Tom Petty would have been 70-years-old today. The classic rock legend was born on Oct. 20, 1950. He passed away in 2017, just 18 days shy of his 67th birthday. Petty captured millions of listening fans with his signature sound and skills on the guitar. Petty’s music screamed Americana, the type of songs to play on radios across the heartland. Petty made a career churning out music that made people want to dance and sometimes cry. There was a mournful quality to some of his lyrics like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
While Petty was known for many songs throughout his career, “American Girl” may be one of his most popular. The song featured heavily in Hollywood movies. It was also a hit with fans upon release. Petty performed the song in 1985 as part of Live Aid. Live Aid united several iconic bands of the 1980s to raise relief funds for the Ethiopian famine.
Tom Petty Grew Up In Florida
Growing up in Gainesville, Florida, Petty had a troubled relationship with his father, who was abusive. He found an early passion for music listening to both Elvis Presley and The Beatles as influences. Later in life, Petty would become good friends with The Beatles’ George Harrison. In the 1980s, the two even formed a band with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lyne and Roy Orbison called The Traveling Wilburys.
In high school, Petty joined a local band called the Epic as its bassist. At 17, he dropped out to pursue music full-time. He joined another band, Mudcrutch, becoming its songwriter and the face of the band. In 1974, he moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Jane Benyo, and daughter to pursue wider recognition.
Initially, Shelter Records signed Mudcrutch, but they failed to attract attention. Instead, the record label offered Petty a solo contract. A short time later, Petty reached out to some of his former band members to form Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with the label. They released their first album in 1976 to poor sales and little attention. But a tour in England helped the band gain recognition in the United Kingdom.
They re-released their single “Breakdown” in America to moderate success. Ironically, “American Girl” wasn’t popular upon release and wouldn’t find audiences for another two decades.
The Band Found Wide Success In the Late 1970s and 1980s
The band’s second album You’re Gonna Get It! reached No. 23 on the charts in 1978. But the band didn’t become mega-successful until its third album, which reached No. 2 on the charts. D–n the Torpedoes sold more than 3 million copies and included tracks like “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee.”
The band followed up that album’s success with Hard Promises in 1981. During that same year, Petty collaborated with Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” The 1980s cemented Petty and his band as bonafide rockstars with a string of successful albums starting with 1982’s Long After Dark.
This period also saw tensions form between Petty and his band members. Petty’s marriage also began to suffer. During a particularly tense day in the studio, Petty punched a wall and broke his left hand.
While the band only found moderate success with their 1986 album Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), Petty started venturing into a successful solo career. He formed the Traveling Wilburys during this time, whose album went triple-platinum and won a Grammy.
The Singer Released His First Solo Album
In 1989, Petty released his first solo album Full Moon Fever, which went No. 3 on the charts and multiplatinum. The album featured several of Petty’s most iconic songs including “Free Fallin,'” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “I Won’t Back Down.”
During this time, Petty also juggled responsibilities with the Traveling Wilburys and the Heartbreakers. He released albums with both in 1990 and 1991. Two years later, Petty and the Heartbreakers released a Greatest Hits album, which included “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” The song stayed on the charts for more than six years.
Petty continued to produce solo albums and perform with the band in the ’90s. But he faced struggles in his personal life. In 1996, Petty and his wife, Jane, divorced. They were married for 22 years until that point and shared two kids. Petty also developed an addiction to heroin.
Tom Petty Continued to Tour Until The Day He Died
In the early 2000s, Petty recovered from his addiction. He also married Dana York, who he had known for 11 years. The two remained married until Petty’s death.
Petty continued to perform both solo and with the Heartbreakers. He went on a 30th-anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers in 2006 and performed with them for the Super Bowl halftime show in 2008. That same year he reformed Mudcrutch for a 30th anniversary special album. In 2014, the Heartbreakers released their 13th album Hypnotic Eye. Ironically, this was the band’s first album to chart No.1 since their inception.
Petty also found success on screen. He played a recurring role on the popular animated comedy King of the Hill.
In 2017, Petty completed part of a 40th-anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers. A week later, he died after experiencing cardiac arrest while at home on Oct. 2. Petty died from a combination of drugs in his system including painkillers. Petty’s estate said Petty suffered from a number of physical ailments he took pain medicine for. For instance, they said he continued to tour with a fractured him.
During Petty’s career, he won three Grammy awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Do something you really like, and hopefully it pays the rent,” Petty once told Esquire. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s success.”