For more than 30 years, Florida native Tom Petty has been the charismatic frontman and voice of among the most durable, resourceful, hard-working, likable, unpretentious and capable rock bands of all time. Together with the Heartbreakers – which has include bassist Ron Blair, guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Howie Epstein, drummer Stan Lynch and keyboardist Benmont Tench – he mastered rock and roll's fundamentals and digested its history, leading a band of the people, writing of everyday struggles and frustrations – and offering redemption through tough-minded, big-hearted, tuneful songs. The 2002 Hall of Fame inductee turns 61 today.
Although they were not punk-rockers per se, Petty and the Heartbreakers did their part to revitalize rock in the mid-to-late Seventies with their first three albums: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (“Breakdown,” “American Girl”), You’re Gonna Get It! (“I Need to Know,” “Listen to Her Heart”) and Damn the Torpedoes – the latter one of the essential rock albums of the decade.
Strong from start to finish, Torpedoes contained the classic tracks “Refugee,” “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Here Comes My Girl.” It also revealed Petty’s depth of conviction and fighting nature. When his record company changed hands, Petty refused to be “bought and sold like a peace of meat,” and the ensuing legal tangles held up the release of the album, whose recording costs Petty personally bore until he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The case was eventually settled, with Petty and the Heartbreakers assigned to a specially created MCA subsidiary, Backstreet Records. The album – its combative title reflective of the band’s attitude during the legal standoff – rocketed to Number Two for seven weeks and produced a Top Ten hit, “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who had been headlining shows since 1977, were bonafide superstars.
Petty continued to stand for his convictions and, in doing so, rock and roll fans. When MCA wanted to raise the price of Petty's fourth album, Hard Promises, to $9.98 ($1 more than the prevailing rate), he balked. “If we don’t take a stand, one of these days records are going to be $20,” Petty argued in 1981. Standing up for the long-suffering rock fan, Petty held firm and won that skirmish, too. Southern Accents followed with the Top 20 hit "Don't Come Around Here No More."
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backed Bob Dylan on a pair of tours in 1986 and 1987, and the uncontested poet laureate of the rock and roll era was struck by not only Petty's sheer will, but also his band's musicianship. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Tom – he’s a deep and soulful cat. Tom is a heroic character in his own kind of way. And he’s got a very good band; they’re quick, and they know the fundamental music.”
Working primarily with guitarist Campbell and producer Jeff Lynne – a fellow member of the “temporary supergroup” the Traveling Wilburys and the former leader of the Electric Light Orchestra – Petty cut his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, released in 1989. Relying heavily on acoustic guitars and succinct, poppy arrangements, Full Moon Fever marked a turning point for Petty. The more easygoing Petty saw Full Moon Fever become his best-selling album to date, climbing to Number Three and yielding the biggest hit of his career, “Free Fallin’” (Number 7). Subsequent albums, both with the Heartbreakers (1991’s Into the Great Wide Open, the 1996 soundtrack She’s the One) and without (1994’s Wildflowers), worked toward the same ends of clarity and simplicity with great success.
In 1993, Petty and the Heartbreakers released their generous, 17-track Greatest Hits album. One of its two new tracks, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” became a Top Twenty hit. The album stayed on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart for more than six years and even made the RIAA’s list of 100 best-selling albums of all time for a spell. In 1999, Echo, the first full-fledged record with the Heartbreakers since Into The Great Wide Open, was released, followed in 2002 by The Last DJ, an album squarely focused on the decay of rock and roll at the hands of corporate interests ("Money Becomes King"). Last year, Petty and the Heartbreakers released Mojo, with 15 tracks that captured the group's singular spin on American garage rock. Petty continues to record and tour, earning new fans as his group, in a sense, continue to be America's band.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – "Refugee" (Damn The Torpedos, 1979)