By Josh Simpkins
Special to the Sun
“Sometimes, there’s a man. Well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” Yes, this is a quote from one of my top 10 all-time favorite films, The Big Lebowski. Though these lines are directed at Jeff Bridge’s character The Dude, I use these words to describe the late, great musician Tom Petty. That’s right, dear friends and neighbors, I solemnly report that Tom Petty, the dynamic, Grammy-winning rock legend and iconoclastic front man who led the band The Heartbreakers passed away peacefully at 8:40 p.m. on October 2, 2017, at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, California, after suffering full cardiac arrest. He was 66.
Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, the son of an insurance salesman, on October 20, 1950. According to reports, Petty’s father was a bit of a fiend who beat him, resulting in Petty not performing well in school. Silver lining, however, he found solace in music. In 1961, Petty met Elvis Presley, who was shooting his film Follow That Dream in Ocala, Florida. Petty’s uncle was involved in the production of the movie. This chance meeting became a “life-altering moment” for young 11year old Petty. Shortly afterwards, he swapped his slingshot for a friend’s collection of Elvis records.
Petty got his first guitar as a preteen and joined his first band in the mid ‘60s. He quit high school at the age of 17 to join the southern-rock group Mudcrutch, which was heating up at the time. The group’s lineup featured guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, two musicians Petty would collaborate with for much of the next five decades. Unfortunately, just while the band was really taking off, they broke up upon moving to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s. Hey, that’s life in the music biz. (Though Petty would reunite the band in 2007 and go on to record two full Mudcrutch albums and an EP.)
Petty started his solo career in earnest in 1975 when he cut a demo with Campbell and Tench that also featured bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. They called themselves the Heartbreakers and, thanks to a label that signed Mudcrutch and had the foresight to retain Petty on contract after the band broke up, they recorded their debut, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which came out in 1976. Though the album lagged in the States, it was well received in the U.K., and it wasn’t long before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were on the U.S. charts.
Petty’s romanticized tales of rebels, outcasts and refugees started climbing the pop charts. When he sang, his voice was filled with a heartfelt drama that perfectly complemented the Heartbreakers’ ragged rock and roll sound. Songs like “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” “Learning to Fly,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” all dominated Billboard’s rock chart, and most Petty’s albums have been certified either gold or platinum. The band’s most recent effort, 2014s “Hypnotic Eye,” scored the rockers their very first No. 1 album.
Petty sold more than 80 million records worldwide over his nearly five decades in the music business. He was nominated for 18 Grammy Awards throughout his career and won three, including Best Rock Vocal Performance in 1996 for “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Petty, who also recorded two albums as a member of the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys in the late ‘80s, which was comprised of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. As an actor, he was featured in Kevin Costner’s The Postman, The Larry Sanders Show and lent his voice to episodes of The Simpsons and King of the Hill.
Petty is survived by his wife of sixteen years, Dana York, and two daughters, editor-cinematographer-director Adria Petty and artist/model Anna Kim Petty, a.k.a. AnnaKim Violette. All happy thoughts and prayers go out to the Petty family during this difficult time. Rest in Paradise, Tom Petty.