Rock star Tom Petty has become the latest beloved icon to be lost too soon, after suffering a cardiac arrest at the age of just 66.The Florida-born star who never lost his trademark bob – it just grew greyer but ever sleeker over the years – was a master of crowd-pleasing yet meaningful heartland rock. And, while he ended up selling more than 80million records worldwide, he never forgot his loyalty towards the working class. At one point, he went to war with his label MCA, refusing to release the album Hard Promises if they went ahead with plans to charge an extra dollar for the record – and won.
He raised millions for various charities over the years, and was an outspoken activist for humanitarian causes. Utterly obsessed with rock’n’roll from a young age, having met Elvis himself in the summer of 1961, Petty’s desire to be a star was kick-started by his idolisation of The Beatles. He broke through in the 1970s as the frontman for Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, with whom he had a string of hits and collaborated with the likes of Stevie Nicks (Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around).
Later, he became a member and co-founder of 1980s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, alongside such illustrious companions as Bon Dylan, his teen idol George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. Petty and The Heartbreakers reformed in 1991 and had a second flush of success triggered by the album Into The Great Wide Open. The guys were never a heritage act – in fact, they topped the charts for the first time ever with their 2014, and latest, album Hypnotic Eye.
Life wasn’t always easy for Petty. But he overcame an abusive relationship with his father, drug addiction and depression, and still remained one of the nicest, most downto-earth and thoughtful characters in rock’n’roll. Hits such as American Girl, Free Fallin’ (made famous for a later generation by Tom Cruise in movie Jerry Maguire) and I Won’t Back Down are evergreen, classic tunes with deep hearts – the kind that can transport you from a London bus to the wide highways of the US with the first strum of their opening chords.
It feels like Tom Petty, who died just a week after wrapping up The Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour, could have had so much more to give. But he will be forever loved for what he gave.