Petty was honoured by The Recording Academy – who also distribute the Grammys – as their MusiCares Person of the Year 2017, celebrating his long career in rock’n’roll. Petty follows past honourees Lionel Richie (2016), Bob Dylan (2015) and Carole King (2014).
At the gala in LA on Friday (February 10) – which also doubles up as a charity event, this year raising $8.5 million (£6.8 million) for musicians in medical or financial need – a full cast of musicians put on a 27-song-strong set of Petty songs, with guest appearances from Foo Fighters (who covered ‘Honey Bee’ from Petty’s 1994 album ‘Wildflowers’), Nicks (who dueted with Petty on ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’) and Jeff Lynne from ELO (who took lead vocals on ‘Won’t Back Down’, which he co-wrote with Petty for the latter’s 1989 album ‘Full Moon Fever’).
Watch Foo Fighters’ cover of ‘Honey Bee’ via fan-shot footage below.
— Patrick Ryan (@PatRyanWrites) February 11, 2017
Speaking after accepting the honour for Person of the Year, Petty gave an 11-minute speech on the inspiration of rock music on American life.
“The music became popular and it empowered the youth of America,” Petty said from the stage. “In 1964, The Beatles came, I had my eyes opened like so many others, and I joined the conspiracy to put black music on white popular radio.
He also praised his band, the Heartbreakers, as “one of the best two or three rock and roll bands there is,” before saying: “This is kind of a surreal moment in a surreal life [in which], for some cosmic reason, so many of the artists that I adore came into my world without me calling; they just showed up and we played together and we became friends.
— MusiCares (@MusiCares) February 11, 2017
“I was fortunate enough to know the great Johnny Cash,” he continued. “Any young songwriters, if you want to be a songwriter, just listen to ‘Big River’ about 60 times and you’ll write something. But we made an album together, Johnny and the Heartbreakers, and it won a Grammy for the best country record of the year, without ever being played once on a country record station. But that’s because it was actually a rock and roll record. Johnny was pretty rock and roll.
“And this morning, I was looking through a box, and a card fell out, and it was from John, on my 50th birthday. And it said ‘Happy birthday. You’re a good man to ride the river with.’ And that’s all I want to be: a good man to ride the river with, and I’m gonna keep riding the river.”