One of the most consistent songwriters

Posted on 2007-10-22 14:54:12

Tom Petty was born October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, north of Florida. His parents learned early on that their son was a rebel. At 4 years old, he insisted on going to town alone and he did. By age 11, after visiting Elvis Presley on the set of Follow That Dream, Petty knew his dream was to become a rock and roll rebel. Petty's father Earl recalled on VH-1's Behind the Music that he bought Petty a Sears and Roebuck guitar for twenty-eight dollars and, "he lived with that guitar, day and night." Petty formed his first band, the Sun Downers, in ninth grade. The band played at teen dances and parties for two years. After the Sun Downers broke up Petty joined the Epics, and then Mudcrutch. Two other members of Mudcrutch, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, would help Petty start the Heartbreakers in 1974.

In the autumn of 1976, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut album on Shelter Records which was then sold to ABC records. The singer-songwriter described the album to Rolling Stone reporter Fred Schruers as, "a floodgate of influence of everything we'd ever admired and against what we thought was wrong with the music of the time." The album was not an instant hit in the United States, but the song "Anything that's Rock 'n Roll" generated a huge fan reaction in England. Petty and the Heartbreakers opened for guitarist Nils Lofgren for several dates throughout England.

Later the next year the band opened for the new wave band Blondie at the infamous Whiskey A Go-Go in Los Angeles. That was the break Petty and the Heartbreakers needed to catch the attention of American audiences. By the spring of 1978, the single "Breakdown" from their debut album jumped into the top 40. That summer, Petty and the Heartbreakers released their second album, You're Gonna Get It. The album was certified gold, but after ABC records sold Shelter to MCA, Petty was infuriated. Long time manager Tony Dimitkides told Behind the Music that Petty was "not gonna be sold like a piece of meat."

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers thought that they should have control over their copyrights and royalty rates. MCA thought that the band should uphold their original contract with Shelter Records which Mudcrutch, not Petty and the Heartbreakers, signed and sued Petty. Petty held his ground, telling Behind the Music, "the power we have is that we don't play." MCA countered by issuing subpoenas for all of Petty's notes and lyrics that he and the band were working on. Continuing to stand firm, Petty devised a novel defense; he would declare bankruptcy, thus voiding the band's contract with MCA. Petty told Behind the Music, "I was pretty full of myself. I'd just fought the record industry and won."

In 1979, after signing with Backstreet Records, ironically a label affiliated with MCA, Petty and the Heartbreakers released their breakthrough album, Damn the Torpedoes. This album included the hit singles, "Refuge," "Don't Do Me Like That," and "Here Comes My Girl." Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Neal Justin called Damn the Torpedoes, "an awesome collection of one pop classic after another." With the success of that album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became hugely popular.

However, another battle with MCA loomed. MCA decided that it would raise the price of the band's next album, Hard Promises, from $8.98 to $9.98. Petty was livid because, as he told Schruers, "I never did this to make money." Petty publicly announced his outrage of the price hike, and MCA backed down. Hard Promises, as Justin noticed was "one of the first times Petty takes the part of narrator, singing in third person about lovable losers." Hard Promises sold 1.5 million copies on the strength of the hit single, "The Waiting."

In 1982, Petty and the Heartbreakers followed up Hard Promises with Long After Dark, which included the smash hit, "You Got Lucky." However, bassist Ron Blair tired of touring had quit the band and was replaced by Howie Epstein. For the next year and a half, Petty and the Heartbreakers toured non-stop to support Long After Dark. Finally off the road by late 1983, Petty decided to record the next album Southern Accents at his new home studio with no producer. Having no producer is like having no captain to steer a ship. The recording sessions became, as Petty recalled on Behind the Music, "an ongoing party and drugs had entered the picture.... [it was like] opening the devil's door a bit." Thus, Petty and the Heartbreakers disappeared behind this devil's door for a year until a punch was heard around the world.

In 1984, as the Southern Accents recording sessions dragged on, Petty lost his cool. He punched a wall with his left hand, and as he told Behind the Music, "pulverized it to powder." Doctors believed Petty would never play guitar again and the Heartbreakers began calling Petty, "L.V." or Lead Vocalist. However, after surgery and nine months of physical therapy, Petty regained his ability to play. In the spring of 1985, Petty and the Heartbreakers began touring to support Southern Accents. Justin called the album, "a rich autobiographical project that marks Petty's most mature moments as a songwriter and singer."

Southern Accentsincluded the singles "Rebels" and "Don't Come Around Here No More." The latter inspired an Alice in Wonderland themed music video that won Petty and the Heartbreakers an MTV Music Video Award. In 1985 Petty and the Heartbreakers performed at the first Farm Aid concert to support American farmers, backing up Bob Dylan. This performance led to a two year tour with the rock legend and a live album, Pack Up the Plantation as well as another smash single, "Jammin' Me" for the band's 1987 album Let Me Up (I've Had Enough).

In the summer of 1987, Petty met producer and ex-Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne. Together without the Heartbreakers they began writing "Free Fallin'," and in 1989 Petty released his first solo album, Full Moon Fever. The band was not happy. Guitarist Mike Campbell told Rolling Stone reporter Schruers that, "groups are a very complicated thing. It's like a family, it's like a business relationship, it's a very emotional thing. You care about each other, and you tug just like brothers; you're jealous, and then you love each other."

Things became even more complicated when Petty joined Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and George Harrison as a member of the Traveling Wilburys. In 1988 the Traveling Wilburys released their debut album, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. One, and in 1990 won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by Duo/Group for the hit single, "Handle With Care." Questions regarding the band's fate remained unanswered when, in 1990, the Traveling Wilburys recorded their second album, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3and Petty began to record another solo album, Into the Great Wide Open.

That album became a group album, however, as Petty and the Heartbreakers regrouped and began touring. Into the Great Wide Open, with its hit single "Learning to Fly," went platinum in 1991. In 1993, Petty and the Heartbreakers released Greatest Hits, which included two new songs one of which, "Mary Jane's Last Dance," earned the band another MTV Video Award. In 1994 drummer Stan Lynch, amidst rising tensions, left the band.

In 1994 Petty signed with Warner Brothers and released his second solo album, Wildflowers, which included the hit "Free Fallin'." Commenting on Wildflowers, Newsweek's Schoemer wrote, "[Petty] captures people at their most confused, frightened or revealing moments. Sleazy guys pick on innocent girls; solid marriages go awry; friends let friends down, and still despair gives way to renewal." That same year a tribute album to Petty and the Heartbreakers, You Got Lucky, was released. Petty told Rolling Stone's Schruers that he was "very flattered, very moved" by this cover album of the band's songs. Petty rejoined the Heartbreakers in 1995 to compile Playback, a boxed set of the band's hits. However, it would be the next album, Songs and Music From the Motion Picture She's the One that would pull together Petty and the Heartbreakers for good.

In 1996, Petty began writing a single song for the film, She's the One. Fifteen songs later, Petty and the Heartbreakers had recorded their eleventh album, Songs and Music From the Motion Picture She's the One. Petty had found a new love for his band, as he told Denver Post reporter G. Brown, "They really make my work enjoyable and effortless. It was a healing experience for us, to be in there all involved together and feeling good about what we were doing." Petty continued, "I don't know if I'll make many more solo albums. I'm content to be in the group and do that for awhile. I've had my flings. I've come back to my old sweetheart."

In 1999, the band followed up the soundtrack with Echo. Petty told the Boston Globe's Steve Morse that, "we set out to make a rock 'n roll record this time we have such a good little rock 'n roll band, and I wanted to get them on record doing what they do best." Petty also continued his rebel ways when he refused to increase the cost of concert tickets, and by offering Echo's first single, "Free Girl Now," on the MP3 format which internet users could download for free. Warner Brothers, however, did not pick a fight with Petty.

Producer Jimmy Iovine told Behind the Music that Petty is "one of the most consistent songwriters I've ever laid eyes on" while Producer Rick Rubin stated, "you don't really see great rock bands anymore, and they [Petty and the Heartbreakers] are a great rock band." Petty himself believed, " I know I'm better at what I do than I was when I was younger as a band we're better." To the question of how long Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would continue making albums, Petty told Behind the Music, "I used to say that we'd quit when we got to be 40 [now] lookin' down the barrel at 50. I don't have any intention of quitting."

Tom Petty Discography

1976 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers 1978 You're Gonna Get It! 1979 Damn the Torpedoes 1981 Hard Promises 1982 Long After Dark 1985 Southern Accents 1987 Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) 1989 Full Moon Fever 1991 Into the Great Wide Open 1994 Wildflowers 1996 Songs and Music From "She's the One" 1999 Echo 2002 The Last DJ2006 Highway Companion

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