“You belong with your love on your arm, You belong somewhere you feel free.” Those are words written and spoken by American music cornerstone Tom Petty, who passed on to somewhere he is always free last night at the UCLA Medical Center he had been rushed to earlier that day after being found unconscious and in full cardiac arrest in his home in Malibu earlier that day.
Born on October 20th, 1950 in Gainsville, Florida, suffering an abusive from his father and underperforming academically at school. He fell in love with rock and roll at the age of 11 after meeting Elvis Presley on a movie set. He joined his first band at 14 and quit school at 17 to join southern-rock group Mudcrutch on their rise; a band that included guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Mudcrutch broke up in the late Seventies after moving to L.A., but reformed in a different shape in 1975 when Tench and Campbell, along with bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch, came together to record Petty’s debut demo in 1975. The demo was released under the band name the Heartbreakers, releasing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1976. Though not successful in the U.S. at the time, the album and its minstrels gained U.K. fame and chart success after touring through England opening for Nils Lofgren.
The rest of the seventies saw lukewarm success for the Heartbreakers, as their second album yielded songs that charted in the top half, but Petty’s songwriting credibility took a major upswing when the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn recorded a cover of Petty’s “American Girl.”
Before the decade was over, Petty found himself bankrupt after an attempted contract buyout and it took nine months of litigation for him to find record deal footing again, allowing him to release the most successful album of his career, 1979’s Damn the Torpedos. That album not only reached number 2, but has since been certified-triple platinum.
The Eighties continued to be up and down for Tom Petty, who, despite scoring some hits with the Heartbreakers, lost Ron Blair on their lineup and Petty hit a low when he punched a hole in the wall and broke his hand in a fit of frustration while producing 1985’s Southern Accents. A year later, his house burned down, and while no one was hurt, Petty, his wife, and two daughters lost most of their possessions.
Like the decade before, though, Petty ended the Eighties on a high note with the formation of the Traveling Wilbury’s an American-British supergroup made up of Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne, the latter of which produced Petty’s first solo album in 1989 Full Moon Fever, and the Heartbreaker’s first album of the 90’s.
Petty’s Wildflowers album was also a huge success and earned him a new generation of fans. After some turning to heroin after his divorce from a 22-year marriage, Petty released 1999’s Echo, undoubtedly the darkest album of his career. Heroin addiction plagued Heartbreakers drummer Howie Epstein as well, who had to be fired from the band shortly after the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, welcoming back Ron Blair. As the 2000’s wore on, Petty warmly accepted his departure from being a radio hitmaker, instead reveling in the newfound freedom of his career. This made it all the more surprising when 2014’s Hypnotic Eye hit number 1.
Overall, Petty looked back on his career with profound wisdom, telling Esquire in 2006, “As you’re coming up, you’re recognized song for song and album for album. What’s changed these days is that the man who approached me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work- the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say. And that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s all an artist can ask.” Tom Petty was 66.