Since his arrival in the 1970s, Tom Petty has proved to be one of rock & roll's most consistent and great hit-making machines, mixing up old AM radio hits, chiming Byrds guitars, Rolling Stones rhythms, and his trademark vocals, which neatly combine Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn. First penning tales of outcasts and long-suffering lovers, he broadened his thematic range to encompass musings on his Southern heritage and to propagate a very American kind of individualism. Petty's knack for pop architecture has earned him respect from fellow heavy-hitters — not everyone gets to form an informal side project with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison.
Petty, the son of a Florida insurance salesman, quit high school at 17 to join one of the state's top bands, Mudcrutch, with future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. In the early 1970s they sent newest member to Los Angeles to seek out a record contract; Petty delivered, connecting with Denny Cordell's Shelter Records, which was co-owned by Leon Russell.
The group disbanded soon after moving to L.A., and while Cordell offered to record Petty solo, nothing happened until 1975, when Petty heard a demo that Campbell and Tench were working on with Ron Blair and Stan Lynch. They all connected, and the quintet not only became the Heartbreakers, it inherited Petty's Shelter contract, and released a self-titled debut in 1976. At the heart of its sound were Petty's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar and his nasal sneer of a voice. With a solid stomp driving them, the music seemed simultaneously classic and fresh. At first the record sold poorly. Then the Heartbreakers toured England, opening for Nils Lofgren. Within weeks, they were headlining, and the album was on the British charts. ABC then rereleased "Breakdown" in the U.S., and the single cracked the Top Forty nearly a year after album's initial release. Another song, the very "American Girl," was recorded by Byrds boss Roger McGuinn. The band's second album boasted the singles "Listen to Her Heart" (Number 59, 1978) and "I Need to Know" (Number41, 1978).
The Heartbreakers' career was igniting, but Petty became mired in a legal battle after trying to renegotiate his contract; by mid-1979 he'd filed for bankruptcy. After nine months of litigation, Petty signed to Backstreet Records, a new MCA affiliate. His triumphant return, the now-classic Damn the Torpedoes, hit Number Two, selling over 2.5 million copies, and established the singer as a star. Both of the album's singles, "Don't Do Me Like That" (Number Ten, 1979) and "Refugee" (Number 15, 1980), did well.
Petty always had a populist view of rock, and in 1981 he again got into another record-company hassle by challenging MCA's intention to issue his new disc, Hard Promises, with a $9.98 list price — one of the first albums to charge a dollar above the standard price point. After he threatened to withhold the LP - or entitle it $8.98 and organize fan protest letters, the company relented. Led by "The Waiting," album came out at $8.98 and went on to platinum sales status. He forever became a friend of the record-buying public.
The start of the 1980s found him working with others. Connecting with Stevie Nicks for a track on her Bella Donna record, the pair enjoyed a smash with 1981's "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." That year he also produced Del Shannon's comeback, Drop Down and Get Me. In 1982, "You Got Lucky" (Number 20) from Long After Dark, reiterated the veteran strengths of the Heartbreakers, but they suffered a bump in the road with bassist Ron Blair departure. It made room for the arrival of ex–John Hiatt sideman Howie Epstein. They instantly began work on a new disc. Three years in the making, Southern Accents was hard going; frustrated by the creative process, Petty punched a wall in the studio and broke his left hand. The album, coproduced by Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, found Petty achieving a new lyrical maturity and, with neo-psychedelic "Don't Come Around Here No More," scoring a Number 13 hit.
In 1986, right before Petty and the Heartbreakers embarked upon a world tour with Bob Dylan, Petty's house burned down (arson was suspected). His wife and two daughters escaped, but most of his belongings were destroyed. 1987's Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) hit Number 20 and was certified gold, a relatively disappointing showing in view of the group's 1980s success. Petty had fallen in with several of his rock star pals in the interim, turning friendship into business with the founding of the Traveling Wilburys. The band featured Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, and their self-titled 1988 disc earned itself a hit with "Handle With Care." When he began his first solo album with the Heartbreakers, he took Lynne with him as producer. The result was the masterful Full Moon Fever. Its "Free Fallin'"(Number 7, 1989) gave him a hit that revitalized fans' appreciation of his skills.
With most of the Heartbreakers playing on Fever, Petty retained band loyalty, and it paid off on Into the Great Wide Open, a fine collection coproduced with Lynne. In the interim Petty had participated a second Wilburys album (1990's Volume 3), and his band had begun establishing themselves as sidemen, with Campbell working on Roy Orbison's Mystery Girl, cowriting Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" and, with Lynch, contributing to Henley's The End of the Innocence. Meanwhile, Tench worked with such acts as U2 and Elvis Costello, and Epstein produced his girlfriend Carlene Carter's 1990 LP I Fell in Love.
Petty's record-business controversies continued with the surprise 1992 revelation that he had signed a secret $20 million, six-album deal with Warner Bros. in 1989. Reportedly he had kept the contract secret to avoid the ire of MCA, to which he owed two more albums at the time. In an unrelated dispute, in 1993 he was vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court when they let stand a lower court's finding that Petty's "Runnin' Down a Dream" did not infringe the copyright to an earlier piece written by songwriter/plaintiff Martin Allen Fine. A year after a Number Five Greatest Hits album in 1993, drummer Stan Lynch, who had been working as a songwriter and/or producer with the re-formed Eagles, Leonard Cohen, Don Henley, and the Mavericks, departed the band. Petty returned in 1994 with a second solo album, Wildflowers, which, again, featured most of the Heartbreakers. That year also saw the release of a Petty tribute album, You Got Lucky.
In 1996 Petty and the Heartbreakers reunited and recorded songs for Ed Burns' film She's the One; they also served as "backup band" on Johnny Cash's Unchained. That year, Petty and his wife ended their two-decade-long marriage, an event that purportedly added to the darker tone of 1999's masterful Echo (Number 10). In 1997 Petty appeared in Kevin Costner's film The Postman, but by 1999, his emphasis was squarely on music. In typical Petty fashion, he offered Echo's first single, "Free Girl Now," as a no-cost MP3 (for two days, before his label requested that he remove it); similarly, the band also refused to increase ticket prices for the Echo tour.
Petty's never been afraid to speak his mind, especially where music and business are concerned. In 2002, he released The Last DJ (Number Nine), in which he vented about the state of the music industry, most notably in the semi-controversial title track, which some stations refused to play. The album was one of the least successful of his career, failing to sell more than 500,000 copies. The next year, former Heartbreakers bassist Epstein died of a heroin overdose, and Petty would remain largely out of view until 2006, when he released the Lynne-produced Highway Companion (Number Four); the album opened with "Saving Grace" (Number 100), a back-to-basics number containing multiple uses of the word "baby," a staple of all great Petty tracks. A 30th-anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers followed, as did a four-hour documentary from director Peter Bogdanovich, Runnin' Down A Dream
In 2008, Petty and the Heartbreakers performed at the Super Bowl halftime show and announced another U.S. tour. Petty also reformed Mudcrutch, playing bass as he originally did, for a brief tour and a self-titled debut album that proved their rangy country rock was in fine form.
During his 35 years of action, Petty had only released one live album, and as Rolling Stone reported, it wasn't so hot. The singer rectified that in 2009 with The Live Anthology, a 48-track blast of rock 'n' roll that featured hits ("Breakdown," "Freefallin'") deep cuts ("Spike") and speckling of cool covers ("Dave Clark 5's "Anyway You Want It," an instrumental spin on the theme from Goldfinger). It received a four and a half star review from Stone — almost perfect.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.