Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida on October 20, 1950. While he grew up making music, it wasn't until 1976 that he formed a group called the Heartbreakers, which really launched his career. The original group consisted of Mike Campbell on guitars, Benmont Tench on piano and organ, Ron Blair on bass, Stan Lynch on drums, and, of course, Petty handling lead vocal, guitar, keyboard, and songwriting duties.
The quintet released their first album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, on November 9th, 1976. They cut the album at the Shelter Studio in Hollywood with producer Denny Cordell, who had worked with Joe Cocker, the Moody Blues, and Procol Harum, to name but a few. Though the album was released to little fanfare, it slowly picked up steam and about a year after its release, it finally went gold. The song's closing track, "American Girl," remains a fan favorite, and "Breakdown" was his first single to crack the Top 40 charts.
After their moderately successful follow-up, 1978's You're Gonna Get It!, the band tasted their first major success in the shape of 1979's Damn the Torpedoes. The album was a runaway success, selling over two million copies. It features classic songs like "Even the Losers" and "Don't Do Me Like That." Rolling Stone named it among the greatest album of all time. The group would release four more records, all which sold at least 500,000 copies in the US, but after 1987's aptly-titled Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), they disbanded.
In April 1988, Petty teamed up with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. The quartet became known as the Traveling Wilburys, and they released their first album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 on October 18th, 1988. The album was a smashing success selling over three million copies in the states. It won a 1989 Grammy for "Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal," and "Handle with Care," "Last Night," and "End of the Line" all cracked the Top 10 Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The group only released one more solo album, 1990's curiously titled Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3. The lineup remained the same, except for one very notable exception. Roy Orbison passed away in 1988, the victim of a heart attack.
In between the two Wilburys albums, Petty released 1989's Full Moon Fever, arguably his greatest work. The disc has sold over five million copies in the US, and features three of Petty's best-known songs, "Free Fallin'," "Runnin' Down a Dream," and "I Won't Back Down." All three of those singles hit #1 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and each of them continue to be popular radio staples, over 20 years after they were released.
In 1991, Petty reformed the Heartbreakers and released Into the Great Wide Open. The album was also successful, albeit not as popular as its predecessor, and it featured two Petty favorites, the title track and "Learning to Fly," which spent six weeks at the top of the Mainstream Rock chart. With a move from MCA Records to Warner Bros. already in the works, Petty recorded two new tracks for his "Greatest Hits" package. One of those numbers, "Mary Jane's Last Dance," became one of his most famous songs and one of the decade's most iconic music videos. The clip stars Petty as morgue assistant, who takes a dead woman (Kim Basinger) to his house for dinner. The clip shows Petty's penchant for combining literary, visually-striking videos with his clever, eccentric songwriting. The album would sell over 10 million copies stateside.
In 1994, Petty released his second solo album, Wildflowers. Though the Rick Rubin-produced disc was credited as solo album, like 1989's Full Moon Fever, many of the Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Howie Epstein) played on the disc's 15 songs. The record was generally well-received by critics and fans, and it featured the popular songs "You Don't Know How it Feels" and "You Wreck Me."
While Petty's next three albums, the Heartbreakers-assisted Echo (1999) and The Last DJ(2002) and his solo release, Highway Companion (2006), did not have the same commercial or cultural impact as his previous work, Petty continues to be an influential force in music. Any time he hits the road he plays to packed houses, and he played the 2008 Super Bowl with the Heartbreakers. In 2006, he won the Billboard Century Award, which is a prestigious award that salutes those who have had a lasting impact on music. Today, nearing 60-years-old, Petty is in good health and shows no signs of an impending retirement.
Read more about Tom Petty in Crawdaddy! Magazine:
Read "Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream" in Crawdaddy!