However, Petty’s music and legacy live on. For fans old and new, there’s still plenty to learn about the legendary singer and songwriter.
His Love Of Music Started With Elvis
When Petty was 11 years old, he met Elvis Presley and began his lifelong love of rock ‘n’ roll. At the time, Elvis was shooting a film in Ocala, Florida, near Petty’s hometown of Gainesville, and his uncle worked on the set. Petty’s aunt brought him for a visit and he was instantly enchanted by The King.
“He stepped out radiant as an angel,” Petty said in the 2005 book, “Conversations With Tom Petty.” “He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. At 50 yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like … That’s what kicked off my love of music. And I’d never thought much about rock ‘n’ roll until that moment.”
He Did Not Have A Good Relationship With His Dad
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In “Petty: The Biography,” author Warren Zanes reveals that Petty was close with his mother and younger brother but endured abuse from his father from a very young age.
“I remember it first happening when I was probably 4 … when my father got home later, he came in, took a belt and beat the living sh*t out of me,” Petty is quoted as saying in the book. “He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that … I remember it so well.”
He Was A Florida Boy
The singer and songwriter was born on Oct. 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida. Petty died just a couple weeks shy of his 67th birthday on Oct. 2, 2017.
He Didn’t Often Enjoy Fame
Petty and fame didn’t always get along, and he experienced a particularly difficult moment during his 1980s “Damn the Torpedoes” tour when he lost his mother. While visiting her in the hospital one last time, he was dismayed to find that a nurse had covered his mother with magazine clippings of Petty.
“Even this moment, even this, someone had to corrupt with some reaction to fame, or whatever this was,” biographer Warren Zanes quotes him as saying in “Petty: The Biography.”
He Was BFFs With One Of The Beatles
Tom Petty and The Beatles’ George Harrison were lifelong friends. In the 1980s, they formed the supergroup Traveling Wilburys, along with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.
“I think [spirituality], probably, was the greatest gift he gave me,” Petty said of Harrison during a 2014 interview with NPR. “He gave me a way of understanding a higher power without it being stupid, or having tons of rules and books to read. … George was probably everything that you thought he was, and then some more. Very funny man; he could just kill me with his humor. He was a great guy and I miss him terribly.”
He Voiced A Character On ‘King Of The Hill’
One of Petty’s acting credits included voicing a character in the long-running animated series “King of the Hill.” He played Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt over 20 times on the show.
He Almost Recorded ‘The Boys of Summer’
According to American Songwriter, Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers guitarist, was working on a demo in 1984 for the song that eventually became “The Boys of Summer.” Campbell offered the song to Petty, who disliked the use of synthesizers, so the song went to Don Henley and became a huge hit for the singer.
His First Marriage Lasted 22 Years But Was Rocky
Petty married Jane Benyo in 1974, and they had two daughters, Adria and Kimberly, before divorcing in 1996. Their marriage was reportedly full of tension, though Petty admitted to being “very much in love” with Benyo during a 1991 Rolling Stone interview.
He Knew How to Make His Second Marriage Last
Petty and his second wife, Dana York, wed in 2001 and had a much happier union.
“You need to have each other’s back; you have to be a kind of team going through life,” he told Esquire about what he learned was the key to a successful marriage. “That’s beautiful — to have that kind of friendship. You’re going to need it when you get old.”
He Grew Up Loving The Confederate Flag—Until He Didn’t
Growing up in Florida, Petty saw the Confederate flag everywhere and his band used it extensively in the marketing of their 1985 album “Southern Accents.” However, he later changed his mind about supporting the flag.
“I’m sure that a lot of people that applaud [the flag] don’t mean it in a racial way,” Petty said in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone. “But again, I have to give them, as I do myself, a ‘stupid’ mark. If you think a bit longer, there’s bad connotations to this. They might have it at the football game or whatever, but they also have it at Klan rallies. If that’s part of it in any way, it doesn’t belong, in any way, representing the United States of America.”
He’s On The Walk Of Fame And In The Hall of Fame
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 1999. In 2002, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He Was Not A Fan Of ‘Bonus Tracks’ on Records
Although his 1993 greatest hits album included “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” as a rare bonus track, Petty was actually not a fan of having these on albums and balked at adding it to his own.
“There is no ‘bonus track,’ it’s the end of your record,” he said to Radio Q. “I don’t want it on the record unless it’s supposed to be there.”
His First Band Was Named Mudcrutch
Before he became known for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Petty had a band named Mudcrutch, which he started at age 17 after dropping out of high school. In 2008, Petty reunited them for an album and a tour — which especially shocked his early bandmates.
His Home Was Burned Down By An Arsonist
On the morning of May 17, 1987, just as Petty and his family were sitting down to breakfast, the family’s Encino, California, home went up in flames. Authorities determined it was the work of an arsonist, and Petty was deeply shaken after the event.
He Received Treatment For Heroin Addiction
In Petty’s biography, Warren Zanes wrote about Petty’s heroin addiction and eventual treatment.
“You start losing your soul,” Petty told Zanes for the book. “You realize one day, ‘Sh*t, I’ve lost myself. I’m hanging out with people I wouldn’t be seen with in a million years, and I have to get out of this.’ Using heroin went against my grain. I didn’t want to be enslaved to anything.”
He Got Tired Of Traveling
As a musician of his stature, Petty traveled extensively throughout his life. However, he revealed to Men’s Journal that he was “completely unimpressed” by even the fanciest of hotels and that they made him “think of work.”
He Almost Convinced Dave Grohl to Become a Heartbreaker
After joining the Heartbreakers to perform a couple songs on “Saturday Night Live” in 1994, Dave Grohl received an offer from Petty to replace fired drummer Stan Lynch full-time. Grohl declined and ended up starting his own band, the Foo Fighters.
He Didn’t Like His 1999 Album ‘Echo’
Petty was going through a rough time when he made his album “Echo,” and he revealed to Rolling Stone that in the end he wasn’t a fan of the album.
“I had just gotten divorced,” he told the magazine. “My family was in complete upheaval. [Former bassist] Howie [Epstein] had really bad problems. But there was a record due.”
He Had Issues With Record Companies
Throughout his career, Petty had a few uneasy dealings with record companies. He declared bankruptcy in the late 1970s due to a legal fight and, in 2001, he released “The Last DJ,” an album that was a scathing indictment of the record industry.
“Everywhere we look, we want to make the most money possible,” he said to Rolling Stone in 2002. “This is a dangerous, corrupt notion. That’s where you see the advent of programming on the radio, and radio research, all these silly things. That has made pop music what it is today. Everything — morals, truth — is all going out the window in favor of profit.”
He Had Some Harsh Negotiating Tactics
Among Petty’s thorny dealings with record companies was his refusal to release the 1979 album “Damn the Torpedoes” in order to get out of an abusive contract with his record label. He did this again with “Hard Promises” — that time refusing to release the album unless they increased the price of it — and this negotiating tactic became something that other musicians would copy.
He Didn’t Have A No. 1 Album Until 2014
You might be surprised to find out that Petty didn’t have a No. 1 album until 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye.” That album debuted at the top of the Billboard Charts, selling 131,000 copies in its first week.
He Inspired A Hip Hop Song
Wait, what? It’s true: Big Boi, Little Dragon and Killer Mike released the song “Thom Pettite” in 2012. In an interview with Metro News, Big Boi revealed that this phrase referred to having a wild, unpredictable night that could take you anywhere — something originally referred to as “free falling” and eventually “Tom Pettying.”
He Didn’t Like Streaming Music Or MP3s
Like many musicians, Petty was not a fan of MP3s or other music-streaming technology.
“I hate MP3s,” Petty said to USA Today. “You hear exactly five percent of the record I made. The CD is not as good as it can be, but it’s 100 times better than an MP3. The good news is vinyl is coming back.”
He Appeared On ‘SNL’ 8 Times
It’s a pretty great honor to be in the “five-timers club” on “Saturday Night Live,” and it’s usually an honor reserved for hosts. However, Petty was prominent on the late-night show and appeared eight different times over the course of his career.
He Helped Sam Smith Write A Hit Song … Sort Of
Petty received a co-writing credit for Sam Smith’s hit ballad “Stay With Me” because it, um, sounds an awful lot like Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” The 2014 song sounds so much like Petty’s 1989 single that a judge actually ordered this to happen, though Petty was very understanding of the situation, writing in a statement on his website that it was a “musical accident, no more, no less.”
He Was Not A Fan Of ‘American Idol’
There’s no way that Petty was ever going to follow in Steven Tyler’s footsteps and appear as a judge on “American Idol,” since the songwriter did not have a high opinion of televised singing competitions.
“If they had tried to offer my generation someone that had won a game show, it would’ve been hysterical,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “You would’ve been laughed out of the room. We were suspicious of people that had hit records, it was that different a time.”
He Appeared In A Movie With Kevin Costner
Petty didn’t just have acting chops from his work on “King of the Hill.” He also played a role in Kevin Costner’s 1997 flop “The Postman.”
He Supported Legalizing Marijuana
In case you’ve forgotten, not all of Petty’s music was popular. His 2010 album “Mojo” featured the reggae-ish song “Don’t Pull Me Over,” a protest song in support of legalized marijuana. Although the Village Voice ranked it as the fourth-worst song of 2010, some can still appreciate the music.
He Knew That His Recent Tour Would Be His Last
After the 2014 tour for “Hypnotic Eye,” Petty’s band went out on the road once more in 2017 for their expansive 40th anniversary tour. Apparently, Petty predicted that it would be his last.
“It’s very likely we’ll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don’t think so,” Petty said to Rolling Stone shortly before the tour started. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one. We’re all on the backside of our 60s. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road.”
He Was Happy With His Legacy
Petty had a lot of ups and downs in his career, but as early as 2006, he claimed to be ultimately satisfied with his musical legacy.
“As you’re coming up, you’re recognized song for song or album for album,” he said in an interview with Esquire. “What’s changed these days is that the man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work — the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say. And that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s all an artist can ask.”