Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


PETTY, Tom, and the Heartbreakers

Rock group formed '75 in Los Angeles by Tom Petty (b 20 October '50, Gainesville FL; d 30 September 2017), who'd been inspired by seeing Elvis Presley filming on location in Florida early '60s. Apprenticeship in school surfing bands, graduating to semi-pro Epics playing covers of Animals, James Brown, Sam and Dave, instilling the catholic taste he retained throughout his career. He returned to school to beat the draft and joined Mudcrutch, a top local band including Mike Campbell on guitar, Benmont Tench on keyboards; they moved to L.A. but broke up. Petty's plans to record solo for Shelter came to nothing.

Campbell and Tench recruited a local rhythm section of Stan Lynch, drums, Ron Blair on bass; Petty wrote them into his Shelter plans and got booked supporting Nils Lofgren on a UK tour, taking Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers '76 to the UK charts, a crisp debut LP borrowing from all areas of US pop: as with Talking Heads, Blondie and Television, UK success preceded acclaim at home. Their top 40 hits UK/USA were derivative but delivered with panache; they got a seal of approval when ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn covered 'American Girl' and toured with Petty. You're Gonna Get It '78 was disappointingly two-dimensional; his muse benefited from an enforced layoff as MCA bought Shelter and legal wrangles ensued; Damn The Torpedoes '79 on Backstreet (MCA associate) was better, no. 2 for seven weeks in the USA and boosting him into the Bruce Springsteen/Bob Seger 'blue collar hero' bracket, including top ten 'Don't Do Me Like That'. A follow-up tour was cancelled due to tonsillitis; they played No Nukes concert (but were scratched from the film as he considered the performance substandard); Hard Promises '81 again caused controversy as he refused to sell it for more than $8.98 (its original title): he won, celebrated in sleeve photo, posing in front of stack of marked-down records. Long After Dark '82 was more of the same, Blair replaced by ex-John Hiatt sideman Howie Epstein. Side projects included backing Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks on her solo Bella Donna '81 (including hit 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around'), Del Shannon comeback Drop Down And Get Me '81 (Petty produced). Top 20 hits were finally followed by Southern Accents '85, a bitty LP with several songs co-written by Eurythmics' Dave Stewart (including an effective hit 'Don't Come Around Here No More'): some ideas worked better than others, but it was the first real variation of sound since early days, bringing in some electronics; two-disc live Pack Up The Plantation '85 was overblown, familiar groove of covers and hits; Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) '87 had eleven new songs including 'Jammin' Me', co-written with Bob Dylan: few surprises but no clichés either.

They toured Australia backing Dylan (video '87), some members played on Dylan's Knocked Out Loaded, all on single/title track of film Band Of The Hand (produced by Petty). Tench backed Elvis Costello live '87. Petty took part in the Traveling Wilburys '88-90 (an all-star group, see Roy Orbison). Went solo with Full Moon Fever '89, backed by all the Heartbreakers except Stan Lynch, and was back in the top five of the U.S. album chart with a solid set of Dylan-ish '60s sound; Into The Great Wide Open '91 went top 15, both co-produced by Jeff Lynne. There was some worry in the '80s that Petty would end up a stadium act, but we should have known better; the music has become more mellow and would not work in a stadium, and besides, Petty simply couldn't have gone that route. In the years with MCA he visited the company's headquarters just three times, uncomfortable with interviews and adulation (except for the music); he just makes an album and delivers it, and the fans are always pleased. 'I've never had an A&R man assigned to me, ever.'

When the MCA contract ran out he switched to WB, where the management team of Mo Austin and Larry Waronker were as laid-back as Petty, and the clean, warm sound of Wildflowers '94 (produced by Rick Rubin) was the result, 15 varied and timely songs unmistakably his. Asked to provide one song for a romantic comedy film, he made an album-full: Songs And Music From The Motion Picture She's The One '96. The indie tribute album You Got Lucky has Petty's tunes played by underground bands a lot of people have never heard of, but he didn't mind; the tribute was heartfelt, and the bands are favourites of his teenage daughters, so he was prepared for the shock. Six-CD Playback on MCA was a dream compilation for Petty fans, from early demos to album tracks.

He was also an actor, starring with Kevin Costner in The Postman '97, and the voice of Elroy "Lucky" Kleinschmidt in the animated comedy TV series King of the Hill. He struggled with heroin in the late '90s. Among his later work was Highway Companion c.2006, a set of excellent songs not so much influenced by Dylan as coming from the same place Dylan came from. He died suddenly and shockingly of cardiac arrest, found unresponsive in his home, passing away in hospital the same day.