Petty, Tom and the Heartbreakers
TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS
Formed: 1974, Gainesville, Florida
Members: Ron Blair, bass (born Macon, Georgia, 16 September 1952); Mike Campbell, lead guitar (born Gainesville, Florida, 1 February 1954); Steve Ferrone, drums (born Brighton, England, 25 April 1950); Tom Petty, lead vocals, guitar (born Gainesville, Florida, 20 October 1953); Benmont Tench, keyboards (born Gainesville, Florida, 7 September 1954). Former members: Howard (Howie) Epstein, bass (born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 21 July 1955; died Santa Fe, New Mexico, 23 February 2003); Stan Lynch, drums (born Gainesville, Florida, 21 May 1955).
Best-selling album since 1990: Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's Greatest Hits (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "Learning to Fly," "Mary Jane's Last Dance," "Free Girl Now"
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have managed to achieve longevity in the notoriously fickle rock music business without ever reinventing themselves. Instead, they have relied on strong songwriting, a myriad of musical influences, and an unaffected approach to produce top-selling albums and an extensive list of hit singles. Although the band's leader, Tom Petty, has embarked on solo ventures and other members of the group have worked on projects outside of the Heartbreakers, they have remained a cohesive group with minimal personnel changes since emerging in 1976. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers earned a reputation for stubbornly standing up for themselves whenever they have felt threatened professionally or artistically.
Learning to Fly from Gainesville
The son of an insurance salesman in Gainesville, Florida, Tom Petty began playing in an assortment of bands as a teenager. He was a big fan of the Beatles and was inspired early on, when at the age of eleven he met Elvis Presley. He left school at seventeen to join a band called Mudcrutch with guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. After exhausting all local venues, Mudcrutch left for Los Angeles in search of a record deal. The band broke up, but Shelter Records, a label co-founded by the singer/songwriter Leon Russell, showed interest in Petty as a solo artist. Petty received the opportunity to write songs alongside Russell, gaining important experience while also jamming with other bands. Meanwhile, Campbell and Tench formed a group with other Gainesville-bred musicians, drummer Stan Lynch and bass player Ron Blair.
Now a seasoned singer/songwriter with a record deal, Petty rejoined his former mates, and they decided to let him front the band. Their first album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976), featured ten short, hard-hitting songs that quickly arrived at their raw musical essence. Because of the album's vibrant energy, many people mistook the band as part of the surging "new wave" rock scene from England. While America was slow to catch on to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, England fell in love with them. The single "Breakdown" from their debut helped them gain popularity, and by the time their triumphant third album, Damn the Torpedoes (1979), was released, the band had begun playing stadium-size concert venues and enjoying superstardom. Damn the Torpedoes followed a stormy chapter of legal entanglements for the band as they adamantly fought the forced transfer of their song copyrights and royalties after the conglomerate MCA purchased Shelter Records. They doggedly stood their ground, even declaring bankruptcy, before a judge ruled in their favor. Damn the Torpedoes contains nine songs, six of which gained major radio airplay. The album features some of their signature songs, such as "Refugee," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Even the Losers," and "Here Comes My Girl."
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, led by the straightforward charm of Petty, built on their image as no-frills musical craftsmen by racking up hit after hit in their ensuing albums throughout the 1980s. Critics referred to them as America's most famous garage band. The band's intelligent blending of various musical styles, particularly 1960s folk, enabled them to create a unique brand of catchy heartland rock. The Byrds, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan were influences as were blues, southern, and even psychedelic rock. Petty's expressive vocal work manifests a pleasing nasal sincerity, a more musical version of Dylan's voice. Petty's appearance—long blond hair parted down the middle in a 1970s-style—has never changed. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' material is often playful and sometimes political, but it is always lyrically straightforward and guitar-led. Campbell's rhythm and solo guitar work adroitly balances between pop jingle-jangle and dirty hard rock. Other hits from the 1980s include "Woman in Love," "You Got Lucky," "Waiting," and "Don't Come Around Here No More."
In 1988 Petty took time off from the Heartbreakers to be the youngest member of the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup consisting of like-minded old pros Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. They were a novelty group with fake names all ending in Wilbury—Petty was Charlie T. Jr. Wilbury—but their music was for real. The Traveling Wilburys won a 1990 Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Group. Petty's two-album dalliance as a Wilbury gave him impetus to record a solo album. He released Full Moon Fever (1989), which went triple platinum and produced three hit singles: "Free Fallin'," "Runnin' Down a Dream," and his signature anthem, "I Won't Back Down." Campbell played guitar and helped produce the album.
Although the Heartbreakers were initially upset with Petty's recording on his own, they continued as a group and released Into the Great Wide Open (1991). The album features two more hits, "Learning to Fly" and "Into the Great Wide Open," and kept the band on its sure-footed path of success. Their first compilation album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Greatest Hits (1993), went quadruple-platinum. One of the two previously unreleased songs on the album, "Mary Jane's Last Dance," went on to win MTV's 1994 Best Male Video Award.
Petty released what is considered a second solo album, Wild Flowers (1994), although he was musically backed by nearly every member of the Heartbreakers. Like his first solo effort, Wildflowers went triple-platinum. It contains three radio staples, including "You Don't Know How It Feels," which brought Petty a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Performance.
In 1994 drummer Stan Lynch left the band and veteran drummer Steve Ferrone replaced him. This marked only the second personnel change for the Heartbreakers. In 1982 Howie Epstein had replaced bassist Ron Blair. Epstein, who had worked with Dylan, Warren Zevon, and Stevie Nicks, immediately became a strong creative force within the band. Additionally, he developed into a well-respected music industry producer who helped to revive the careers of singer/songwriters John Prine and Carlene Carter. The Heartbreakers fired Epstein before the summer 2002 tour, citing Epstein's unmanageable personal habits as the reason. Blair returned as his replacement. On February 23, 2003, Epstein died of a heroin overdose.
After Wildflowers Petty announced that he would never record again without the rest of the band. They released their twelfth album, Echo (1999), a success that contained another hit single: this time a frolicking rocker, "Free Girl Now." In that same year, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2001, millions of TV viewers watched as they performed a somber, memorable version of Petty's solo hit, "I Won't Back Down," on the entertainment industry-sponsored fundraiser, A Tribute to Heroes, which benefited the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2002 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Throughout their career, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have done their best to stand up for the common person, often railing against rising ticket and album prices. The 2002 studio release, The Last DJ (2002), a concept album, exemplified Petty's disgust with corporate greed and the deterioration of pop music culture. The title song, which sardonically laments the replacement of radio disc jockeys with preselected musical formats, was banished by radio stations across the country. The lyrics mourn, "And there goes the last DJ, who says what he wants to say. . . ." Ever true to themselves, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have thrived on a rare combination of mass appeal and a stubborn stylistic commitment to say what they want to say.
Spot Light: Petty's Many Battles
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have always been a band of unbending convictions—artistic, political, and personal. After their victory over MCA Records for copyrights and royalties in 1978, the band girded for another battle with MCA in 1981, when the record company tried to raise album prices of their third release, Hard Promises, from $8.98 to $9.98. Tom Petty publicly decried the change, encouraging fans to complain and threatening to retitle the album $8.98. The record company lowered the price. In 1987, he fought and won his case against a tire company that used a song that sounded like one of Petty's. He forced the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush to stop using his song "I Won't Back Down" in their rallies. Petty constantly battles concert promoters over the price of tickets in an effort to keep them affordable. The high cost of food, souvenirs, and parking at his concerts alarms him, too. He refuses corporate sponsorship and shuns limousines. Petty was reportedly delighted when the title track of his album, The Last DJ (2002), which protests the death of free-form radio, was banned on many radio stations.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Shelter, 1976); You're Gonna Get It (Shelter, 1978); Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet, 1979); Hard Promises (Backstreet, 1981); Long after Dark (Backstreet, 1982); Southern Accents (MCA, 1985); Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) (MCA, 1987); Into the Great Wide Open (MCA, 1991); Echo (Warner Bros., 1999); The Last DJ (Warner Bros., 2002).