Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers just wrapped their 40th anniversary tour at the Hollywood Bowl last week.
Petty was born in Gainesville, FL, on Oct. 20, 1950. Despite his easy-going, affable persona, Petty endured a rough childhood, living in poverty with an alcoholic, abusive father and a mother who was in fear of her husband. But a childhood handshake with Elvis Presley in the '50s piqued his interest in rock n' roll, and at the age of 17, inspired by the Beatles and the Byrds, Petty dropped out of high school to play rock with his band, Mudcrutch. After that band broke up, Petty and several of its members formed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which catapulted him to the forefront of rock music for the next 40 years. (Mudcrutch reformed in 2007 and released two studio albums, 2008's self-titled and 2016's 2, his final studio effort.)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' self-titled album dropped in 1976, and although it would eventually go Gold and produce two classic rock radio staples with the singles "Breakdown" and "American Girl," the album (and those singles) weren't big hits upon initial release ("Breakdown" would later peak at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 after being re-released). 1978's You're Gonna Get It! fared slightly better commercially, but it was the band's third album, 1979's Damn the Torpedoes!, that found Petty break through to massive success. That No. 2-peaking, triple Platinum album produced two top 20 hits with "Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That."
While new wave and synth-pop took hold in the '80s, Petty stuck to his no-frills heartland rock style while still appealing to a young fan base. Platinum albums, massive tours and hit singles (including the No. 3-peaking duet "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" with Stevie Nicks) followed, and he began to branch out creatively from the Hearbreakers as the decade came to a close.
After joining George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the supergroup-to-end-all-supergroups Traveling Wilburys – whose 1988 debut hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 – Petty continued to work with Lynne on his solo debut, 1989's Full Moon Fever. It would prove to be his most blockbuster release since Damn the Torpedoes! a decade earlier, going five-times Platinum, hitting No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and producing arguably his best-known song, the inescapable "Free Fallin'," a No. 7 Hot 100 hit. Within the space of two years, Petty followed his runaway hit solo LP with another Traveling Wilburys album as well as a new Heartbreakers album. Barely slowing his pace throughout the next three decades, Petty continued releasing albums, whether with the Heartbreakers, solo or Mudcrutch.
"We ain't no punk band, we ain't folk rock, jazz rock, or any of that bullshit. Just rock, and we don't put no other name on it than that. We'd be stupid if we did," he told Rolling Stone in the '70s of his style, which -- despite his knack for inventive songcraft -- would stay largely the same throughout his career.
A staunch advocate for artists controlling their careers, Petty wasn't afraid to speak out against the music industry, even if he was far more forgiving when it came to other creators. "I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there," Petty told Rolling Stone in 2006 when asked about perceived similarities between a Red Hot Chili Peppers song and his hit "Mary Jane's Last Dance." "And a lot of rock n' roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry.... I don't believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs."
Despite his lifetime on rock's A-list, Petty didn't actually notch his first No. 1 album until 2014's Hypnotic Eye. Speaking to Billboard around the time of that release, Petty said, “The only good thing about getting older is you get smart enough to avoid unnecessary problems. You know what’s worth spending time on and what’s not. If I had known that at 20, life would have been so much easier, but you have to experience all these things so you figure out how to find your way through the woods.”
Petty was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.