Tom Petty: A free spirit

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Legendary American musician Tom Petty has died of a heart attack, aged 66.

The blonde-haired, chisel-featured Petty was best known for blending Southern heartland rock and roll with the California sound that defined the 1970s.

In doing so, Petty created an entirely new genre of music. He sold more than 80 million albums during his career, making him one of the most successful recording artists ever.

He was born Thomas Earl Petty on 20 October 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. Petty developed an interest in rock music in the summer of 1961, when his uncle who worked on an Elvis Presley movie, sneaked him onto the set and introduced him to the "King" himself.

Later, Petty saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and declared it a life-changing event. He also glommed onto the 60s sounds of the Byrds and future musical collaborator, Bob Dylan. Consequently, Petty decided to quit school at 17 and become a rock musician. This decision did not sit well with his strict father, who reportedly beat Petty savagely on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, Petty joined up with fellow rock music fans to form a band called Mudcrutch. To make ends meet, he worked as a groundsman at Florida University and did a brief stint at as a gravedigger.

Mudcrutch failed to achieve commercial success outside the local Gainesville scene and it evolved into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Their eponymous self-titled debut album was released in 1976 and achieved moderate success on the strength of the single 'Breakdown'. The single hit the top 40 on the UK charts in 1978 when the Heartbreakers toured England in support of Nils Lofgren.

The Heartbreakers' second album, You're Gonna Get It! (1978), yielded the top 40 hits, 'I Need to Know' and 'Listen to Her Heart'. The third album, Damn the Torpedoes, was a smash success and quickly went platinum. One of the stand-out albums in the music-rich year of 1979, it sold two million copies on the strength of killer singles like the haunting 'Refugee'.

A follow-up album, Hard Promises (1981) also went platinum and featured a duet with Petty and Stevie Nicks called 'Insider'. Petty recorded a second duet with Nicks called 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around', which featured on her 1981 album Bella Donna.

As his success grew, Petty developed a social conscience. He and the Heartbreakers performed at a Musicians United for Safe Energy concert in New York City and contributed a song called 'Cry for Me' to the resulting No Nukes album. In 1985, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed four songs at the legendary Live Aid concert to provide famine relief to African families.

Petty was also passionate about the issue of artistic control for musicians. In 1979, he was involved in a legal dispute when ABC Records was sold to MCA and refused to be transferred to another record label without his consent. In May 1979, Petty filed for bankruptcy and was signed to a new MCA subsidiary, Backstreet Records. Petty also protested when MCA decided to raise the cost of his albums from $8.98 to $9.98 because he did not want to rip off his fans. He threatened to call his 1981 album "$8.98". This caused the record label to capitulate and Hard Promises was sold at the original price.

In the mid to late 80s, Petty grew and matured as a musician. The Heartbreakers' 1985 album, Southern Accents, featured a quirky little gem called 'Don't Come Around Here No More'. Produced by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, it had an accompanying video that featured Petty dressed as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland.

As the 1980s wound down, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers toured with Petty's early hero, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead. In 1988, Petty was invited to join George Harrison's supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys. The lineup also included Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. They had a rich, full sound and perhaps their best-known song was 'The End of the Line' (1988).

Petty's solo career exploded in 1989 and he had hit after hit. The album Full Moon Fever yielded three absolute corkers — 'I Won't Back Down', 'Free Fallin' and 'Running Down a Dream'. The latter is a classic driving anthem that makes you want to press the pedal to the metal.

Petty continued to tour with various acts, including the Heartbreakers, well into the 2000s. They recently commemorated their 40th anniversary with a tour that culminated in three triumphant nights at the Hollywood Bowl.

Variety's Chris Willman wrote:

'Petty remains the perfect combination of an everyman who is one of us ad a rock superstar definitely not one of us. His slow-drawling, almost stoner-like asides creating the most relaxed possible atmosphere for the audience even as those shades hide the sharp eyes of one of rock's most historically acute craftsmen.'

Petty collapsed at his Malibu home barely a week after the Heartbreakers' 40th-anniversary tour concluded. He was rushed to hospital, where he later died.

Petty's death prompted a flood of tributes.

Elton John tweeted: 

'Tom Petty's music and songs are timeless. He was a wonderful writer, musician and singer. Irreplaceable and unique.'

Jack Antonoff wrote:

'Tom Petty changed my life. There is a reference to him in everything I have ever written. I love his work and life.'

John Mayer said:

'I loved Tom Petty and I covered his songs because I wanted to know what it felt like to fly.'

Friend and bandmate, Bob Dylan, said he was "crushed" by the news of Petty's demise.

Said Dylan:

'I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend — I will never forget him.'

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