“you could stand me at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down,” Tom Petty’s lyrics from his album Wildflowers sum up his entire stance on life and his musical achievements. A major contributor to the rock and roll scene and a loved father, husband and friend passed away in the UCLA medical center late in the evening October 2nd from a sudden cardiac arrest. The 66-year-old had just returned from a 40th Anniversary Tour of the US, he predicted accurately that it would be the last tour the Heartbreakers played over 50 shows consequently; he claimed that he didn’t want to live life on the road and that he was looking forward to still playing and devoting time to family. The man’s belief in playing good music with close friends that had grown to be his family was his enduring trademark that served him for over 40 years. Born to an insurance salesman on October 20, 1950 in Gainsville, Florida, young Tom Petty found comfort from a strained parental relationship and subpar academics in the works of Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He idolized the “king of rock n’ roll,” for his star image, even going so far as to say that he glowed; The Rolling Stones, he couldn’t help but to refer back to time and again for the grittiness and genuineness that pulsed from their work, but it was The Beatles rise to fame that caused Petty to realize that it was possible to a rockstar, that it could as simple as picking a band and songs and getting to play music you loved every day of your life. Inspired by their success, he formed a southern rock band called Mudcrutch in 1970 with some of his friends; although their 1975 single Depot Street didn’t make a huge impact beyond the streets of Gainsville, Petty learned valuable guitaring and songwriting skills that he brought along when he formed a new band with Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Stan Lynch and Mike Campbell called the Heartbreakers. Their work only grew in popularity; their first album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, established the Heartbreakers as a band and won immense support abroad, their second album, You’re Gonna Get It, was the band’s first Top 40 album and their third album, Damn the Torpedoes, went platinum. Petty channeled his anger at his broken relationship with his father into gritty but beautiful tales of defiance and love, sung with a passion and urgency that quickly captured America’s heart and produced hits such as Listen to her Heart, Don’t Do Me Like That, Here Comes My Girl and Refugee. Never one for sitting still, during the late 1970s, Petty was balancing a life as a husband to Jane Benyo, his childhood sweetheart and as a father to their daughters Adria and AnnaKim. The next few years were even busier for Petty and the rest of the Heartbreakers, when asked about that time, Petty stated that it felt like he was swimming upstream. Evocative of rock n’ roll, the Heartbreakers demanded to have control over their own music and thus, when ABC records, their record label that had produced their last three records, attempted to sell their contract to the record label MCA, they fought them for the next nine months in lawsuits in order to gain the right to decide who produced their music and how it was done. One band fighting an entire record label meant that they were left filing for bankruptcy at the end of it; furthermore, their fourth album, Hard Promises, released in 1981, was almost released as Eight Ninety-Eight as protest to the dollar increase in price from 8.98 by their record label. Realizing the fiery attitude of the Heartbreakers, their record label backed down and allowed the album to sold for the original 8.98 price point. Revitalized from the band’s victories, Petty spent his next years touring with Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead; releasing The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and 3 with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lyne; working with the Heartbreakers on a fifth album, Into the Great Wide Open; and releasing his first solo album called Full Moon Fever, which included the songs I Won’t Back Down and Free Fallin. On top of this full work load, he started his acting career for the 1987 film Made in Heaven and the 1987 show It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. He would continue to make small appearances in the acting world through the 1997 film The Postman, a 2002 The Simpsons Episode, and a recurring role from 2004 to 2009 on the King of the Hill. He also released his second solo album, Wildflower in 1994, which sold over 3 million copies within the U.S. alone. Unfortunately, the strides made in his professional career during the 1980s and ‘90s were sobered by the upheaval in his personal one; after 22 years together, his marriage with Jane Benyo ended in 1996. The next few years were some of the darkest of his career; he turned to heroin to escape the pain of his marriage failing and some of the lyrics from the band’s fifth album, Echo, were so upsetting to Petty after his tour that he refused to play them later. As devastating as his divorce was, he once again found solace in his music and his pain seemed to free him from worrying about writing hit songs; his next album, The Last DJ, showcased traditional Petty spirit to challenge anything he didn’t agree with by shedding light on corrupt practices within the music industry. Petty continued to pour all of his energy into his music, he released a 2006 solo album entitled Highway Companion, which was still darker than his before 1996 work; reunited with some members of Mudcrutch to release a single in 2007, released Mojo and a chart-topping Hypnotic Eye with the Heartbreakers and performed American Girl and I Won’t Back Down for the Super pBowl XLII with the Heartbreakers.The many contributions that the Heartbreakers made through their work to the rock n’ roll field were recognized by a star on the Hollywood walk of fame in 1999 and their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Tom Petty’s music legacy has influenced Bon Jovi, Cage the Elephant, Sam Smith, Taylor Swift, Kings of Leon and many others. His passion for his music and his down-to-earth stubborn nature combined with his gift for creating popular lyrics that resonated with American identity to shape the future of rock music in America and leave Petty a legend. Even though thousands are saddened by his sudden, too soon death, his work will forever inspire a new generation of the angry, disheartened or lost to follow in Petty’s footsteps, find something they love and be privileged enough to do it for life and define success on their own terms.
Written By Susanna Gavin