Several prominent musical legends passed away in 2017. Of note were Gregg Allman, Walter Becker, Chuck Berry, Glenn Campbell, Chris Cornell, and Fats Domino – but it was losing Tom Petty that hit closest to my heart.
Petty, the highway rocker from Gainesville, Fla., who with his band the Heartbreakers, sold some 80 million records, died unexpectedly on Oct. 2 at the age of 66. Early in the morning Petty was found unconscious at his home, not breathing and in full cardiac arrest. He was transported to the UCLA Medical Center, where he died at 8:40 PM surrounded by family and bandmates.
The resulting autopsy indicated Petty’s cardiac arrest was the result of an accidental drug overdose caused by the artists mixing of several prescription items. The medical examiner said the autopsy found the following drugs in Petty’s system: fentanyl, oxycodone, acetyl fentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl (which are opioids for pain); temazepam and alprazolam (which are sedatives); and citalopram (an antidepressant).
Acetyl fentanyl is a Schedule I drug that has not been approved for medical use in the United States and there are no published studies on safety for human use. Fentanyl is a powerful prescription painkiller that is responsible for more than 20,000 of the estimated 64,000 overdose deaths yearly in the U.S., including Prince in 2016.
Prior to embarking on the recent Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour, Petty had taken a fall and fractured his hip, yet continued to perform nightly on the 50-plus date tour through the pain. On the day he died Petty was informed his fractured hip had graduated to a full-on break, and his family suggested the intense pain led to an overuse of medications.
Petty is known for his distinctive nasally voice and chiming guitar. The vocals are Bob Dylan-esque, with a melody evocative of The Byrds, a swagger from the Rolling Stones, and his storytelling element is reminiscent of blues legend B.B. King – all overlaid with a veneer of Southern rock.
Coming up in the early 1970s, disco ruled the charts as punk rock snarled at its heels. Arena rock was also at its peak. Huge bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, and Lynyrd Skynyrd were all in their prime. Petty and the Heartbreakers were more of an insurgent outfit. They had a stripped-down sound, like avant-garde garage rock. It was deconstructed of pretense, brash, proud and screaming to be heard.
Petty rode to success coming out of Gainesville, Fla., where he endured an abusive home life. Rock-n-roll was his escape. It touched him deeply, in his heart, and he never let it go. Two early incidences were particularly influential to a young Petty that helped steer him toward a life of musical success.
When he was 10, his uncle worked on the set of an Elvis Presley film in nearby Ocala, aptly titled, “Follow That Dream.” Petty was invited to come watch the shoot and met Presley. Seeing Elvis at work and how the icon interacted on set was magical. Of the meeting Petty said, “Elvis glowed.”
The other early influence on Petty was The Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. These young Brits from Liverpool were exploding on the scene, and in them Petty saw a pathway for how he could make it from Gainesville to becoming a rock-n-roller.
Petty’s first band was the Sundowners. Then the Epics, which evolved into Mudcrutch, a blues-R&B-rock group that included future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench III on keyboards, along with lead guitarist Tom Leadon, drummer Randall Marsh and Petty, then playing bass.
While Mudcrutch was popular around Gainesville this was not the place to try and make it big. They had a close source of inspiration in Tom Leadon’s older brother, Bernie, who left Gainesville for Los Angeles, and found success as a multi-instrumentalist in LA’s burgeoning alt-country scene. Leadon had played for the influential country-rock group the Flying Burrito Brothers, and in 1971 helped form the Eagles.
Petty and Leadon were of the opinion that finding a bigger pond where the scene was happening was the way to go, so Mudcrutch headed west. On the way they scored a recording contract with Shelter Records in Tulsa, Okla., but ultimately Mudcrutch was unable to survive its inability to attract a bigger record label.
Out of the wreckage of Mudcrutch Petty was going to start a solo career, but keyboardist Benmont Tench was putting together a band and had scored some free studio time. Without money to hire other musicians Tench invited ex-Mudcrutchers Petty (now playing guitar), Mike Campbell, and a couple other Florida musicians who’d made the cross-country trek, drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair. This grew into the Heartbreakers.
They didn’t exactly enjoy instant success, but with their eponymous debut in 1976, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers established themselves as a talent to be reckoned with. They were hard to categorize. Because of their garage rock sound some tried to call them punk, which was a stretch, but they didn’t fit the gargantuan bombast of stadium rockers like Queen, Alice Cooper or AC/DC.
Still on this first disc the Heartbreakers produced what would become two of their biggest hits, Breakdown and the album closer American Girl, arguably the band’s defining song. Additionally, Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It) was an important track for its dark look at relationships gone bad. Their debut peaked at No. 55 on Billboard.
The Heartbreakers followed this with You’re Gonna Get It in 1978. Again two monster songs charted in I Need to Know and Listen to Her Heart, along with the title track, which offered an edgier side to their reputation. This follow-up landed the group in the Top 30, reaching No. 23.
With two discs released the band was recognized for its delivery of sharp stories about fast living and the difficult relationships that come with it. Not like Van Halen with its strippers and nylons flying out car windows, but real young people, chasing dreams and facing consequences.
For the Heartbreakers’ third disc they signed with MCA’s Backstreet Records label, and met Jimmy Iovine, a mover and shaker in the entertainment industry. This introduction would prove to change the fate of this young band.
With Iovine taking over production duties for the Heartbreakers in 1979, they recorded Damn the Torpedoes at the infamous Sound City studio. This was the commercial breakthrough Petty dreamed about, as the record went multi-platinum almost instantly.
Classics like Don’t Do Me Like That, Refugee and Here Comes My Girl all poured forth, with concert staple Louisiana Rain closing out the disc. With the band’s burgeoning reputation already established, Damn the Torpedoes cemented the Heartbreakers’ status as rock royalty.
The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts, blocked from reaching the top spot by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. In 2003, the album was ranked No. 313 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
With Damn the Torpedoes and the focus Jimmy Iovine brought to the Heartbreakers, the band took a huge leap forward. They now had a signature sound. Along with Petty’s nasally drawl and gangly guitar was a lush layered echo from the Heartbreakers’ backing vocals, Benmont’s organ, crisp percussion from Lynch and Campbell’s precision guitar.
This established Petty as part of what was categorized as the heartland rock movement, that included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and John Mellencamp.
The hits kept coming for the Heartbreakers on discs such as Hard Promises (1981); Long After Dark (1982); Southern Accents (1985); Into the Great Wide Open (1991), and finally 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Pushing their albums to even greater heights was Petty’s embrace of the music video. When MTV hit in 1981, Petty & the Heartbreakers were in the vanguard of acts that recognized the power of this communications medium to better reach its audience and grow its brand. This business savvy attitude put the Heartbreakers in elite company with Madonna and Michael Jackson.
Petty also had a successful solo career that really felt little different from his work with the Heartbreakers. In fact most if not all of his backing band were involved with Full Moon Fever (1989) Wildflowers (1994) and Highway Companion (2006).
Less known is that Petty enjoyed a simultaneous acting career to his musical one, appearing in television and motion pictures, with a recurring role as the voice of Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt in the animated comedy series King of the Hill.
An overarching aspect to Petty’s personality was how he remained a humble individual. Since many of the bands he looked up to were still in existence or at least key members remained active, Petty was deferential about his success, even though critics ranked the Heartbreakers in an elite echelon.
His grounded honesty made Petty a musician’s musician. He just loved playing and getting involved in the non-verbal communication that took place through phrasing with instruments. It’s this modesty that led to a fruitful pursuit of collaboration with other famous musicians.
In 1981 he teamed up with Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac on the smash hit Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around. The Heartbreakers were invited to join Bob Dylan on his True Confessions tour in 1986, that included the Grateful Dead. This resulted in Petty joining fellow music legends Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison in 1988 to form The Traveling Wilburys.
With all these highs came powerful lows, and Petty struggled secretly with heroin addiction in the 1990s after the collapse of his 20-year marriage and a failed album. In author Warren Zanes’ 2015 book, Petty: The Biography, the musician revealed he tried to quit cold turkey but failed. “It’s an ugly fucking thing,” said Petty.
Drug addiction was a cautionary tale the band knew well. By their fifth album, Long After Dark (1982), bass player Ron Blair had tired of the touring life and left the band. He was replaced by Howie Epstein, who ultimately developed a severe heroin addiction and was kicked out of the band in 2002. Epstein succumbed to complications related to drug abuse a year later.
Just prior to Petty’s death, the Heartbreakers finished an extensive 53-stop tour marking the band’s 40th anniversary. The tour began on April 20 in Oklahoma City and concluded Sept. 25 on the third night of a sold-out homecoming stand at the Hollywood Bowl. Petty indicated this would be the Heartbreakers’ last major tour.
For their career Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers scored some 30 singles charting on Billboard’s Hot 100 sales ranking. They won three Grammy Awards, had 18 nominations, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
“Music, as far as I have seen in the world so far, is the only real magic that I know” said Petty. “There is something really honest and clean and pure and it touches you in your heart.”