When you have a career that spans more than four decades you are bound to amass many a memorable moment. In the case of Tom Petty, his time in the limelight collected hundreds of performances, awards, guest spots, and too many hits to count.
Petty spent a long, long time as a rock star – 40 years almost – but, somehow it still seems far too short. Petty’s music feels like it’s been around for much longer than 40 years. It’s omnipresent – synonymous with rock and roll.
For millions of people, Petty was what was playing when they drank their first beer, smoked their first joint, and kissed their first kiss. He was a staple who continues to feel like he’s still around even after his death.
Since he burst onto the L.A. music scene in the mid-’70s, his legions of fans and admiring contemporaries alike marked him as one of the greatest rock stars of all time. Here are 10 unforgettable moments along with Tom Petty’s rise to the upper echelons of stardom.
10. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers Release Their Debut Album
When Petty, along with his Heartbreakers, released their debut album in 1976 it took the masses a little while to catch on. Up against the likes of Queen (A Day At The Races), Kiss (Rock and Roll Over), The Eagles (Hotel California), and more rock mainstays than you can shake a stick at, Petty’s maiden voyage didn’t scale the charts in the way he had hoped.
Dipping into his Rolodex of rock influences, the record brought back the roots of the genre leaning into a Beatles-esque sound that he hoped would fight the burgeoning “disco trance music.” Petty first found traction in the U.K., but once the U.S. radio started paying attention to what was going on across the Atlantic, Petty and Co. began to find fame in their homeland.
The album produced a number of rock staples, most notably “American Girl,” which still has a home at the top of the pack today. Supposedly written about a student who jumped from the University of Florida bell tower in Petty’s hometown, the song follows one girl’s dream of finding a little more life somewhere else. Whether or not the story is true, anyone who has ever dreamt of “getting out” can turn on the track any time they are in need of a sonic hand to hold.
9. Petty Duets With Stevie Nicks
Petty had never written a song for someone else until the sessions for Hard Promises in 1981, where he obliged when Stevie Nicks asked, sitting down with his acoustic guitar to pen a song for the Fleetwood Mac singer. Nicks had been itching to have a Heartbreakers song for some time actually—and secretly, she wanted to clinch a spot in the group as well.
Nicks said in Petty: The Biography, “I just fell in love with his music and his band. I would laughingly say to anyone that if I ever got to know Tom Petty and could worm my way into his good graces, if he were ever to ask me to leave Fleetwood Mac and join Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I’d probably do it—and that was before I even met him!”
Though Petty stuck to his “no girls in the band” rule, he offered up a song for her to use in her upcoming debut solo album, “Insider.” Petty thought the track was right up Nicks’ alley but later started to get cold feet once the recording sessions started.
After Petty recorded the harmony for the track he said Nicks immediately walked back into the studio and said, “I can tell by the look on your face, you don’t wanna give me this song. I’m giving it back to you right now.”
Feeling a little guilty for taking the song back, Petty offered another one in its place–”Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” The two ended up hopping on the track together, creating an unforgettable duet that still holds water today.
8. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” Video Causes a Stir
Petty made some wild music videos throughout his career, but as “Don’t Come Around Here No More” director Jeff Stein said, “This one took the cake.”
The psychedelic, Alice In Wonderland-themed spectacle for the 1985 single starred Petty as a smirking Mad Hatter, young actress Wish Foley as an edible Alice, and the song’s co-writer, Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, as a ‘shrooming, sitar-strumming caterpillar.
While it has gone down as one of the most memorable videos in music history, it was not without controversy. The infamous scene that sees Petty and the rest of the Heartbreakers slicing up Alice’s layer-cake of a torso, caused such a stir 35 years ago that it was partially responsible for Tipper Gore launching the Parents Music Resource Center. Stein also received a host of criticism from a parent-teacher organization for “supporting cannibalism.”
Despite the backlash, the MTV generation didn’t seem to mind, taking the video all the way up to the top of the network’s rating where it earned a nomination for video of the year.
7. Free Fallin’ With Axl Rose
Speaking of MTV and controversy, the network’s 1989 awards generated an unusual amount of buzz-worthy moments, even by its own standards.
Among the night’s talking points were Andrew Dice Clay getting banned for life by the network after reciting an expletive-filled series of Mother Goose rhymes, Neil Young’s video for This Note’s For You winning video of the year despite being banned by MTV itself, and Motley Crue’s Vince Neil loitering around backstage hoping to deck Izzy Stradlin after an incident wherein the Guns N’ Roses member had allegedly assaulted Neil’s wife – And that all happened before Petty even got on stage.
As the night reached its climax, host Arsenio Hall introduced Petty as the final act. He then took the stage starting up with the opening chords of his famed ballad “Free Fallin’.” After about a verse, Axl Rose’s familiar shadow began to slowly emerge from the stage, taking the crowd’s excitement to new heights.
What was initially a fairly subdued performance, got turned on its head as Axl opened up his vocal flood gate’s across the song’s chorus and remaining verses. As the song reached its close, the duo shared the mic coming together for the remainder of the number.
6. Petty Joins The Traveling Wilburys
Lucky, Nelson, Otis, Lefty, and Charles T. Jr., together were known as the Traveling Wilburys. But who was really behind the dark shades and curly hair?
Rock fans were elated when five living legends – Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lyne, Roy Orbinson, and Petty – joined forces to create the Wilbury supergroup. While the group’s formation may have grown a little hazy over the years, Petty’s involvement was more a stroke of luck than a planned collaboration.
The majority of the group had come together to record some B-side tracks for Harrison’s single “This Is Love,” when the former Beatle realized he left a guitar at Petty’s house. Harrison returned to the studio with both the guitar and Petty in tow creating the lasting line-up of the Wilbury’s.
The legends claimed their pseudonym alter-egos were “the only known surviving members of this once great tribe of wandering musicians” with ancestry that “goes back so far that their exact origins have become extremely difficult to… separate from the legends and myths that have grown around them.”
5. Petty and Prince’s One Night Only Supergroup
At the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, George Harrison’s son, Dhani, was joined onstage by Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne, Petty, and Prince for a performance of his father’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Sharing verses with Dhani and Lynne, Petty was one of the anchors of the performance that would go down in history thanks to Prince’s astonishing guitar solo. Petty later said he could “feel the electricity” when Prince was performing the improvised run.
4. Petty Makes Dave Grohl An Honorary Heartbreaker on SNL
In 1994, Petty & the Heartbreakers performed on Saturday Night Live with renditions of “Honey Bee” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
The group recruited a special addition for the performance—Dave Grohl. The Nirvana drummer was still reeling from the death of his bandmate Kurt Cobain in April of the same year. The electric performance prompted Petty to ask Grohl if he wanted a permanent spot in the group, which he ultimately turned down.
Grohl said “I just felt weird about going right back to the drums, because it would have just reminded me of being in Nirvana. It would have been sad for me personally. It would have been an emotional thing to be behind the drumset every night and not have Kurt there. So I was like, ‘Nah, fuck it. I’m gonna try this other thing.’”
Even though it was just a one-off performance, the unlikely partnership provided one of the all-time SNL musical moments.
3. Petty Claims The Video Vanguard Award in 1994
As we said earlier, Petty had a knack for making things weird in his music videos. From the trippy excess of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” to a mortician taking his work home with him in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” it seemed Petty was trying to one-up himself with each new visual.
Though Petty may have been making music since disco was still in style, his career also mirrored the rise of the MTV generation. Petty’s innovative use of the burgeoning idea of music videos, helped him not only to make waves on the network but eventually clinch the career-spanning Video Vanguard Award in 1994.
The award recognized Petty’s bold foray into the world of music videos that remain memorable as ever, even today.
2. Petty Lights Up The Super Bowl Halftime Show
In 2008, Tom Petty was chosen to play arguably America’s biggest stage as the halftime show performer of SuperBowl XLII.
In a performance that would later go on to be nominated for an Emmy Award, Petty turned things way, way up for the fans in Glendale, Arizona’s University of Pheonix Stadium. The iconic outfit broke out four of their biggest hits for an explosive 12-minute halftime show.
From the moment drummer Steve Ferrone counted things off for “American Girl,” it was clear no one was having more fun than the band themselves. Petty took in the energy from the crowd beaming during instrumental breaks and mouthing the lyrics back to the crowd.
By the time “Runnin’ Down A Dream” began, the crowd, though drained after screaming along to “Free Fallin” and “Won’t Back Down,” showed no sign of slowing down matching Petty’s ramped-up energy from start to finish. Later Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell had a showdown in an epic guitar battle to close out the night.
1. Petty Enters The Hall of Fame After Decades of Making Music
The honor of entering the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is reserved for musicians that have stood the test of time, continuing to inspire new generations of music lovers. While 2002 also saw the inductions of The Ramones, The Talking Heads and a number of other legends, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers felt like a special, a long overdue, inclusion.
“It’s very easy to be cynical about the Hall of Fame,” Petty, never entirely comfortable with being part of the establishment, told The Associated Press backstage. “But on the other hand, it’s really a beautiful thing for someone like me. I dedicated my entire life to this music.”
The group gave a powerful performance of “American Girl” decades after its release, making the classic hit as fresh as ever.
Photo: Martin Atkins / Sacks & Co. / Cami Opere