Tom Petty dead at 66
Photo by George Rose/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
The rock word is facing yet another painful blow with the sudden death of the legendary Tom Petty at age 66. Petty died last night (October 2nd) at UCLA Medical Center, one day after suffering cardiac arrest at his home. Before the official announcement last night, fans had spent the better part of yesterday on tenterhooks as word was incorrectly leaked by law enforcement earlier in the day that Petty had died of a heart attack — before it was retracted and announced that he was alive, yet unconscious and pulled off life support. Petty wrapped his 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers on September 25th at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl. According to TMZ: “(Petty’s wife) Dana York seemed confused and upset when she dialed 911 Sunday night (October 1st) at around 10:45 PM. The dispatcher tried to get her to administer CPR, but Dana needed help. You hear another man take the phone but then Dana takes it back. She hears very soft breathing, tries CPR and it seems he breathes better. . . Tom was in full cardiac arrest and unconscious. He was taken to the hospital and put on life support but there was no brain activity. A chaplain came to administer last rights and he was taken off of life support.”
The site posted that Petty was taken off life support and at “10:30 Monday morning, a chaplain was called to Tom’s hospital room. We’re told the family has a do not resuscitate order on Tom. The singer is not expected to live throughout the day, but he’s still clinging to life. A report that the LAPD confirmed the singer’s death is inaccurate — the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. handled the emergency.”
Tom Petty was born on October 20th, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida. One of his first guitar teachers was future Eagle Don Felder. His band Mudcrutch featured Tom Leadon, they younger brother of Eagles co-founder Bernie Leadon. Petty is survived by his second wife Dana York, two adult daughters, Adria and AnnaKim, along with a stepson Dylan.
After splitting with his early band Mudcrutch and forming the Heartbreakers with drummer Stan Lynch and Ron Blair along with Mudcrutch holdovers — guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench — Petty’s songs, often written with Campbell, have been a part of the American lexicon upon release — including such instant classics as “The Waiting,” “American Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Refugee,” “Breakdown,” “Listen To Her Heart,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “You Got Lucky,” “A Woman In Love,” “Love Is A Long Road,” “Walls,” “It’s Good To Be King,” “You Wreck Me,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “A Face In The Crowd,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Jammin’ Me,” “Into The Great White Open,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Yer So Bad,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “Learning To Fly,” “Wildflowers,” and many more.
In 1988 he teamed up with ELO‘s Jeff Lynne along with idols George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison to form the Traveling Wilburys, releasing two albums in 1988 and 1990. In 2008 he reformed Mudcrutch, releasing the band’s self-titled album with a followup in 2016.
Tom Petty was honored on February 10th with the 2017 MusiCares Person of The Year in Los Angeles. Petty touched upon his early days in the speech — including his first meeting of future friends George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Petty recalled: “I got into town in 1974 and I was signed by Denny Cordell to Leon Russell’s Shelter Records. Leon brought me over to his house. He liked the songs I’d done. He said, ‘If it comes to a thing where we need some words I need you to be here, and I’ll pay you for it.’ The first session, in comes George Harrison, Ringo and (drummer) Jim Keltner, and they didn’t need any words because those cats are so cool.”
- Petty went on to say: “We were hanging out and I found myself slipping my sunglasses on. Leon said, ‘What the hell you doing with dark glasses, man?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, it feels cool. Like Jimmy Keltner, he has his.’ He said, ‘Wearing sunglasses at night is an honor you earn. Lou Adler had Johnny Rivers and the Mamas & The Papas before he put them glasses on. Jack Nicholson made really s**** Boris Karloff movies before he put the glasses on.’ Well, I’m putting my glasses on but I thank Leon for that advice.”
- Tom Petty’s greatest commercial success came with his 1989 debut album, Full Moon Fever, which featured Jeff Lynne’s songwriting and production. Petty recalled to Rolling Stone how the album’s signature track, “Free Fallin'” came to be: “Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song, and I think Jeff said something like, ‘That’s a really good riff but there’s one chord too many,’ so I think I cut it back a chord and then, really just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing. Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling.’ And I went to sing that and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.’ So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good.”
- Petty went on to recall, “It was that fast. He had to go somewhere, and I wrote the last verse and kind of just polished the rest of the song and when I saw him the next day I played him the song and he was like, ‘Wow, you did that last night?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said. ‘We’ve got to go cut this,’ and we just took off to Mike Campbell’s studio where we knew we could get in and get it done that day. So we went in and made the record that day.”
- Tom Petty recalled the genesis of Full Moon Fever, which has sold five million copies in the U.S. alone: “I co-wrote most of them with Jeff, I wrote two of them by myself, and a couple of them were Jeff and Mike Campbell got involved to some extent. It was all different, like, sometimes I might’ve had the song done and Jeff would come up with the one brilliant chord that made it even more special, y’know?”
- Petty also spoke candidly about his bout with hard drugs, explaining how heroin slowly creeps in and ruins your life: “You start losing your soul. You realize one day, ’S***, I’ve lost myself. I’m hanging out with people I wouldn’t be seen with in a million years, and I have to get out of this.’ I wanted to quit. Using heroin went against my grain. I didn’t want to be enslaved to anything. So I was always trying to figure out how to do less, and then that wouldn’t work. Tried to go cold turkey, and that wouldn’t work. It’s an ugly f***ing thing. Really ugly. I fear that if I talk about it, people will think, ‘Well, I could do it and get off.’ But you can’t. Very few people do.”
- Luckily, Tom Petty, broke the cycle of addiction and abuse and maintained a strong and loving relationship with his two daughters: “What’s interesting about my girls right now is they seem to be going back and finding older stuff. Y’know, I have one that’s just discovered Muddy Waters and thinks he’s great, and they have very eclectic tastes. They’re all over the map — but, sure, they play me stuff. They turned me on to Radiohead several years ago.”
- Tom Petty explained how night-after-night, he rewards the fans that stuck by him no matter what: “I actually don’t sell the first two rows. We don’t even put the first two rows on sale and we wait until we’re actually at the venue, and then I have them go out and give the last two rows the first two rows — and it’s wonderful.”
- Petty also admitted that what he lacks in vocal chops, he maked up for by being an honest singer: “My singing voice compared to Pavarotti wouldn’t stand up, y’know? But I think I’m good at getting over a ‘believably.’ Y’know, if I’m going to play the narrator, I want people to believe me, y’know? And I think those are the best singers, the ones that you tend to believe.”
- Petty took the stage and joked with the crowd of music industry heavies: “I’m sort of the ‘rock n’ roll white trash section’ of the show here (laughter). And, we’re rock n’ roll music, and it’s so different to a lot of what goes on. Writing a song for a rock band, you better bring in a really good song, ’cause they don’t take it well if it’s not, and many times I went back to the drawing board. I’ve written so much. . . Y’know, I start thinking about songwriters, and I mean, if no one ever wrote another song — we’d be fine, y’know? (Laughter) There’s plenty of songs (laughter) — but I still do it, y’know? Because I love it and it’s a gift. It’s not something everybody can do. Everybody can do it, but they can’t do it good.”
- Tom Petty explained what he believes sets the Heartbreakers’ brand of rock apart from many other bands: “So much about this music is about feel as opposed to, say, technique. Technique is great, but it will never substitute for feel. And that’s what the Heartbreakers and I are striving for. So that you feel it and you believe it.”
- Tom Petty admits that despite some hard knocks he experienced early on, he’s essentially a living example of the rock n’ roll American dream: “I’m sure in every success story, you have those people that didn’t think it would happen, y’know? I mean, I know my family couldn’t believe it when it started to happen — my mother used to tell me all the time that ‘Y’know, you better have something to fall back on.’ And I used to tell her, ‘I ain’t gonna fall back! There will be no falling back!’ (laughs)”
- Tom Petty had not long ago explained that over 40 years after releasing his first album, the songs he writes and records still need to ring true to his life: “With me, I just have to go with what I feel passionate about or it won’t sound truthful, y’know, so I kinda just, as a songwriter, go where the wind blows me, y’know? I don’t really know if one’s harder than the other.”
- Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
- In 2005, Petty was awarded Billboard’s Century Award, the organization’s highest honor for creative achievement.
- 2016 saw Petty’s induction into The Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
READ: For the full story, head to Ultimate Classic Rock
SIDE NOTES: Read Tom Petty’s full 2017 MusicCares Person Of The Year Award speech below
20 years ago I would’ve been way too cynical to do this, but I’m 66 now. I thank you for this. It’s a great honor. I’ve watched the whole show backstage. I’m really at a loss for words. The music has been wonderful and I think all these artists for coming. I’d also, right off the bat, like to thank my band, the Heartbreakers. They’re such an important part of this.
I won’t talk too long. I want to play a bit more music. We have some friends we brought with us. We’re gonna get to that. To be here in the presence of so many great American songwriters is amazing… Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Cassandra, Randy Newman.
It’s been about two years since I played with the Heartbreakers. Honestly, I’ve been producing records. We got together last week and rehearsed for this thing and I realized I may be in one of the two or three best rock and roll bands there is. I’m so proud of them.
I got into rock n’ roll at age 10. I was collecting records, rock n’ roll records, the ‘roll’ designates there’s a swing in the roll. The music became popular and it empowered the youth of America. The government got very nervous, especially the Republicans. They put Elvis in the Army, they put Chuck Berry in jail. Things calmed down for a couple of years but it was too late. The music had reached England. In 1964, the Beatles came, I had my eyes opened like so many others and I joined the conspiracy to put black music on the popular white radio.
And rock n’ roll goes on. More like the blues or jazz now. There ain’t nothing like a good rock n’ roll band, people.
This is kind of a surreal moment and a surreal life. For some cosmic reason, so many of the artists that I adore came into my world without me calling. They just showed up and we played together and we became friends. The first one was Roger McGuinn and the Byrds who was there right away, it was my first record.
I know so many people here. Mo and Olivia are out there. Me and George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, one night, were at Mo Ostin’s house. We were just working on the idea of the Traveling Wilburys. I had written this song, ‘Free Fallin’,’ and done the record and taken it to my label, MCA, and they rejected the record. And that had never happened to me before. I was like ‘Wow, what do I do?’ So, we forgot about it.
And we were at Mo’s house at dinner and George said ‘Let’s get the guitars out and sing a little bit.’ And George said ‘Let’s get that Free Fallin,’ Tom, play that. So we had a kind of Wilbury arrangement of harmony and we did it and Lenny Waronker is sitting there and he said ‘That’s a hit.’ With two acoustic guitars. And I said, ‘Wow, my record company won’t put it out.’ And Mo said, ‘I’ll f***in’ put it out.’
Sorry, I’m trying so hard to be good. I got my wife who’s here, my daughter Adria. . . I’m on my best behavior tonight. I got into town in 1974 and I was signed by Denny Cordell to Leon Russell’s Shelter Records. Leon brought me over to his house. He liked the songs I’d done. He said, ‘If it comes to a thing where we need some words I need you to be here, and I’ll pay you for it.’ The first session, in comes George Harrison, Ringo and Jim Keltner, and they didn’t need any words because those cats are so cool.
We were hanging out and I found myself slipping my sunglasses on. Leon said, ‘What the hell you doing with dark glasses, man?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. it feels cool. Like Jimmy Keltner, he has his.’ He said, ‘Wearing sunglasses at night is an honor you earn. Lou Adler had Johnny Rivers and the Mamas & The Papas before he put them glasses on. Jack Nicholson made really shitty Boris Karloff movies before he put the glasses on.’ Well, I’m putting my glasses on but I thank Leon for that advice.
I was fortunate enough to know the great Johnny Cash. I loved him since I saw him on the Hootenanny television show in 1962, filmed in Gainesville, Florida. I actually didn’t see him that week. The paper said he was a little loopy and punched a policeman and did not appear that night. I loved all of his songs: ‘Hey, Porter, Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,’ ‘Big River.’ You want to be a songwriter, just listen to ‘Big River’ about 50 times and you’ll write something but we made an album together, Johnny and the Heartbreakers, and it won a Grammy for best country record of the year, without ever being played once on the country stations but that’s all right because it was actually a rock n’ roll record. Johnny was pretty rock n’ roll.
This morning, I was looking through a file and a card fell out, and it was from John, on my 50th birthday. It said, ‘Happy birthday. You’re a good man to ride the river with.’ And that’s all I wanted to be, a good man to ride the river with. I’m gonna keep riding the river. Thank you.
Coldplay paid tribute to Tom Petty with “Free Fallin'” cover.
Coldplay’s concert in Portland, Oregon Monday night included two touching tributes, one to the 59 lives lost in the shooting in Las Vegas and then another to the late, iconic rocker Tom Petty. Coldplay was playing the Moda Center last night as part of its Heart Full of Dreams tour. The band began with a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting, and later in the show, R.E.M. co-founder and guitarist Peter Buck joined them onstage for an emotional tribute to Petty. They played his 1989 track “Free Fallin.’” (People)
WATCH: Coldplay paid tribute to fallen victims of the Las Vegas tragedy and Tom Petty
Following the minute of silence, Peter Buck joined the band for this wonderful rendition of Freefalling by Tom Petty.
— Coldplay (@coldplay) October 3, 2017