He was a Heartbreaker, a Traveling Wilbury, a Hall of Famer, a father, and an inspiration. Clearly, the man wore many hats, and he was good at it, too. But what do we not already know about the singer/songwriter? What nuances are left to be discovered? Read below for five little-known facts about the beloved Tom Petty.
1. Elvis Presley Changed Petty’s Life
Wildly enough, we might not have Tom Petty’s music catalog today if it weren’t for a chance encounter with Elvis Presley.
In the summer of 1961, Petty was not quite 11 years old and living in Gainesville, Florida, where he was born. At that time, Petty’s uncle Earl Jernigan was working on the set of a movie called Follow That Dream in Ocala, Florida, which starred Presley. Petty’s uncle had invited the young Tom Petty to watch said shoot, and that was when Petty first saw the King of Rock and Roll.
“He stepped out radiant as an angel,” Petty said of Presley in a 2005 interview. “He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life.”
He continued, “That’s what kicked off my love of music. And I’d never thought much about rock ‘n’ roll until that moment.”
2. Petty Fought to Lower the Price of His Record
Ever a man for the people, Tom Petty ensured that his fans got a fair price when it came to buying his music. In 1981, Petty was gearing up to release his fourth studio album, Hard Promises. Petty’s record label at the time, MCA Records, announced that they intended to sell Petty’s record for $9.98 instead of the going price of $8.98.
Petty refused to release the record unless the label lowered the price; he wanted his fans to have a fair price. “If we don’t take a stand, one of these days records are going to be $20,” Petty said at the time.
MCA eventually agreed to lower the price and the album sold for $8.98.
3. He Didn’t Like Televised Singing Competitions
More than likely, Petty would’ve turned down the opportunity to judge music competitions like American Idol or The Voice. In fact, Petty wasn’t a fan of the game shows.
“If they had tried to offer my generation, someone that had won a game show, it would’ve been hysterical, you would’ve been laughed out of the room,” Petty said in a 2014 interview. “We were suspicious of people that had hit records, it was that different a time.”
4. Petty Was a Voice Actor
While Petty is globally known for his heartland rock, his voice lent itself to more than just song.
Petty had a recurring role in the animated comedy series King of the Hill from 2004 to 2009 as the voice actor for Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt. He also acted as the Bridge City Mayor in the Kevin Costner 1997 film The Postman.
5. Mr. Petty is Technically Doctor Petty
In December of 2021, four years after his death, Petty was awarded a special honorary doctorate degree from the University of Florida. “[He’s] widely considered among the most distinctive and influential musicians over the past 50 years,” said Joseph Glover, the university provost.
“His presence remains significant as seen by abundant radio airplay and the popularity of events such as the Tom Petty birthday bash held in Gainesville,” added Glover. “On the UF campus, Petty’s famous ‘I Won’t Back Down’ has become a mantra at athletic events, and I personally have heard President [Kent] Fuchs sing it.”
Well done, Doctor Petty.
Photo: Martin Atkins / Sacks & Co. / Cami Opere