Rock ‘n’ roll has lost another hero. Tom Petty, heartland rock champion and longtime Heartbreakers front man, died Monday night after suffering cardiac arrest at his Malibu home earlier that morning.
Petty was rushed to UCLA Medical Center and placed on life support after he was found not breathing and in full cardiac arrest. He was immediately placed on life support but the medics could find no trace of brain activity. The decision was made to take him off life support on a do not resuscitate order from the rocker’s family.
Initial reports erroneously stated that Petty had died earlier in the day, but the LAPD was quick to clarify that no confirmation had been made and that Petty was “clinging to life.” Close friend and Heartbreakers manager Tony Dimitriades eventually released an official statement.
“On behalf of the Tom Petty family, we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty… He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his band mates and friends.” The classic rock legend was 66.
Since the 1970’s, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have been synonymous with rock radio, defining the genre with megahit records like “Damn the Torpedoes,” “Into the Great Wide Open” and, most recently, “Hypnotic Eye,” the band’s first LP to ever top the Billboard 200 chart. Petty also released a trio of hugely successful solo albums, including the five-times platinum “Full Moon Fever” in 1989, home of essential rock singles like “Free Fallin,’” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
The legendary front man was born on Oct. 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. His father was an insurance salesman who became violent when drunk, and Petty suffered frequent beatings as a child. A meeting with Elvis in 1961 in Ocala, where Petty’s uncle was working on the set of Presley’s movie “Follow That Dream,” was a “life-altering moment” for the future Heartbreakers leader.
Music beckoned, and Petty answered. He looked and listened to Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for inspiration. Future Eagles member Don Felder gave Petty some of his first guitar lessons. At 17 Petty dropped out of high school to hook up with southern-rock band Mudcrutch. When the group called it quits in the early 70’s, Petty became the frontman of the original Heartbreakers lineup, which included two other former Mudcrutch members, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers went on to release thirteen studio albums over thirty-eight years, beginning with their eponymous debut LP in 1976. Petty’s gritty, nasally voice rang out with a blue-collar everyman’s conviction, mirrored by the band’s authentic, straightforward sound.
They eventually became staples of heartland rock, a subgenre shot with Americana and bits of country, folk and blues. The Heartbreakers were one of the few acts to stay afloat when the genre began to splinter in the 1990’s, along with major names like Bruce Springsteen, Melissa Etheridge, Bob Seger and John Mellencamp. Petty was never one to take time off from his passion.
“I’m really conscious of wasting time. It’s funny when you realize there are time limits. I’m impatient now with anything that gets in the way of what I want to do. I want to get everything down. Why would I want to do anything else? Rock ‘n’ roll is such a good job,” he told USA Today in 2006.True to form, Petty always kept busy even when he wasn’t crisscrossing the nation as a Heartbreaker. He joined George Harrison’s super group the Traveling Wilburys in 1988, alongside Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne. “The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” went on to become certified triple-platinum and scored major critical acclaim.
In recent years, Petty relished his freedom as a statesman of rock music. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999 and headlined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2002. The band received the keys to the city of Gainesville, Florida in 2006, and in 2008 Petty reformed Mudcrutch to make a new album and head out for another tour. The Heartbreakers had just wrapped up their Fortieth Anniversary Tour on Sep. 25 with a sold-out gig at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. They closed out the monumental set with “American Girl,” a bittersweet ballad of youth and heartache and perhaps their most enduring single of all time.
Tom Petty was a bastion of true rock ‘n’ roll, but he never missed a chance to share his words of wisdom on fame, health, money and music. “Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life,” he said some time ago. “There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. And it moves and it heals and it communicates and does all these incredible things. It’s been so good to me that I want to be good to it. I want to make music that’s worth making.”
He did, and we’ll meet him again when we’re least expecting it, somewhere in some far-off place.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in 1977, left to right: Mike Campbell, Ron Blair, Tom Petty, Stan Lynch and Benmont Tench