Tom Petty, Rock Iconoclast Who Led the Heartbreakers, Dead at 66
Singer suffered cardiac arrest and was taken off life support at hospital
Tom Petty, the dynamic and iconoclastic frontman who led the band the Heartbreakers, died Monday. He was found unconscious, not breathing and in full cardiac arrest at his Malibu home Sunday night, according to TMZ, and rushed to the hospital and placed on life support. EMTs were able to find a pulse when they found him, but TMZ reported that the hospital found no brain activity when he arrived. A decision was made to pull life support. CBS confirmed Petty’s death. He was 66.
“It’s shocking, crushing news,” Petty’s friend and Traveling Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recently completed a summer tour last Monday with three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. The trek marked the band’s 40th anniversary and found him playing rarely played deep cuts like their first album’s opener, “Rockin’ Around (With You),” and a selection of Wildflowers cuts. It was intended to be his “last trip around the country.” He told Rolling Stone, though, that it wasn’t his intention to quit playing. “I need something to do, or I tend to be a nuisance around the house,” he said.
In the late Seventies, 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 & roll. Songs like “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Learning to Fly” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” all dominated Billboard’s rock chart, and the majority of Petty’s albums have been certified either gold or platinum. His most recent release, Hypnotic Eye, debuted at Number One in 2014. Petty, who also recorded as a solo artist and as a member of the Traveling Wilburys and Mudcrutch, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, the son of an insurance salesman, on October 20th, 1950. He quit high school at age 17 to join the southern-rock group Mudcrutch, which was taking off at the time. The group’s lineup featured two musicians Petty would collaborate with for much of the next five decades, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. But while the band was taking off, they broke up upon moving to Los Angeles in the early Seventies.
Petty started his 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 recorded their debut, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which came out in 1976. It failed to make an impact at the time (lead single “Breakdown” didn’t even chart), but they picked up heat after touring England as support for future E Street Band member Nils Lofgren. They soon became headliners on the tour, and the album topped the U.K. chart.
The label reissued “Breakdown” in the U.S. and it reached the bottom rung of the Top 40 a year after it came out. Subsequent singles, from the group’s second LP, You’re Gonna Get It!, such as “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know” charted in the upper half of the pop chart. Around this time, one of Petty’s most apparent influences, the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, recorded a cover of the self-titled album’s closing track, “American Girl,” proving Petty’s ability to write hits.
But before the decade was up, Petty found himself bankrupt after the record label MCA attempted to buy out his contract from ABC Records, which disturbed Petty’s original label. It took nine months of litigation for Petty to secure a new deal so he could put out the biggest record of his career, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, which reached Number Two on the album chart and has since been certified triple-platinum. The album contained the singles “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee,” establishing him as a full-fledged hit maker.
Within two years, he was able to leverage this credibility in a standoff with MCA, which wanted to charge $9.98 for the follow-up LP to Damn the Torpedoes; Petty threatened to titled it $8.98 until they backed down and released the record, which contained “The Waiting,” under the name Hard Promises, in 1981. He later scored a Number Three hit later that year with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a duet with Stevie Nicks that appeared on her Bella Donna LP.
The years that followed would prove to be tumultuous for Petty, seeing the departure of Blair from the lineup as they worked painstakingly on what would become 1985’s Southern Accents; during this time, Petty became so frustrated that he punched a wall and broke his left hand. Nevertheless, it served as home to the Number 13 hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The following year, just as the band was about to set out on a tour supporting Bob Dylan, Petty’s house burned down – with arson being suspected – destroying most of his possessions. His wife and two daughters were able to escape.
The latter part of the Eighties was marked by both a commercial disappointment, 1986’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), and a success, 1988’s Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1. The latter found Petty collaborating with Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, and it made it to Number Three on the album chart and was certified triple platinum on the strength of singles like “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line.” Petty followed this success into his first solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever (home to “Free Fallin'”), which Lynne produced.
Around this time, Petty also dipped his toe into acting, appearing in the 1987 comedy Made in Heaven, later appearing in the reviled 1997 action film The Postman, which starred Kevin Costner. He’d later find his niche in acting by providing his voice to Mike Judge’s southern-themed comedy King of the Hill as Lucky, who married protagonist Hank Hill’s niece-in-law Luanne.
The unexpected success of Full Moon Fever sent Petty into the 1990s with incredible momentum, more so than just about any artist from his generation. A second Traveling Wilburys record in 1990 failed to recapture the magic of the original, but the following year he brought the Heartbreakers into the studio with Jeff Lynne and cut Into The Great Wide Open, scoring radio hits with the title track and “Learning To Fly.” “That record gave us some of our most evergreen songs,” said Petty. “It’s our biggest record in Europe. But suddenly we were in a business where you could feel bad about selling only a million and a half records and recording some songs that live forever.”
In secret, Petty had signed a $20 million, six-album deal with Warner Bros. in 1992 and wanted to focus on his solo album, Wildflowers. He didn’t want any distraction but agreed to cut two songs for a Greatest Hits album against his will in 1993. It was the only way to appease MCA. One of the two songs was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which hit Number 14 on the Hot 100 and, thanks to a creepy video featuring Kim Basigner as a corpse, went into heavy rotation on MTV. It should have been a moment of triumph for the Heartbreakers, but drummer Stan Lynch grew tired of feeling like a hired hand and left the group the following year.
Petty would reemerge late the following year with Wildflowers, which he and Rubin had cut down from a planned double LP. “It’s Good to Be King,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the title track would be key parts of his live show until the end of his career. Rubin would later draft Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to back Johnny Cash on the Man in Black’s Unchained LP in 1996; Petty would later join Cash on a recording of “I Won’t Back Down.”
Wildflowers also sold by the millions and earned him yet another new generation of fans. “[We are] getting the feeling the fans rather hear Wildflowers than anything else,” Petty told Rolling Stone that year. “I think a lot of people out there know us mostly from this last album.”
When the tour ended, Petty’s marriage dissolved after 22 years together. He moved out of their house into what he called a “chicken shack.” To numb the pain, he turned to heroin. A therapist convinced him to check into a detox clinic. “They shoot this drug into you that literally drives the heroin out and your body goes into spasms,” he told biographer Warren Zanes. “It forces the detox process. When I woke up from that, I felt different. And I said to the nurse, ‘So, it went OK?’ She says, ‘Yeah, it went OK.’ I said, ‘How long have I been asleep?’ She says, ‘Two days.'”
He poured all of his pain into 1999’s Echo, the darkest album of his career. He would later refuse to play songs like “Room at the Top,” “Counting on You” and “Free Girl Now” after the Echo tour concluded. “I recently had a fan stop me and tell me how much that record had helped her through a bad time,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 2013. “And she said, ‘I know you don’t like it.’ And I was like, ‘It’s not that I don’t like it. It was just a really hard period in my life.'”
Making the period all the more difficult was Blair’s replacement, Howie Epstein’s growing reliance on heroin. The Heartbreakers bassist dealt with a drug problem throughout much of the Nineties, but by the early 2000s the four-stringer was missing shows and physically falling apart. Petty fired him shortly after the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, replacing him original Heartbreakers bassist Blair. Epstein died of an overdose in 2003. “It’s like you got a tree dying in the back yard,” Petty told Rolling Stone that year. “And you’re kind of used to the idea that it’s dying. But then you look out there one day, and they cut it down. And you just can’t imagine that beautiful tree isn’t there anymore.”
The band soldiered on and hit the road hard in to support The Last DJ, a scathing indictment of a record industry without any regard for art or artists. “Everywhere we look, we want to make the most money possible,” he told Rolling Stone in 2002. “This is a dangerous, corrupt notion. That’s where you see the advent of programming on the radio, and radio research, all these silly things. That has made pop music what it is today. Everything – morals, truth – is all going out the window in favor of profit.”
Unsurprisingly, radio didn’t embrace The Last DJ, beginning a long period where Petty sold more concert tickets than new records. But 2006’s solo LP, Highway Companion, and 2008’s Mojo, a blues record he cut with the Heartbreakers, were still stellar albums packed with strong tunes like “Saving Grace,” “Square One” and “Jefferson Jericho Blues.”
With his days a radio hit-maker behind him, Petty felt tremendous freedom to do whatever he wanted with his career. In 2008, he shocked everyone – especially his old bandmates – by reforming Mudcrutch for a new album and tour. “I keep waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and go, ‘Uh, Tom, this is a dream and it’s time to wake up,'” guitarist Tom Leadon, who hadn’t played with Petty since 1972, told Rolling Stone in 2016. “What a wonderful turn of events this is.” In 2016, they released another album and launched a more extensive tour.
“Tom is in a position where he could do anything he wants with anyone he wants,” said Heartbreakers/Mudcrutch guitarist Mike Campbell. “The beauty of this is that he wants to reconnect with his old friends, not for money, but the pure joy of revisiting the energy that we started with. It’s been very, very spiritual. It’s commendable that he’d do something so generous.”
Three years ago, Petty and the Heartbreakers reached a shocking milestone when their new LP, Hypnotic Eye, became their first Number 1 album. They supported it with a US tour, and in 2017 they went back on the road to celebrate their 40th anniversary. “I’m thinking it may be the last trip around the country,” Petty told Rolling Stone shortly before it began. “It’s very likely we’ll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don’t think so. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one. We’re all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road.”
After years of swimming upstream, Petty was at ease with his legacy in the later years of his life. “As you’re coming up, you’re recognized song for song or album for album,” he told Esquire in 2006. “What’s changed these days is that the man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work – the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say. And that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s all an artist can ask.”
This story is developing.