“It has to be a gift, because why would I be able to write a song instead of someone else,” said Tom Petty. “After a while, you come to realize, ‘I’ve really been blessed. I can write these things and it makes me happy, and it makes millions of people happy. It’s an obligation, it’s bigger than you. It’s the only true magic I know. It’s not pulling a rabbit out of a hat; it’s real. It’s your soul floating out to theirs.”
Petty shared his “gift” with the world in every song, in a career spanning three solo albums, two releases with Traveling Wilburys’ cohorts Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lyne, and 13 albums with The Heartbreakers.
Born in Gainesville, Florida on Oct. 20, 1950, Petty was ready for rock after meeting Elvis Presley on the set of his film Follow That Dream in 1961. By 17, he quit high school and connected with life-long bandmate and long-time collaborator guitarist Mike Campbell, following a stint with band Mudcrutch through 1975—the band later reconnected for a 2008 self-titled release and follow up, 2, in 2016—before they went on to The Heartbreakers.
In 2002, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Petty was also the subject of a documentary film by late director Peter Bogdanovich, Runnin’ Down a Dream in 2007, and in 2014, he was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ final release Hypnotic Eye (2014), reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200—a first for the band—and was the last album before they disbanded in 2017, following the death of Petty on Oct. 2, 2017, at the age of 66, following a tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of their debut.
Through it all, Petty was one of the most candid transporters of stories in song.
There are so many places to dig into Petty’s music, in the hundreds of songs he wrote throughout his nearly 50-year career, since first making his way on to the charts in 1977 with “Breakdown” through his first U.S. No. 1 hit “The Waiting” by 1981.
Far from Petty’s deeper cuts, here’s a look at some songs that hit the charts, and others that barely made the 100 (“American Girl”), but remain classics and favorites within the Petty catalog.
The song that finally got Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the charts, off their 1976 self-titled debut, “Breakdown” peaked in the Top 40 in the U.S. and Canada. The song covers the easy come and easy go of a relationship and was written quickly by Petty on piano at Shelter Studio in Hollywood, California, then recorded by the band, pulling the drumbeat from The Beatles’ “All I Got To Do.” “That was the idea,” said Petty, “to have that kind of broken rhythm on the hi-hat.”
Off Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ fourth album Hard Promises, “The Waiting” was initially inspired by Janis Joplin. In a TV interview, Petty was truck by Joplin, who said she loved being on stage but waiting for the next performance was the hardest part.
“Here Comes My Girl”
By the third album, Damn the Torpedoes—the band’s first on a major label—Petty and Campbell were still working their magic together with Heartbreakers’ hit ‘Refugee” (see below) and another hit “Here Comes My Girl.” Campbell shared his demo with Petty, who came up with the chorus and finished the verses, partly inspired by the “Shangri-Las” 1965 hit “Leader of the Pack.”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
It may just have been a euphemistic song about marijuana—or not. Originally titled “Indiana Girl” during earlier sessions with Campbell, the song was recorded for Petty’s 1994 solo album Wildflowers, and may have been pulled from reflections around something coming to an end, like his recent divorce—Well, I don’t know but I’ve been told / You never slow down, you never grow old / I’m tired of screwing up, tired of goin’ down, or easing the pain with a few puffs of mary jane—Last dance with Mary Jane, One more time to kill the pain.
“I Won’t Back Down”
Released in 1989, off Petty’s solo debut Full Moon Fever, “I Won’t Back Down”—co-written with Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, who co-produced the album with Petty and Campbell—is a direct anthem of survival, written by Petty after an arsonist tried to kill him and his family in 1987. The more light-hearted video features a cameo by Ringo Starr, playing drums, though the Beatle never recorded on the song. “It’s a very simple song, but a very powerful song,” said Campbell. “It’s as deep as you want to go. That was one of Tom’s talents, that he could say a lot with very few words.” Campbell added, “A lot of people ask me what was Tom really like, and that’s him. He didn’t back down. He stood up to everybody. Nobody told him what to do.”
“Learning To Fly”
Released on the Heartbreakers’ eighth album, Into the Great Wide Open (1991) and co-written with Lynne, who also produced the album, “Learning to Fly” was directly inspired by the ongoing Gulf War. “Everyone has tragedy in their life,” said Petty in 1991, who was compelled by the words of a pilot, who said the hardest part about flying a plane was coming down from the air. “You can lay down and let the tragedy overwhelm you, or you can fly above it, and I think that’s sort of what I’m trying to say in that song,” shared Petty. “I don’t say that I can fly. I’m learning. Also, we’re expected to do a lot of things that we’re not necessarily equipped for.”
Off Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ self-titled 1976 debut, “American Girl,” was one of the band’s first singles and also the last song Petty performed at the Hollywood Bowl during his final concert on Sept. 25, 2017. Peaking at 109 on the Billboard 100, “American Girl” never became a hit but has remained a Petty and Heartbreakers’ classic. The song, according to Petty, is about a girl who is “looking for the strength to move on—and she found it.”
“Into the Great Wide Open”
The second single following “Free Fallin’” and title track off Into the Great Wide Open was another hit for the band as they entered the ’90s and having even more fun with their videos with “Into the Great Wide Open,” the tale of a guy named Eddie desperate to make it as a rockstar in Los Angeles. The video, directed by Julien Temple, starred Johnny Depp as the song protagonist and Faye Dunaway.
Apparently, Petty wrote “Free Fallin” just to get a laugh out of Jeff Lynne. Playing around on a keyboard, Petty started jokingly singing the verses. By the time he got to the chorus, Lynne paid attention and told Petty to take his voice up an octave. “So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in,” said Petty. “I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling,’ and we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast… we just took off to Mike Campbell’s studio where we knew we could get in and get it done that day. So we went in and made the record that day.” The opening track off Full Moon Fever, the song transitioned Petty into the 1990s and become of his longest and highest charting songs of all time, and was even featured in the film Jerry Maguire and TV series The Sopranos and more throughout the decades.
Campbell brought his idea for this song in, and Petty wrote the lyrics for “Refugee” in 10 minutes. The Damn the Torpedoes track became a hit when released in 1979. “Mike [Campbell] had the whole track down, the whole chord progression,” said Petty. “It’s one of the first things that we actually wrote together. It took minutes… I remember walking around the room, singing it, just circling the room. The words came very fast, and there are only two verses. And that was it. Finished.”
Photo: Martin Atkins