In 1961, a ten-year old Tom Petty met Elvis Presley on a movie set in Ocala, Florida, and later credited this experience for setting off his love for music. Forty-one years later, that same boy would be one of the best-selling musicians of all time and be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In celebration of his 65th birthday, we thought we’d share a few little-known facts about the rocker, as well as a collection of AccuRadio channels featuring Tom Petty.
Stuck in the Mud
Most know Tom Petty for his career with The Heartbreakers and subsequent solo endeavors, but before “Free Fallin’”, Petty and fellow heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench were in a popular Gainesville, FL band called Mudcrutch. After a short run and a move to Los Angeles, the band broke up in 1975, which ultimately lead to the formation of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
The band’s self-titled debut was released on November 9, 1976 and saw some early success in the UK, but really didn’t pick up steam in the US until 1978 when the single “Breakdown” peaked at #40. The first album also contained the track “American Girl” which was eventually ranked 76th on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.”
An urban legend surrounding “American Girl” claims the song was written about a college student who committed suicide by jumping from a residence tower at the University of Florida in Petty’s hometown of Gainesville. Petty has since gone on the record regarding the story stating, “That’s just not at all true.”
Believe it or not, Tom Petty wouldn’t break into the top 10 until 1989, with the release of his first solo effort, Full Moon Fever. After seven studio albums and one live album with The Heartbreakers, Petty hit it big with the recognizable anthem “Free Fallin’.” The song peaked at number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1990, and would eventually be ranked #177 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Although it was credited as a solo release for Petty, many of the members from The Heartbreakers contributed to the album. Full Moon Fever also featured a little help from George Harrison of the Beatles who contributed acoustic guitar and backing vocals on “I Won’t Back Down” as well as Roy Orbison who tracked backing vocals on “Zombie Zoo.”
Originally titled “Indiana Girl,” The Heartbreakers recorded “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” in 1993 with famed producer Rick Rubin and released the track as part of their first greatest hits album. The song has long been rumored to be about a drug reference, however Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell have both denied that was the intent. When asked about the song in a 2003 interview with Carl Wiser of Songfacts.com, Campbell responded:
“My take on it is it can be whatever you want it to be. A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song.”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Petty’s first top 20 hit since 1989’s “Free Fallin’.”
Did You Know?
- In 2011 Petty’s management team sent a cease and desist letter to Michelle Bachmann after the Congresswoman used the song during a presidential campaign appearance in Iowa. Petty’s camp also had to tell George W. Bush to stop using “I Won’t Back Down” at rallies in 2000.
- Tom Petty passed on “Boys of Summer”. Sort of. Mike Campbell, a founding and current member of The Heartbreakers, recorded the instrumental track and offered it to Petty, but at the time, it didn’t really fit into the album they were working on. Campbell would eventually show the track to Don Henley, who wrote lyrics for the track and recorded and released it as “Boys of Summer” in 1984. The song would go on to peak at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- In 2006 the Red Hot Chili Peppers scored a top ten single with the song “Dani California” and critics claimed the group had plagiarized Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” While the tracks share a similar sound and both songs were produced by Rick Rubin, in an interview with Rolling Stone Petty responded that he was not going to sue, saying, “The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there.” Adding, “I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”
- Tom Petty and his co-writer Jeff Lynne will receive 12.5% royalty for Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” after both camps came to an agreement that the song bears too-similar a resemblance to Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” In an official statement released on Petty’s website the rocker wrote, “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.” “Stay with Me” went on to win Song of the Year at the 2015 Grammy Awards, though Petty and Lynne were deemed not eligible to share in the award because they did not contribute anything new to the recording.
Do you have a favorite Tom Petty song or story? Share it with us in the comments!