TOM PETTY – singer, songwriter, and leader of the Heartbreakers – has passed away after suffering a full cardiac arrest in his Malibu home Sunday night. He was 66. Here's the NYT obit. The confirmation of his death follows a day after premature reports from a variety of major news outlets. His musical saga goes as far back as Petty's days in Mudcrutch, which led him -- and some future Heartbreakers -- to legendary A&R man Denny Cordell, who would produce the first TP records, with songs including "American Girl," "Breakdown," "I Need To Know" and "Listen To Her Heart." Melding the classic folk-rock sound of the Byrds with Southern rock made him sound like instant classic rock to mass audiences in the mid-70s, while his no-frills pop approach would appeal to those looking beyond over-produced and seemingly self-indulgent AOR to Punk and New Wave (only Cheap Trick could make a similar claim to be at this intersection).
In some ways, Petty was more Punk than the punks. He fought -- and beat -- his label twice. The first fight -- over the sale of his contract to MCA -- preceded the seminal Damn The Torpedoes album (the master tapes were kept in hiding during litigation) that would launch the band to super-stardom with tracks like "Here Comes My Girl," "Even The Losers," "Don't Do Me Like That" and the signature "Refugee." The second fight was over the pricing of his follow-up, Hard Promises; here's Petty sharing the backstory for "The Waiting" from that LP. During the Hard Promises sessions, he also recorded duets with Stevie Nicks, including "Insider" (which he kept for his album) and the smash "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around (which he gave to Nicks).
Petty later collaborated with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, whom he suggested write more for Nicks, but ended up turning her breakup with Joe Walsh into "Don't Come Around Here No More," a slab of psychedelic bubblegum unheard since the heyday of Tommy James. It didn't really fit with songs like "Rebels" on the Southern Accents LP,but it was too good to leave off, and its Wonderland-themed video supplied Petty the Mad Hatter persona who would pop up in later videos for songs like "Into The Great Wide Open," which was expanded to almost seven minutes just because they had great footage from Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway. While I'm less of a fan of Petty's later work, I did like the Traveling Wilburys, which reminds you that not just anyone gets to be in a band with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and the late Roy Orbison. Indeed, TP & the Heartbreakers backed Dylan on tour (saw it) and later backed Johnny Cash.
And Petty was still capable of turning out great stuff: TP's first solo LP spawned hits like "Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'" and "Runnin' Down A Dream." Indeed, it was Petty's biggest album to that point. He co-wrote "King of the Hill" with Roger McGuinn for Byrdsy karma; it's an keenly observed elegy for John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas. And "Learning to Fly" was huge, tho I prefer the more decadent side of his later years, including the wry, presumably Mel Brooks-inspired "It's Good to Be King."
Although Petty is sure to be widely remembered in the following days, I tend to doubt any tribute will beat what Steven Hyden wrote about him in 2014: "Here’s what I think I know: Tom Petty has been a rock star for almost 40 years. He has a dozen or so songs that will be played on classic rock radio for as long as there is classic rock radio. If you’re a music fan of a certain age, there was a time in your life when he seemed inescapable. Even now, Petty is still a guy that most people know, even if you don’t actively care about him one way or the other. Tom Petty’s music doesn’t necessarily demand a value judgment. It’s like having an opinion on tap water or concrete. Why bother? It’s just there, reliable to the point of invisibility. If it went missing, you would notice. But it’s never going missing, because Tom Petty has existed since the beginning of time, and will continue to exist until time is extinguished."