Of all the luminaries of pop music that we have lost in the last couple of years, it is the music of Tom Petty which I have had the longest and most committed relationship with.
A radio-friendly American Heartland rocker, Tom Petty was less earnest then Springsteen and more consistently brilliant than Bob Seger. Originally from Florida, but relocating to California to seek his musical fortune, Petty had an approachable everyman air about him. His musical relationship with guitar player Mike Campbell and keyboard wizard Benmont Tench was key to his success, and had started in their early band Mudcrutch, with the trio eventually becoming the musical backbone of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with Tench and Campbell becoming in demand session players, and Petty being viewed as one of the most exciting young talents to come out of the mid-70s American music scene.
Originally a pleasingly rough and ready bar / garage band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers found their first meaningful success in the UK rather than the USA, and were briefly considered part of the Punk movement. As their career progressed, it became ever more obvious that Petty’s influences were The Beatles and The Byrds, and his grasp of what exactly made for brilliant rock and roll music was unparalleled.
By the end of the 70s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had established themselves as one of the preeminent rock band of the era with the career-defining Damn the Torpedoes, and the 80s would bring duets with Stevie Nicks, other big hits, becoming Bob Dylan’s backing band, and Petty himself becoming a member of the Travelling Wilburys alongside such big names as Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Dylan himself. The fact that he was considered to be on equal terms with such music icons pretty much confirmed Petty’s standing at the time, and the next few years would bring some of the biggest commercial successes of his career, both with his solo debut, Full Moon Fever, and the Jeff Lynne produced Into the Great Wide Open.
The rest of the 90s were a mixed bag, with another phenomenal solo album by way of Wildflowers, the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be soundtrack to awful 90s film She’s the One, drug addiction, and Dave Grohl almost, but not quite, becoming a Heartbreaker.
The last couple of decades saw Petty become a universally respected elder-statesman of rock and roll, with acts from across the pop spectrum confessing his influence on him. Petty himself remained in fine voice, a more than capable songwriter and still fronting one of the finest rock and roll bands on the planet.
The announcement of Tom Petty’s death in the early hours of this morning was unexpected, but the plaudits have since been rolling in from musicians he had worked with, those he influenced, and those that simply just liked his style. He leaves behind an enviable body of work, a legion of distraught fans, friends and family, and a whole bundle of iconic rock and roll moments.