Tom Petty, whose Florida-bred quintet the Heartbreakers was one of the defining arena-rock acts of the 1970s with hits like “Breakdown,” died of a heart attack on Monday evening, the longtime manager of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers confirmed. He was 66.
“On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty,” said Tony Dimitriades in a statement.” “He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40pm PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.”
Police responded to his home at 10:50 p.m. Sunday night and he was transferred to UCLA-Santa Monica Medical Center, where he was on life support.
Petty toured all summer across the U.S., with the last date at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 25. He had been scheduled to play two dates in New York in November. However, he had cancelled a few shows during the tour for laryngitis.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Petty arrived on the national scene during the period between the original classic rock era and the arrival of punk. His taut, thoughtful and heartfelt songs – which elaborated on the work of such precursors as the Byrds – resonated with an audience looking for a new hero.
With their breakthrough third album, 1979’s triple-platinum “Damn the Torpedoes,” the Heartbreakers established themselves as a top contender among American acts of the era. The unit ultimately released eight top-10 albums and nine top-20 singles. The group’s 1993 “Greatest Hits” collection sold more than 10 million copies.
Penning economical, affecting, hook-laced songs (frequently in partnership with guitarist Mike Campbell) that never shied away from complex emotions or dark narratives, Petty approached rock music with the fervor of the true believer.
Recalling his first performance with a band as a teenager to biographer Warren Zanes, he said, “The first time you count four and, suddenly, rock and roll is playing – it’s bigger than life itself. It was the greatest moment in my experience.”
Despite dramatic exits from the Heartbreakers’ original lineup, the expulsion and overdose death of the group’s latter-day bassist and Petty’s intermittent struggles with drugs and depression, the Heartbreakers sustained their massive popularity for more than four decades.
With 1989’s “Full Moon Fever,” Petty established a concurrent solo career that saw the release of three top-10 albums. He also hit the upper reaches of the charts on two albums with the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, a collaborative effort with Bob Dylan (with whom the Heartbreakers toured internationally in the late ‘80s), George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and (on the debut release) Roy Orbison.
Petty also returned to his Sunshine State roots with two top-10 albums that reunited members of his late-‘60s hometown band Mudcrutch.
He was a smart, outspoken and intransigent musician whose song “I Won’t Back Down” could be taken as a kind of credo. In 1979 he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after his original recording contract, which he found onerous, was acquired by MCA Records. Two years later, he publicly attacked MCA when they threatened to raise the list price on his new album.
In 2002, Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Petty was awarded UCLA’s George and Ira Gershwin Award for lifetime achievement in 1996.
He was born Oct. 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Fla. A poor student, he caught the rock ‘n’ roll bug after he was introduced by his uncle to Elvis Presley, who was shooting the picture “Follow That Dream” on location in nearby Ocala. Like many other boyish rock aspirants, he began working on music in earnest after witnessing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in Febrary 1964.
Playing guitar and bass, he cut his teeth in cover bands like the Epics and the Sundowners. In his late teens, he became a top local attraction on the fertile Gainesville music scene (which produced members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Eagles and new wave act the Motels) as front man and songwriter for Mudcrutch, an outfit that also included guitarist Campbell and keyboard prodigy Benmont Tench.
In the wake of a poorly capitalized exploratory trip to Los Angeles in search of a record contract, Mudcrutch was contacted by Denny Cordell, an English producer-executive whose Shelter Records had issued hit releases by Cordell’s partner, musician Leon Russell. The band cut an unsuccessful single for Shelter, but fell apart with the firing of original drummer Randall Marsh.
However, Petty, Campbell and Tench reconvened with the addition of two other Gainesville musicians, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. It was this five-piece group that assembled in Los Angeles to record the newly dubbed Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut album in 1976.
Neither that album nor its 1978 successor “You’re Gonna Get It!” were major successes, peaking at No. 55 and No. 23 respectively. But the sets spawned such tuneful early live staples as “American Girl,” “Breakdown” (the group’s biggest early hit, peaking at No. 40), “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart.”
The act became a surprisingly popular attraction in England amid the punk rock fervor of the day; at a show a the Whisky a Go Go in the newly adopted hometown of L.A., they were introduced by British DJ John Peel, an enthusiastic early supporter.
After Shelter was acquired by major MCA in 1979, Petty bridled and sought to void his band’s contract with a bankruptcy declaration. Ultimately, the group was rewarded with a better deal and a slot at a newly formed MCA imprint, Backstreet Records.
Backstreet issued “Damn the Torpedoes” in the wake of the new pact. Produced by engineer-producer Jimmy Iovine, who had worked on such straight-ahead rock hits as Bruce Springsteen’s album “Born to Run” and the Springsteen-Patti Smith smash “Because the Night,” the album was lofted to No. 2 by the signature hit singles “Don’t Do Me Like That” (No. 10) and “Refugee” (No. 15).
The million-selling “Hard Promises” (No. 5, 1981) and the same year’s No. 3 single “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” on which the Heartbreakers, produced by Petty and Iovine, backed avowed Petty fan Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, soon followed.
However, bassist Blair, considered the odd man out among the band members, was soon displaced in the group by Howie Epstein, who played on the sessions for the Petty-produced 1982 album by ‘60s rocker Del Shannon, “Drop Down and Get Me.”
Epstein bowed on the No. 9 collection “Long After Dark” in 1982. That title was succeeded by the regionally flavored “Southern Accents” (No. 7, 1985), which contained a No. 13 hit, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” produced and co-written by Dave Stewart of the U.K. pop duo Eurythmics, and promoted via MTV in a striking “Alice in Wonderland”-themed video featuring Petty as the Mad Hatter.
The 1987 album “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough),” though it reached No. 20 and shifted 1 million units, was deemed a relative disappointment. However, at that juncture Petty and the Heartbreakers’ profile was heightened considerably by service as opening act and backup band on a long world tour by Bob Dylan.
The next few years found Petty increasingly active as a performer apart from his working band. He worked side-by-side with his idols on “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” (No. 3, 1988). Some of the Heartbreakers appeared in minor backing roles on his Jeff Lynne-produced solo debut “Full Moon Fever,” which contained the emblematic hits “Free Fallin’” (No. 7) and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (No. 23).
The Heartbreakers regrouped for 1991’s “Into the Great Wide Open,” which also employed the production services of Lynne. The double-platinum No. 13 album featured the cautionary title song, a brooding number about the record business that director Julien Temple converted into an elaborate, nearly seven-minute video starring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway.
Petty’s sophomore solo release “Wildflowers,” produced by Rick Rubin and released in 1994, rose to No. 8, and combined strong full-band material with a more subdued, folk-inflected sound.
During this period, Petty’s personal and professional life began to erode. His long-running marriage to Jane Benyo unraveled, and the depression-prone musician began a short dalliance with heroin use. Founding drummer Lynch, whose resentment grew when Petty failed to use him on “Wildflowers,” was ejected from the band. And bassist Epstein’s own heroin addiction began to escalate.
The band’s sales declined with the gold soundtrack album “Songs and Music from ‘She’s the One’” (No. 15, 1996) and “Echo” (No. 10, 1999). The latter album featured participation by two performers who would soon become permanent members of the Heartbreakers: drummer Steve Ferrone, first heard with Petty on “Wildflowers,” and the well-traveled session guitarist Scott Thurston.
The increasingly unreliable Epstein – who failed to show up for the cover photo session for “Echo” – was finally dismissed after appearing with the Heartbreakers at their 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. He died of drug-related causes in February 2003.
In a move that surprised everyone except Ron Blair, who had predicted his own return in a 1993 interview, Petty drafted the Heartbreakers’ original bassist to replace Epstein on the 2002 set “The Last DJ,” a bile-filled rebuke of the music industry that reached No. 9.
Blair remained on board as full-time bassist for subsequent tours and the Petty-Heartbreakers albums “Mojo” (2010), a blues-based collection that peaked at No. 2, and “Hypnotic Eye” (2014), which became the band’s first No. 1 album, a mere 37 years after their debut.
Petty’s side projects in the new millennium included the solo side “Highway Companion” (No. 4, 2006) and the two albums with the renascent Mudcrutch, “Mudcrutch” (No. 8, 2008) and “2” (No. 10, 2016).
Over the course of time, Petty piled up credits in other show biz realms. Following bit parts in the features “FM” and “Made in Heaven,” he became a recurring character as himself on “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show” and appeared on “The Larry Sanders Show.” He voiced ne’er-do-well redneck Lucky Kleinschmidt on Mike Judge’s animated series “King of the Hill.” He was also a long-running celebrity host on Siriux XM satellite radio.
Director Peter Bogdanovich took a deep look at the Heartbreakers story in his four-hour 2007 documentary “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
Petty is survived by second wife Dana York Petty and his daughters from his first marriage, Adria and Annakim.
CLARIFICATION: Citing a source, Variety reported at 1:30 p.m. PT that Petty had died. However, the LAPD has clarified that a statement ‘inadvertently provided’ incorrect information to media sources.