Friday 20 July 2018

Obituary: Tom Petty

Singer-songwriter whose heartfelt, melodic hits struck a chord with fans and fellow musicians alike

American musician Tom Petty pictured performing with the Heartbreakers in 2012. Photo: PA
American musician Tom Petty pictured performing with the Heartbreakers in 2012. Photo: PA

Tom Petty, the singer-songwriter, who died from a heart attack last Monday aged 66, was best known over here for a clutch of MTV-friendly hits in the late 1980s which included Free Fallin' and I Won't Back Down, as well as for playing in the era's supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.

In his native America, however, his profile and influence was far greater. Despite an overtly modest manner, and never being primarily a singles artist, with his band the Heartbreakers he sold more than 80 million records in a career that spanned four decades. His heartfelt, melodic sound, derived from his influences such as The Byrds and The Rolling Stones, and resonant of his life in California, struck a chord with fans and fellow musicians alike.

He was asked to join the Wilburys in 1988 because George Harrison realised that he had left a guitar at Petty's house, where they often jammed. The other members, who had already planned to record together, were Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne. Overseen by Dave Stewart and with sleeve notes by Michael Palin, the album The Traveling Wilburys Vol 1 revived Orbison's reputation shortly before his death and greatly enhanced Petty's standing in the UK.

This led to his solo album Full Moon Fever becoming a hit the following year, although his record label had initially refused to release it on the grounds it had no obvious single. As it was, Free Fallin', his hymn to life in Los Angeles, reached No 7 in the US.

The album also featured I Won't Back Down, in the video for which Harrison appeared with Ringo Starr. One example of the pervasiveness of Petty's music was that in 2015 he and Lynne, who had co-written that song, were credited on Sam Smith's hit Stay with Me, the refrain of which owed a debt to the pair's earlier song.

Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, on October 20, 1950. His father, who sold insurance, could not abide a son with obvious artistic interests and regularly beat him.

The young Tom enjoyed school little more, but when he was 11 he briefly met Elvis Presley through an uncle who was working on a film set. He immediately swapped his catapult for a set of the King's records. What proved still more influential, however, was seeing The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, an experience that made him want to put together his own band.

While working in part-time jobs, among them digging graves, he learnt to play guitar; his teachers included Don Felder, later of The Eagles. He taught himself to write songs by copying down lyrics from tunes played on the radio, having sometimes to wait hours to hear a track again if he had missed a word. He also fixed on an image - long blond hair, often topped by a hat and glasses - that would alter little.

By the mid-1970s, he had settled in LA and was gigging with his group Mudcrutch, which eventually evolved into the Heartbreakers. Their early releases made little impact but a tour of Britain in 1976 backing Nils Lofgren gave them more exposure. Their third LP, Damn the Torpedoes, which featured the single Refugee, broke through in the US, reaching No 2 in the album chart, and by 1985 they were an act big enough to appear at Live Aid.

The following year they played as Bob Dylan's backing band on a tour. The day before it began, Petty survived the complete destruction of his house in an arson attack. Despite appearing laid-back, he had unexpected resilience. In the late 1990s, he overcame an addiction to heroin, and before that had made a name for himself in the business by standing up to record companies. Early in his career, he had gone bankrupt rather than be moved to a label against his wishes, and in 1981, following his early success, he resisted plans by MCA to price his next release at the "superstar" level of $9.98 rather than at the customary mark of a dollar less. The executives backed down when he threatened to call the album Eight Ninety-Eight.

In the early 1990s, he charted again with the LP Into the Great Wide Open, the title track of which featured a memorable video starring Johnny Depp. Petty himself occasionally appeared in cameo roles on screen, for instance in The Simpsons. During the past two decades he had continued to record and perform. His solo album Highway Companion reached No 4 in the US in 2006 and in 2014 the Heartbreakers' 13th LP, Hypnotic Eye, gave them their first No 1 there.

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Two years later Petty was part of a stellar line-up there which paid tribute to George Harrison, trading licks with Prince as the latter played a coruscating version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

In 2008 Petty gave the half-time show at the Superbowl - always a barometer of status - and only last week the Heartbreakers played the final gig of their 40th anniversary tour, closing at the Hollywood Bowl. Earlier this summer they had performed in Hyde Park.

Tom Petty married first, in 1974 (dissolved 1996), Jane Benyo, with whom he had two daughters. He is survived by them and by his second wife Dana York, to whom he had been married since 2001.

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment