TOM PETTY, 1950-2017

Tom Petty, who wrapped up a 40th anniversary tour with The Heartbreakers a week ago, died Monday after suffering cardiac arrest Sunday at his home in Malibu. He was 66.

Petty’s longtime manager Tony Dimitriades confirmed the death Monday night after a day of conflicting reports about Petty’s status.

TMZ reported that Petty was taken to UCLA Santa Monica Hospital and put on life support. The website updated its initial report to note Petty had no brain activity when he arrived at the hospital and a decision was made to pull life support. 

Petty's death comes a week after he and The Heartbreakers concluded their 40th anniversary tour with a final show at the Hollywood BowlHITS’ Bud Scoppa noted in a review, “There’s not a more reliable live act in showbiz, nor is there a band with a more massive repertoire. But this was not a night for deep explorations, it was a night of celebration. And Petty and the Heartbreakers were as celebratory in their flawless performance as the ecstatic, 18,000-strong crowd.” 

Neil Portnow of the Recording Academy issued the following statement:

We are extremely saddened by the passing of three-time Grammy Award winner Tom Petty. Tom was a true rock and roll purist, both in his music and his defiant spirit. With the Heartbreakers, his infectious riffs, rebellious personality, and inventive songwriting brought a new urgency to rock traditions and fueled a now legendary career and some of the most memorable music of the last four decades. In retrospect, we were so fortunate and privileged to pay tribute to Tom as the Recording Academy’s 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year, and honor his significant creative achievements, philanthropic efforts, and passion for defending musicians’ rights. Tom will be remembered as much for his humanity as his music. Our sincerest condolences go out to his family, friends, and colleagues as they look to find comfort during this difficult time.  

A storyteller whose songwriting fused the personal observations of the early ‘70s singer-songwriters with the urgency and compactness of 1960s garage rock, Petty was an immediate, unique force upon the release of the Heartbreakers’ debut album, a record that included the future classics “Breakdown,” “American Girl” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It).” In the late 1970s, Petty fashioned a literate uniquely American sound that fused ‘60s Sunset Strip rock, a breezy spin on psychedelia and a dramatic air of defiance in compact songs that stationed themselves between the lengthy jams of the decade’s guitar heroes and the taut music of new wave bands.

Petty’s music resonated with a broad swath of listeners who connected the catchy, easy-going melodies and lyrics about romance, defiance and self-doubt. As a vocalist, he felt connected to every word, a conviction that many country singers of the last two decades have picked up on. Integrity was his calling card. 

Petty and future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, the guitarist, and keyboardist Benmont Tench formed Mudcrutch in Gainesville, recording one single that flopped. Petty moved west to L.A., signing with Denny Cordell’s Shelter, and, in need of a band, brought out his two friends and the musicians they were playing with, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. The unit would stay together until Blair left in 1982. Much as they were Florida bred—and his Southern roots were often present in the music—Petty long insisted they were a Southern California band no different than The Byrds.

The third Heartbreakers album, Damn the Torpedoes (MCA), elevated him to superstar status as the songs from the late 1979 release dominated FM airwaves. “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” connected Petty with divergent crowds that stuck with him: Petty and the Heartbreakers were an arena act to the very end, capable of selling out 15,000+ arenas for 30+ years regardless of the commercial activity of his albums.

Damn the Torpedoes followed a contentious period for Petty. He filed for bankruptcy in mid-1979 soon after asking to be let out of his contract with Cordell, owing to the sale of Shelter to MCA. The situation was remedied with a contract that gave Petty control of his songs and deal with the MCA-associated label Backstreet

Eight of his albums with the Heartbreakers went Top 10 though he did not score a #1 until his last album, Hypnotic Eye (Reprise), was released in 2014. His three solo albums all went Top 10 as well.

He had 14 Top 40 singles, starting in 1979 with “Breakdown” in 1977; he peaked with “Free Fallin’,” which hit #7 in 1989 and hit #3 as the vocalist and backing band on Stevie Nicks’ “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”

In 1992, it was reported Petty had signed a $20-million, six-album pact with Warner Bros. in 1989. He moved to WBR after 1989's Full Moon Fever and 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open, releasing Wildflowers in 1994. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1992 that Petty, who felt his records had not received proper promotion, had asked WBR to tear up or re-do the deal after Full Moon Fever sold 3 million copies.

Petty was label-less after four albums at Warner Bros., the last being 2002’s The Last DJ. He wound up remaining in Burbank, though, after signing with Rick Rubin's American Recordings, which had recently moved to WBR. The deal was announced in June 2006; Highway Companion was released five weeks later. Reprise released the final two Heartbreakers albums.

The Recording Academy honored Petty during Grammy week earlier this year as its MusiCares Person of the Year. Petty won three Grammys including Best Vocal Rock Performance for “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Petty and the Heartbreakers were 2002 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Petty’s songs married particularly well with film: Tom Cruise singing “Free Fallin’” in Jerry Maguire, “Breakdown” playing after a Petty interview at the radio station in FM; “American Girl” accompanying the high school mayhem in Fast Times at Ridgemont High; “Square One” and “Learning to Fly” in Elizabethtown, to name a few.

His most famous side project,The Traveling Wilburys, found Petty working as a peer with two artists who had a considerable influence on him, Bob Dylan and George Harrison. Their two albums, Vol. 1 in 1988, and Vol. 3 in 1990, went Top 20; they won a Grammy for the first set.

He delivered payback to the musicians he grew up on, producing records by and performing with Johnny Cash, Del Shannon, Carl Perkins, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. His association with Dylan started with 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded when they backed him on the record and the tour that followed its release.

Petty would also re-form Mudcrutch for two albums and short tours, first in 2008 and again in 2016, playing bass and sharing vocals with Tom Leadon. He also had a Sirius XM channel dedicated to his music and a show in which he would play music that influenced him.

Petty’s story has been told twice in authorized versions: Peter Bogdanovich directed a four-hour documentary on Petty, Runnin’ Down a Dream, that was released in 2007, and Warren ZanesPetty: The Biography was published in 2015.

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