Colin Vanden Berg
Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor
On October 2, Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Tom Petty was pronounced dead of unknown causes at the age of 66. Petty’s death was initially reported by the Los Angeles Police Department on the morning of October 2, following his full cardiac arrest which left him catatonic but still alive. He was taken off life support that evening after stunned rock fans had already begun to mourn. No official cause of death has yet been listed on his death certificate.
Thomas Earl Petty was born in 1950 in Gainesville, Florida, where began playing music after being inspired by The Beatles and Elvis Presley. At the age of 17, he joined the group Mudcritch as the bass player, which moved to Los Angeles in 1970 but splintered before signing a record deal. Petty’s big break came in 1976 when he, guitarist Mike Campbell, and keyboardist Benmont Tench formed The Heartbreakers.
The Heartbreakers’ music seamlessly blended the 60s and 70s folk-rock style of artists such as The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, with the rocker attitude and edge of artists like The Rolling Stones and The Doobie Brothers. While the influences were noticeable, no artist of the era sounded like The Heartbreakers. Their first album featured two top 40 hits with “Breakdown” and “American Girl.” Other hits for the Heartbreakers include “The Waiting,” “Refugee,” “Learning to Fly,” and, their greatest hit, “Free Fallin.’” All of those songs, written or co-written by Petty, still get airplay on oldies and classic rock stations. The Heartbreakers reunited for the Super Bowl XLII halftime show in Glendale, Arizona.
Petty is also notable for his many collaborations with other talented rock artists. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” his 1981 duet with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, reached No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Petty also collaborated with Johnny Cash on his cover of the “The Running Kind.” Other collaborations include Bob Dylan, and Del Shannon, but Petty’s most famous partnership came with his involvement in the super-group, The Traveling Wilburrys. The Willburrys were a folk-rock band which included Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison (“Pretty Woman”), George Harrison, and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lyne. The group formed in 1988, and their first album, Traveling Willburrys Vol. 1, reached Triple Platinum, was nominated for three Grammy Awards, and won for Best Vocal Performance by a Group or Duo.
Petty also reached either Gold or Platinum status with each of his three solo albums, released in 1989, 1994, and 2006. He sold 80 million albums between his solo career and his time with The Heartbreakers. In 2002, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Petty has been nominated for 17 Grammy awards and won three, not including is honor as the 2017 MusicCares Person of the Year.
Tom Petty lived a long and full life, and touched the hearts of many people all over the world over the course of his and illustrious music career.