Born on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, FL; son of an insurance salesman; married, c. 1973, divorced first wife Jane, 1996; married second wife Dana York, 2001; children: Adria, Kim. Addresses: Record company--Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694. Website--Tom Petty Official Website:

Like many American boys growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tom Petty was first inspired to pick up a guitar after seeing rock and roll icon Elvis Presley perform. Unlike many other aspiring musicians, Petty's long rock and roll road has led to fame, wealth, millions of albums sold, two Grammy Awards, and a hard-earned reputation as one of rock's most enduring stars and accessible songwriters. For nearly two decades, Petty, along with his band, the Heartbreakers, has won audiences with consistently insightful and exciting albums and energetic live shows. Though his rise to rock stardom was anything but easy, his late 1980s association with other rock music legends as part of the Traveling Wilburys, as well as his hugely successful 1989 solo release, Full Moon Fever, cemented his place in rock history.

Born the son of an insurance salesman on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida, Tom Petty seemed destined for a future in rock and roll from the age of 11. He met Elvis Presley when the King of Rock and Roll came to Gainesville in 1961 to shoot the film Follow That Dream. "[Presley] didn't have much to say to us," Petty recalled in Rolling Stone, "but to a kid at an impressionable age, he was an incredible sight." The next day young Petty traded his slingshot for a friend's collection of Presley and Little Richard records. "And that," related Petty, "was the end of doing anything other than music with my life. I didn't want anything to fall back on because I was not going to fall back."

Petty learned to play on a guitar purchased from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue, and by 14 he was playing with various Gainesville bands, including a bar band called the Epics and, ultimately, a country-rock band known as Mudcrutch. Part of the Mudcrutch line-up--guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench--would later become members of the Heartbreakers.

Heartbreakers Came Together

At 17 Petty quit high school to go on the road with Mudcrutch, ending up in Los Angeles in the early 1970s in search of a record contract. After sending a demo tape around, Mudcrutch signed with an MCA label, Shelter Records. The band broke up in an L.A. recording studio while working on their first album. One afternoon in 1975, Petty reunited in a demo session with Campbell and Tench and two other musicians he knew from Gainesville--bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. The quintet sparked together and decided to form a band with Petty as the frontman, calling themselves Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

The band's eponymously titled debut album was released in 1976 on Shelter--now owned by ABC--and featured such Petty staples as "American Girl" and "Breakdown," which became his first top 40 single in the United States. "American Girl," a hit for the band in England in 1976, was also the first of Petty's songs to be covered by another artist, Petty idol and former Byrds leader Roger McGuinn.

By the time of the release of the band's second album, 1978's You're Gonna Get It!, Petty and the Heartbreakers were the hottest band on the L.A. club circuit, regularly drawing wall-to-wall crowds at such venues as the famed Whiskey A Go Go. In the disco-infested American music scene of 1978, the driving, jangling guitars of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were hard to classify. Many young, guitar-oriented rock bands drawing media attention were mislabeled as part of the punk movement filtering across the Atlantic from England, and the Heartbreakers were no exception. Lack of a clear media identity, though, quickly took a backseat to the string of contract and legal hassles that began to plague Petty after the second album's release.

Bankrupt Millionaire

ABC sold Shelter Records back to MCA, and Petty declared himself a free agent, prompting a lawsuit against him by MCA and Shelter that prevented him from signing with another label. Finding himself $500,000 in debt, Petty declared bankruptcy in mid-1979 to prevent further prosecution then signed a $3 million contract with a small, MCA-affiliated label called Backstreet Records. An out-of-court settlement was reached later with Shelter, and Petty and the Heartbreakers went into the studio to record the album that propelled them to superstar status.

With such hard-driving cuts as "Refugee" and "Even the Losers" and moodier yet radio-friendly tunes like "Here Comes My Girl" and "Don't Do Me Like That," Damn the Torpedoes hit number two on the album charts and sold two-and-a-half million copies. Newsweek characterized the record as "melodic mainstream at its best." While the sounds of the band's third album filled rock airwaves, arena audiences across the country realized what L.A. club crowds had known for years--that Petty and the Heartbreakers brought good-time music to the stage with all the fire and spontaneity that great live rock demands.

MCA executives planned to capitalize on the popularity of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers by raising the price on the band's fourth album, Hard Promises, from $8.98 to $9.98. An angry Petty refused to allow it and even threatened to rename the album $8.98. After a month-long standoff, MCA finally agreed to release the album at the lower price. The 1981 album, which sold 1.5 million copies, was less of a straightforward rock album than its predecessor, and included "Insider," a duet with California pop diva Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. Petty and the Heartbreakers later returned the favor by writing and playing on Nicks's hit single "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." Among the radio staples from Hard Promises was "The Waiting" and "A Woman in Love (But It's Not Me)," a pair of tunes exploring the rocky world of romantic relationships, each featuring the characteristic Heartbreaker hook connecting Petty's soulful lyrics.

Long After Dark, the 1982 follow-up to Hard Promises, included the hit single "You Got Lucky." The futuristic video for the song received heavy play on MTV, which helped boost album sales. Though it had more of a pop feel than anything Petty had done to date, "You Got Lucky" became one of his biggest hits. The album also featured such rock radio hits as "Change of Heart" and "Straight Into Darkness." The initial wave of mass popularity of Petty and the Heartbreakers peaked with the release and subsequent supporting tour of Long After Dark. The record also marked the first personnel change in the band: bassist Ron Blair left the Heartbreakers and was replaced by Howie Epstein, who died of an apparent drug overdose in 2003.

Though Petty and the Heartbreakers continued to record through the rest of the 1980s, they sold gradually fewer albums, and empty seats began to appear in the top rows of the arenas they had been selling out. "To the people buying the albums," wrote David Wild in Rolling Stone, "or, increasingly, not buying the albums, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were in danger of becoming just another bunch of not-so-new kids on the block. Frustratingly for Petty ... he found himself making more news when he broke his hand during the recording of 1985's Southern Accents, or when his home burned down in 1987, than when he made a new record."

Indeed, after an extended break from touring, not much was heard from Petty until the infamous wall-punching incident during the Southern Accents sessions in 1984. His right hand was severely damaged, and it was thought that his guitar-playing days were over. The other Heartbreakers took to referring to him as L.V., which stood for "lead vocalist." Petty's hand was repaired with steel inserts, and he recovered in time not only to play guitar for a tour supporting Southern Accents but also to perform in the landmark Live-Aid concert on July 13, 1985.

Southern Accents, a collection of songs influenced by growing up in the South, particularly the title track and the infectious "Rebels," marked a return to the band's Gainesville roots. Despite the hit single "Don't Come Around Here No More," which spawned a unique video spoofing Alice in Wonderland, Southern Accents failed to outsell its predecessors. A 1986 live album, Pack Up the Plantation, documented the band's subsequent tour and included some older live numbers. The two-record set excluded some of Petty's major hits but featured a blistering version of the Byrds' "So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," two duets with Stevie Nicks, and a raucous version of the Isley Brothers' crowd-pleasing "Shout."

In 1986 Petty and the Heartbreakers embarked on a world tour backing Bob Dylan, taking their place among such renowned acts as the Band and the Grateful Dead, who have backed rock's legendary poet laureate. The chemistry onstage between Dylan and the Heartbreakers and a strong opening set of Heartbreaker material won the band legions of new fans. In a hotel room one night in the midst of the tour, Petty, Dylan and Mike Campbell wrote the rocking "Jammin' Me," which appeared on the Heartbreakers' 1987 album, Let Me Up (I've Had Enough). The band's eighth release, Let Me Up was laced with the same fiery guitar-driven rock that had made them famous.

Following a 1987 arson-induced fire that destroyed the Petty family home in California's San Fernando Valley--a case that was never solved--Petty's fortunes began to turn around when he became part of the Traveling Wilburys. A chance meeting with former Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne in Los Angeles led to Petty's involvement in a gathering of rock legends that led to the creation of the Wilburys, which included Petty, Lynne, Dylan, former Beatle George Harrison, and Roy Orbison, who died shortly after recording the first Wilburys album. The group got together to record strictly for fun under fictitious names and produced Traveling Wilburys, Vol. One, complete with wacky liner notes penned by Monty Python alum Michael Palin. The collection of acoustically based, good-time music won widespread critical acclaim and earned Petty a Grammy Award. The Wilburys, minus Orbison, reunited in 1990 to record their whimsically-titled second album, Traveling Wilburys, Vol. Three.

First Solo Release

In between the two Wilburys releases, Petty recorded his first solo effort, Full Moon Fever, which became the most popular of his career, selling three million copies in the United States alone and staying in the top ten--where it peaked at number three--for 34 weeks. The album spawned hit after hit, including "Free Fallin'," "I Won't Back Down," and "Runnin' Down a Dream." Hailing the album as an "infectious fever," Rolling Stone ranked it as one of the Top 100 albums of the 1980s.

In 1991 Petty reunited with the Heartbreakers for the band's ninth record, Into the Great Wide Open. Despite mixed reviews, the album sold one million copies within a month of its release and produced the radio hits "Learning to Fly" and the title track. The work also included the spirited "Makin' Some Noise," which revealed that Petty, despite the trials and tribulations of his traumatic rise to superstardom, has retained the inner urge to rock that moved him after his boyhood Elvis encounter.

In 1992 Petty signed a $20 million, six-album deal with a new label, Warner Bros. "The deal was made [in 1989] at a time when Petty's MCA albums weren't selling well," according to Rolling Stone. "Ironically, on the heels of the secret agreement [between Petty and Warner Bros.], his next album for MCA, Full Moon Fever, went triple platinum, and Into the Great Wide Open has sold more than a million copies." 1994's Wildflowers, Petty's second solo album, and his first under his Warner Bros. contract, also proved to be a winner. Music for the film She's the One came next, in 1996, along with an accompanying soundtrack album. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers closed the 1990s with Echo, released in 1999.

The 2000s found Petty and the band still going strong, although their first effort of the new millennium, 2002's The Last DJ, featuring a scathing commentary on the state of the music industry, offended radio executives, who refused to play it in some markets. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

by John Cortez and Michael Belfiore

Tom Petty's Career

Played in various Gainesville, FL, bands, including the Epics and Mudcrutch; guitarist and vocalist with the Heartbreakers, 1975--; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released self-titled debut LP on Shelter Records, 1976; performed at Live-Aid concert, 1985; recorded and performed with Traveling Wilburys, 1988-90; solo recording artist, 1989--; inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, 2001.

Tom Petty's Awards

Grammy Awards, 1989, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group, (with Traveling Wilburys), for Traveling Wilburys, Vol. One; and Best Male Rock Performance for "You Don't Know How It Feels," 1995; MTV Video Vanguard Award, 1994; Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, 2001; Radio Music Awards, Legend Award, 2003.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

October 17, 2005: Petty was named to receive the Century Award at the Billboard music awards. Source: USA Today,, October 17, 2005.

Further Reading


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