“Do something you really like, and hopefully it pays the rent. As far as I’m concerned, that’s success.”—Tom Petty
Thomas Earl Petty was born on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida. As a solo artist, a member of the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, and the lead singer of Mudcrutch and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Petty recorded numerous hit singles and sold more than 80 million records worldwide. Influential and beloved, Petty’s name has been affectionately attached to everything from a lime tree to a 2012 rap song. He died following a heart attack on October 2, 2017. Petty’s debut album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, came out when he was 26; below are 26 facts about Tom Petty.
Petty appeared on Saturday Night Live eight different times, making him one of the show’s most frequent musical guests. More than just that, he appeared on episodes hosted by some of the show’s most popular hosts—members of the so-called “five-timers club,” who have hosted five times or more: Buck Henry, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, John Goodman, and Alec Baldwin.
The first album Petty ever bought was Playboy, a 1962 R&B hit by the Marvelettes. 12-year-old Petty cashed in Coke bottles to raise the $3 he needed to buy the record.
24. Dropout Reunion
Petty dropped out of high school at 17 to join the southern-rock group Mudcrutch. The band broke up before releasing an album (although guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench would join Petty as members of the Heartbreakers), but reunited for a new album and tour in 2008 and again in 2016.
23. Hypnotic Patience
The first Number One album for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was 2014’s Hypnotic Eye; they waited 37 years following their first Billboard appearance in 1977 to reach the top spot.
22. Rock and Roll Prophet
Petty traces his love of music, especially rock and roll, to an encounter with Elvis Presley in Ocala, Florida in the summer of 1961. Elvis was in town filming Follow That Dream; to the 10-year-old Petty, the iconic singer’s arrival on set had religious overtones: “Elvis really did look—he looked sort of not real, as if he were glowing,” Petty recalled. “He was astounding, even spiritual. It was like a procession in church: a line of white Cadillacs and mohair suits and pompadours so black, they were blue.”
21. Runnin’ Down a Court
“Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the second single from Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever, was the official theme song for both the 2006 and 2008 NBA Finals. Petty also performed the song with the Heartbreakers at the Super Bowl XLII halftime show in 2008.
20. Goodrich’s Not-So-New Song
Petty successfully sued the tire company B.F. Goodrich for $1 million after they used a jingle in a 1987 TV commercial that bore remarkable resemblances to his song, “Mary’s New Car.”
19. Learning to Fly
Petty reportedly took guitar lessons from Don Felder of the Eagles, who was three years his senior and another resident of Gainesville. Although this version of history is quite well known, Petty has denied that Felder taught him to play the guitar (as the latter wrote in his 2009 memoir) and claimed instead that the Eagle taught him the piano.
18. Hard Line
When Petty’s label, MCA, wanted to capitalize on the Heartbreakers’ success and charge a full dollar more than the norm for their 1981 album Hard Promises—$9.98 instead of $8.98—Petty simply refused to release it. He protested, “If we don’t take a stand, one of these days, records are going to be $20.” MCA eventually backed down.
17. King Of The Small Screen
Between 2004 and 2009, Petty voiced the character of Lucky on 28 episodes of King of the Hill. Creator Mike Judge explained that Petty was offered the part because the writers had initially imagined Lucky, the (eventual) husband of Hank Hill’s niece-in-law Luanne, as “Tom Petty without the success.”
16. Mayor Of The Big Screen
Petty has also had several small film roles, most notably (or notoriously) a post-apocalyptic mayor in Kevin Costner’s 1997 flop The Postman.
15. Taking the High Road
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers voiced their support of the legalization of marijuana in “Don’t Pull Me Over,” a reggae-ish protest song on their eclectic 2010 album Mojo. Unfortunately, the Village Voice ranked it the fourth-worst song of the year, writing that it “combines the halting, all-elbows island rhythms of a gang of AARP-members doing Peter Tosh with the sad croon of poor, hapless, beaten-down working man Tom multimillionaire Petty crying ‘Don’t pull me over, Mr. Pooooliceman.”
14. Not Going Gentle Into the Great Wide Open
News of Petty’s death on October 2, 2017 was conflicted at first. TMZ announced that Petty had been rushed to the hospital after being found in cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu, and then a premature report confirmed that he had died around noon. In fact, as Heartbreakers manager Tony Dimitriades clarified later on Twitter, Petty died at 8:40pm.
13. Poetic Justice
Petty’s final appearance was at a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25, 2017, one week before his death. The concert concluded a summer tour, partly in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Heartbreakers, which Petty had called their “last trip around the country.” As show came to a close, he grabbed the mic and said, “We love you dearly. I want to thank you for 40 years of a really great time. We’re almost out of time. We got time for this, right here.”
12. A Family Affair
As a member of the 1980s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, Petty collaborated with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. All five band members adopted pseudonyms as members of the fictional Wilbury clan. On their first album, the triple-platinum Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988), Petty was known as Charlie T. Wilbury, and on their second album, the misleadingly named Vol. 3 (1990), he was Muddy Wilbury.
11. The Strummers
Petty appeared on The Simpsons episode “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation” (season 14, episode 2), alongside other rock greats Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello, and Brian Setzer.
10. Almost Heartbroken
When the Heartbreakers fired their drummer Stan Lynch in 1994, Petty invited Dave Grohl, lately of Nirvana (which had dissolved after Kurt Cobain’s death), to join the band. Grohl played with the Heartbreakers on Saturday Night Live on November 19, 1994, but ultimately decided to continue with his solo work—which would eventually spawn the Foo Fighters.
9. How I Met My Husband
Stevie Nicks, who befriended Petty in 1978 and collaborated with him on several duets, told Billboard that she wrote “Edge of Seventeen” after asking Petty’s first wife Jane Benyo when Benyo and Petty first met, and mishearing Benyo’s response. As Nicks recalls, Benyo said that they met “at some point during the age of 17”; Nicks heard “the edge of 17,” and was inspired to write the song.
8. Above The Wildfire
On May 17, 1987, Petty’s house in Encino, California was destroyed by a fire set by an arsonist. Petty and his family escaped; his trademark grey top hat, and other possessions worth an estimated value of $1 million, did not.
7. A Little Wedding
Petty’s wedding in 2001 to his second wife, Dana York, was officiated by rock and roll legend Little Richard.
6. I’ve Lost Myself
Petty’s 1999 album Echo emerged from “a really hard period in [his] life.” In 1996 his first marriage dissolved after 22 years, and he subsequently struggled with a heroin addiction. “You start losing your soul,” he told his biographer and friend, the former Del Fuegos guitarist Warren Zanes, about addiction. “You realize one day, ‘S—, I’ve lost myself.” He recovered after a stint in rehab.
5. They’re The Ones
During this “really hard period” in the late 1990s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers provided the soundtrack for the 1996 romantic comedy She’s the One, starring Jennifer Aniston.
4. The Third Gravedigger
Petty worked for a time as a gravedigger in his youth. So, coincidentally, did Joe Strummer of the Clash and Dave Vanian of the Damned.
3. Branching Out
Legend has it that Tom Petty planted an Ogeechee lime tree on the University of Florida campus when he worked on the grounds crew there in the late 1960s. Petty had no recollection of this, but a certain tree (whose exact whereabouts have inspired some online confusion) has nevertheless been dubbed the Tom Petty Tree.
2. Flagging Pride
Petty, a native of Florida, very publicly changed his mind about the Confederate flag late in his career. The Heartbreakers had used Confederate insignia to market their 1985 album Southern Accents, but Petty later said that this was “a downright stupid thing to do.” He maintained “good feelings for the South” and its “wonderful people,” but he explained that “when they wave that flag, they aren’t stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that,” he added. “I should have gone around the fence and taken a good look at it.”
1. “Free falling, we out all night”
In 2012, the rapper Big Boi released the song “Thom Pettie,” which features the chorus “Thom Pettie that ho / Free falling, we out all night.” Big Boi explained that “Tom Pettying” refers to having a wild, unpredictable night that could take you anywhere—“free falling.”
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