'Adiós' to one of the greats

By Sergio Ariza

Tom Petty was one of the last greats in rock, one of the few who could get up on stage with Bob Dylan and George Harrison, without seeming like a secondary figure. Whether leading the Heartbreakers, with his loyal lieutenant Mike Campbell, or working alone, Petty has left us an enormous collection of 20 albums, among which are some of the best songs in the last 40 years, gems like American girl, Free Fallin' and Refugee. Today there will be a party in rock and roll heaven and, probably, Petty will get together with Harrison and Roy Orbison, his colleagues in the Travelling Wilburys, to heavenly play Handle with care or The end of the line.  

Tom was born on 20th October 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. His father wanted a boy who liked sports but what interested the boy was music: specifically rock and roll. When he was 10, his uncle was working on the set of Elvis Presley's most recent film, which gave him the opportunity to meet the King. Petty was overwhelmed by his presence, thinking that Elvis shone like something supernatural, and after getting to know him he swapped his personal badge collection for some 45 records. It is clear that the final impulse to grab a guitar and form a band came on 9 February 1964 when the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan show. Like thousands of adolscent boys throughout the length and breadth of the US, Petty combed his hair forward, got a guitar and went down to hs garage to practice. His first guitar teacher was none other than Don Felder, who would earn world fame years later as a member of the Eagles.

Petty's first band was called The Epics, together with his friend Tom Leadon, but it was not until the band was called Mudcrutch that Petty met the man who would form one of the most important rock groups of our times. It was in 1970 when Mike Campbell appeared in Petty's life, and the guitarist would remain close to him, as one of his distinctive aspects, for the rest of his life. In those early days Petty played the bass and sang, and shortly afterwards he joined with keyboardist Benmont Tench. His first contract came in 1974 with Shelter - by that time Petty had already moved on to rhythm guitar - and in 1975 they released their first single, Depot Street, that became known in the region but failed to make an impact beyond.


After Mudcrutch split up, Tench formed his own band with Ron Blair on bass and Stan Lynch on drums, and shortly after Petty and Campbell joined, and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers was born. Shelter wanted to launch Petty as a solo artist and he recorded a record of the same name in his 1976 debut. Already all the elements that would make them great were present, with the jingle-jangle sounds of Californian folk rock mixed with the urgency and anger of punk and New Wave. Denny Cordell, the record's producer, left them a long time in the studio to develop their sound. During the recordings Campbell grabbed his legendary Fender Broadcaster to seek a better blend with Petty's Stratocaster Sunburst 64. Campbell wanted a Telecaster but the Bradcaster seemed to him even better, and it was with that which put the icing on the cake, with mythical songs like American girl (which the Strokes drew on many years later for their Last Nite), Breakdown and Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll. The latter song was jointly composed, and that was the song that opened the doors for the band in the United Kingdom; the country that best received their first record. However, despite offering their first masterpiece, the record was not successful in the US, where the band did not have big sales until the press became aware of what they had stirred up in Great Britain; when Breakdown was reissued a year later, they broke into the Top 40 for the first time.

Their second album came in 1978, You're Gonna Get It!, and this time it went straight into the charts, with two of their singles I Need to Know and Listen To Her Heart constantly on the radio. They then successfullly toured the UK supporting Nils Lofgren and, little by little, their live performances began to be seen as events. Everything seemed in place for the 'big jump', and Petty did not disappoint by delivering the best album of his career, Damn the torpedoes, recorded in the studios of Sound City. The record was produced by Jimmy Iovine and contained some of the best songs of the band's career, like Refugee, Don't Do Me Like That, that became big hits, and Here comes my girl, a song that Mike Campbell composed on a guitar that would become legendary and would come to be closely linked to Petty, a Rickenbacker 625-12 with 12 strings. This is the same guitar that apppears on the iconic cover and is now in the Museum of Rock and Roll in Cleveland. Its contribution to his sound would be key, adding a new note of colour to his palette of Fenders, and in a short time new models would be seen, such as Gretschs and, even, Les Pauls and Firebirds.


The album sold mored than two million copies, and made them into stars, filling stadiums throughout the country. This was confirmed with the release of Hard Promises, in which they collaborated with Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood Mac's singer was recording in the next door studio and shared a producer with them, Jimmy Iovine. As a result, Petty and Campbell ended up by composing (and recording) for Nicks one of their best songs, Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, that appeared on Nicks' album, Bella Donna, and became one of the biggest hits of the year.

Then came a small dip in Petty's career, with three ordinary sounding albums, which despite that fact sold well. In 1988 came one of the highlights of his career when, by chance, he became involved in one of the biggest supergroups that has ever been seen, the Travelling Wilburys. George Harrison had joked about wanting to make an album with his friends, and after a meal with Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, they went to the studio in Bob Dylan's house to record a song that he had composed called Handle with care. But the ex Beatle had left his guitar at Tom Petty's house, so they went to pick it up and then invited the leader of the Heartbreakers to join the band. The result was so good that they decided to record an album together. This ended up by revitalizing the career of them all, including the youngest member, who in 1989 decided to release his first solo album. Harrison, Orbison and Lynne appeared on Full Moon Fever, a record that, despite not being the Heartbreakers, is produced and has the participation of its key musician, Campbell. The album was the biggest success of Petty's career and also, one of the best. It produced Free Fallin', I won't back down, Runnin' Down a Dream and his version of the adored Byrds, I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better.

Despite the success, for their following record the Heartbreakers reunited on the notable Into the Great Wide Open, produced by Lynne, with the title song Learning to Fly being one of the standout songs. Two years after the collected Greatest Hits of the band became the biggest selling record of their career by selling over eight million copies, thanks to the success of new songs like Mary Jane's Last Dance. The following year the drummer Stan Lynch left the band and Petty could not think of anyone better to replace him than Dave Grohl, who played with them on Saturday Night Live; this being the first time he had played following the death of Kurt Cobain. Petty offered him the role permanently but Grohl decided to develop his own career, and his place was filled by Steve Ferrone.

Their career continued very successfully for the following years, always at a high artistic level and without commercial concessions. To celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2006 they went out on tour with Pearl Jam, The Allman Brothers Band and Trey Anastasio as support, in 2008 they appeared during the break at the Super Bowl and in the same year Petty reformed his first band, Mudcrutch, and released a record.  


In order to prove what great shape they were in, that same year, on Sunday 9 July, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers gave their only concert in Europe at London's Hyde Park. The band opened with Rockin’ Around (With You), the first song from their debut in 1976, and more than 60,000 people sang along to their songs, with the appearance of Stevie Nicks for Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, until the last note of American girl. It was a celebration of their more than 40 years of career, and will be remembered as being their goodbye from the top.

Tom Petty has died and today rock and roll is grieving. After a horrible 2016 in goodbyes, 2017 appeared to be a little more benevolent with the music legends. Now it cannot be considered so, as there are more Travelling Wilburys in heaven than on earth. Petty did not have the impact of a Springsteen or a Neil Young outside his birth country, but none of them, or the other great stars of rock, doubts that he was one of them.  

(Images: ©CordonPress)