhood Encounter
In the summer of 1961, an 11-year-old Tom Petty was accompanied by his cousin, Said Darnell, to meet Elvis Presley. It was an afternoon that would change Petty’s life forever by helping him determine what career path he would choose to fully embrace by 17-years-old.
Sadie would later admit that Petty became “completely enthralled” with Elvis and it was apparent during their encounter that Petty had experienced a “life-altering moment.” After returning home from his Elvis encounter, Petty announced to his family that he was going to be a rock star. He fulfilled that promise to his family within fifteen years.
He Was Awarded A Writing Credit On A Sam Smith Hit
If you listen to the hit Sam Smith track, “Stay With Me” and then follow it up with the Petty hit “I Won’t Back Down” you will immediately notice a very similar music track. Petty’s team used Sam Smith and they settled the distraction by giving Tom Petty a writing credit on the song and paying him 12.5% of the song’s past and future earnings.
The issue was settled amicably with the following statement following the settlement: “Although the likeness was a complete coincidence, all involved came to an immediate and amicable agreement in which Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne are now credited as co-writers of ‘Stay With Me’ along with Sam Smith, James Napier and William Phillips.”
B.F. Goodrich Was Sued For Stealing A Tom Petty Song
To be fair, it wasn’t B.F. Goodrich, but rather an ad agency working with the tire manufacturer who stole a Tom Petty song by creating a horrible knockoff version of “Mary’s New Car.” Apparently, an ad executive offered Petty and his team a lot of money to use the song but they refused with an “absolute no” according to his publisher.
A judge heard Petty’s version and the commercial version and admitted that it was nothing more than a shameless ripoff. The ad was ordered to be removed from screening and Petty’s publishing team would soon agree to an out of court settlement.
Is That You Mr. Petty?
On the first Traveling Wilbury’s album, the name Carlie T. Wilbury, Jr. was used as a fictional name by Petty. He was also known to go by Muddy Wilbury. We often hear about acts who perform secret concerts under fake names but Petty just seemed to like playing around with fake names.
Oddly, Petty never tried to hide the fact that he was the man playing with the supergroup. Perhaps, given his love of appearing on TV and in movies, he just wanted to perform outside of his own name for the method aspect of taking on a different persona.
Tom Petty Was A Gravedigger
After dropping out of school at 17-years-old, a young Tom Petty just wanted to play music. Unfortunately, he had to pay the bills so he took odd jobs. The strangest job he worked? Petty briefly served as a gravedigger. He didn’t stick with the job for very long and by his early 20’s Petty was well on his way to becoming a respected rock & roll star.
The singer held a few other odd jobs as he jumped between bands and searched for his voice in the music scene. Forty years later and he has sold millions of albums and developed a massive fan following who will mourn his death for years.
A Bunch Of Urban Legends Started About Homes He Lived In
Tomy Petty grew up in Gainesville, Florida, living in his parent’s house for his formative years before moving out on his own. If you ask people around the city where Petty lived they will likely point out a handful of homes where the singer "crashed" or "lived for a while."
In reality, Tom Petty laughed at the suggestion that he lived in so many homes throughout the city. In reality, after he moved out of his childhood home, he lived in several unassuming apartments. Regardless of his squashing of those urban legends, some homes still use the Tom Petty name for the purpose of renting out rooms or simply for notoriety.