On October 2nd, Tom Petty passed away, leaving fans in mourning worldwide, and fellow artists expressing their gratitude through various forms of tribute. Petty, who was 66, died after being found unresponsive in his Malibu home in full cardiac arrest.
Jason Aldean opened Saturday Night Live this weekend with Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down.” The song was also played and sung in unison at a Florida Gators game.
Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus sang “Wildflowers” on the Tonight Show. Coldplay performed “Free Fallin’” at their concert in Portland, OR with R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck, and they invited late night host James Corden to sing the song at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA.
Like many music icons, Petty battled drug addiction. What was unique to him, though, was that his problem started in the 1990’s, when Petty was already in his 40’s. Warren Zanes, the author of Petty: The Biography, highlighted Petty’s hesitancy to speak of the subject in an interview with The Washington Post, “I am very concerned that talking about this is putting a bad example out there for young people. If anyone is going to think heroin is an option because they know my story of using heroin, I can’t do this.” One of Petty’s bandmates, Howie Epstein, also dealt with heroin addiction, which forced him to leave The Heartbreakers and was ultimately the cause of his death in 2003.
Petty charted over two dozen Billboard Top 100 hits, and 12 top 10 albums on the Billboard Hot 200 Chart. Petty’s most well-known song “Free Fallin’” is from his 1989 debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, and was co-written by Petty’s frequent collaborator and Electric Light Orchestra lead singer Jeff Lynne.
Some of his other best hits include “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Learning To Fly,” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” There is also a Spotify-curated playlist where you can find all of these songs and many more.
Petty had so many hits because his music has a “complex simplicity” with its universal messages, signature riffs and chord progressions, and hooks that never fail to be stuck in your head. “Free Fallin’” is the quintessential Petty song for all of these reasons. The simple repetitive guitar riff backing lyrics that detail a life untouched by the problems of everyday– it is an escape for its listeners, providing catharsis for all who need it– something Tom Petty songs can do like no other.
Though he was best known for fronting Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Petty’s career spanning over 40 years also included a multitude of collaborations. Petty was a founding member the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, which included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. The group released two albums in 1988 and 1990 and never embarked on a tour, but the members frequently collaborated with each other on different projects throughout their respective careers.
Petty was also a member of Mudcrutch, a band he formed in the early 1970’s which was active until some of its members joined him in forming Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in 1976. The band reformed in 2007 and released two albums in 2008 and 2016, which was Petty’s last album he ever made.
Petty’s most notable collaborations with other artists, outside of The Traveling Wilburys and Mudcrutch, include Stevie Nicks on the song from her debut solo album Bella Donna, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers also backed country legend Johnny Cash on a few of his albums (1996 and 2000). Cash even covered “I Won’t Back Down” on the latter.
Petty inspired many songs, including “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks. Most recently, however, Petty received writing credits on Sam Smith’s song “Stay With Me” due to the song’s similarities to “I Won’t Back Down.” There have been multiple instances where the music of other artists has closely resembled Petty’s, simply because Petty’s music is so ubiquitous, and his influence on other artists and fans alike is immeasurable. Petty also never assumed ill-will from any of the artists, saying, “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen,” in a 2015 statement about Sam Smith’s song.
It’s also quite possible that one could hear Petty’s music unknowingly, as it has been featured in many films and TV shows, including The Silence of the Lambs, and shows such as The Simpsons (which he even made a cameo on,) The Office, and Parks and Recreation. For the same reason many artists have copied Petty’s style, many movies and TV shows have used his music: it is exceptionally universal.
With three Grammies, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and an army of loyal fans, Petty’s legacy will live on undoubtedly. Americana artist Jason Isbell wrote in a tweet on the day of Petty’s passing, “I can’t think of an important moment in my life without an accompanying Tom Petty song.” He speaks for all who respected and loved Tom Petty as the legend he was.