The Tom Petty NME obituary: 1950 – 2017

One of America’s greatest songwriters

Tom Petty died today in a hospital bed in Santa Monica. The songs he wrote – ‘Free Fallin’’, ‘American Girl’, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’ and many, many others – will live as long as there are people listening to rock’n’roll records.

Petty was born on 20 October 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. His childhood was not a happy one. He would later tell his biographer Warren Zanes that his father Earl: “beat the living shit out of me.”

At the age of 10 he shook hands with Elvis after his uncle took him to visit the set of Follow That Dream. Petty went home and traded his slingshot for a box of 45-RPM records. At the age of 13 he saw The Beatles’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show and decided that he wanted to form a band. His first band was called The Epics, who later evolved into swamp rockers Mudcrutch. That band split in late 1975.


Tom Petty August 2005
August 2005: Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers perform at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine, California.

By now, Petty had succeeded in getting out of Gainesville and was living in Los Angeles. He once said of ‘American Girl’, written in the following years: “The American Girl is just one example of this character I write about a lot; the small-town kid who knows there’s something more out there, but gets fucked up trying to find it. I always felt sympathetic with her.”

That song closed the 1976 self-titled debut album by the group Petty assembled out of the wreckage of Mudcrutch, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Initially unsuccessful in America, their record became a hit in Britain helped the band playing ‘Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll’ on Top of the Pops on 16th June 1977.

Their 1978 follow-up, ‘You’re Gonna Get It!’ featured the likes of ‘I Need to Know’ and ‘Listen To Her Heart’, but it was the band’s third album which would prove to be their breakthrough. 1979’s ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ went triple-platinum and gave the world tunes like ‘Refugee’, ‘Here Comes My Girl’, ‘Even the Losers’ and ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’.

‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’, a song Petty and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell had originally written for their own band, became the first single of Stevie Nicks’ solo career in 1981. Petty and The Heartbreakers accompanied her on the song. Unafraid to experiment or collaborate, the band’s 1985 single ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’, co-written with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, added a psychedelic edge to their classic rock oeuvre.


In 1988, Petty joined George Harrison’s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys along with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and ELO’s Jeff Lynne. Petty’s part in the group was said to have happened by chance: Harrison had left his guitar at Petty’s house, and asked him to join their early sessions when he went to pick it up. Petty took lead vocals on their track ‘Last Night’.

Petty’s debut solo album. ‘Full Moon Fever’, released in 1989, also featured contributions from Lynne, Orbison and Harrison. It was particularly influenced by Lynne, who co-wrote the record and came up with the title for a song that would become one of Petty’s signatures: ‘Free Fallin’’.

Tom Petty and Bob Dylan
Tom Petty and Bob Dylan

Petty continued to produce hits into the 90s. ‘Into The Great Wide Open’, released in 1991, added the title track and ‘Learning To Fly’ to his canon. His ‘Greatest Hits’ collection, released in 1993, featured a new song , ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’, which itself went on to be a major hit.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were known as one of the world’s great live bands. Just a week before Petty died, on Monday 25 September 2017, the band played their final show. It was the culmination of a three-night run at the Hollywood Bowl, which itself brought to a close a worldwide tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the band. They closed the show, as usual, with ‘American Girl’.

Petty introduced the song with the words: “We’re almost out of time, we’ve got time for this one here.”

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