Rock Radio Remembers Tom Petty, 'A Great Talent That Was Also a Great Human Being'

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Tom Petty photographed in New York in 1976.

Programmers from various rock formats share memories of the legend.

Since rock music was broken out into its own genre-specific Billboard charts, Tom Petty has been synonymous with success on those charts.

Petty, who died Monday (Oct. 2) at 66, logged one of the earliest triumphs of the Mainstream Rock Songs tally, scoring the third No. 1 in the chart's history when "The Waiting" crowned the ranking for six weeks in 1981. By the end of the '80s, he had earned more No. 1s (six) than any other act. As of the latest charts (dated Oct. 14), he holds the record for the most top 10s in the list's history: 28.

Mainstream rock programmers and personalities recall him fondly as one of the more consistent and important acts in the genre's history, whether solo or with the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch or supergroup Traveling Wilburys. Of course, he was still performing for fans just before his death, many of whom surely knew a song like "The Waiting" from when it first appeared on the charts.

"The news of Tom Petty's death was hard to take for all of us," says Bill Weston, WMMR Philadelphia program director. "He was just in Philly for two sold-out shows on his 40th anniversary tour where he was full of life, a Cheshire Cat grin all night, and presented an amazing set list with so, so many hits, songs made indelible in our hearts and minds because radio, including WMMR, played them, for over 40 years."

WMMR began spinning "wall-to-wall Petty music" for three hours on Monday starting at 4 p.m., despite the retraction of CBS News' initial report of the singer's death, and added a two-hour feature on Tuesday helmed by DJ Pierre Robert that featured interviews and studio and live recordings, along with Petty's last airplay hit to date: Mudcrutch's "Trailer," which hit No. 19 on the Adult Alternative Songs chart in 2016.

Adds another current pd in mainstream rock, Curtis Kay of WDHA Morristown, New Jersey, "Tom Petty's death was a shock to our listeners. My only memory of Tom was meeting him in 1989. I never met a more down-to-earth, humble, honest, happy-to-meet-you kind of guy. He was one-of-a-kind. Listeners who had the pleasure to have met him called the station to say the same thing. That was his legacy: a great talent that was also a great human being."

Petty's catalog had long since crossed over to classic rock radio, where songs like "Free Fallin'," "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" are mainstays. Eric Wellman, who programs classic rock WAXQ New York, cites Petty's ubiquity on visual media, whether via TV and movie synchs or music video rotation. "The word 'icon' gets thrown around a lot these days, but Tom Petty certainly qualifies," he says. "His music was as vibrant and meaningful today as it was when we first heard it. It encompasses cultural touchstones like the unforgettable scene in Silence of the Lambs with 'American Girl' and rock and roll fantasy camp on The Simpsons.

Wellman continued, "He bookended the golden era of MTV with videos from 'You Got Lucky,' the first huge premiere that I can remember, to 'Mary Jane's Last Dance,' with Kim Basinger at her zenith, and many in between, like poor Alice getting turned into a cake and eaten in 'Don't Come Around Here No More' and the vampires walking through the valley in 'Free Fallin'. Next time I'm speeding down the road when 'Runnin' Down a Dream' comes on, it will be strange to think he's gone, but he's left us with a musical legacy that will be around for a long, long time."

While Petty's greatest successes on rock radio was on the Mainstream Rock Songs chart, he became a stalwart on adult alternative radio and its corresponding Adult Alternative Songs chart toward the midpoint of his career, earning four No. 1s, including, much like on Mainstream Rock Songs, one of the ranking's first chart-toppers, when "Waiting for Tonight" became the fledgling chart's second No. 1 (Jan. 27, 1996).

In addition to 13 Petty titles on Adult Alternative Songs between 1996 and 2014, Mudcrutch added a pair of entries, with "Scare Easy" peaking at No. 6 in 2008 and, most recently, "Trailer."

"In radio terms, Tom Petty is so much a cornerstone of our format," Brad Savage, pd at WAPS Akron, Ohio, says. "In many ways, you could say the format launched for the artists that are just a little bit left-of-center but still in the world of rock/album rock/AOR/whatever you want to call it. Artists like Petty, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young are the essential trailblazers in this arena.

"I believe Tom Petty's brilliance was that he could simultaneously subvert the mainstream while also being a part of it. He could push the boundaries and walk that delicate line. I think that's a brilliant place to be. Plus, Petty can sit alongside acts like U2, R.E.M., The Cars and The B-52's. His music was not quite new wave or punk but has those certain sensibilities. Basically, everyone likes Tom Petty."

Jess Besack, director of programming for SiriusXM's The Spectrum and Yacht Rock stations, says that Petty's music spoke to her from a young age.

"As a young girl listening to Petty, I never got the sense that you needed to be hot and sexy to be worthy of this rock star's affections. You just had to be strong, independent and interested in cool things like horses and Elvis," she says. "And as an adult feminist, going back and listening to songs like 'Free Girl Now' and 'Listen to Her Heart' couldn't be more affirming. I hope this is part of his legacy that continues to influence new artists for decades to come."

Adds Sky Daniels, KCSN Los Angeles pd, "History will show that Tom Petty is one of the top American songwriters of all time. His appeal and influence has increasingly grown over 40 years. Every indie musician who walks into our studio kneels before the plaque that commemorates Tom and The Heartbreakers playing our first benefit in 2011. Tom did the unthinkable then: He offered to play a benefit for our nascent public radio station, while turning down an offer to headline the New Orleans Jazz and Pop Festival for $1.5 million.

"He was a man of great principle. He fought for rebels of all kind."