A rocker at heart. That is the way Tom Petty would go down in history. Sure, there were some diversions along a career that spans three decades and that still keeps going on strong. The first one came in 1985 with the concept album “Southern Accents”, and his first stint as a Traveling Wilbury showcased a very different side of him (the second album by the Wilburies found Petty back on more familiar territory). But these (and his solo albums like Wildflowers) can be deemed as mini-vacations after which he came energized like never before.
Born in Gainesville (Florida) in 1950, Petty’s interest in rock & roll music was instilled by two of the main icons of a whole generation, The Beatles and Elvis Presley (whom he was to met in person). After playing with a band called Mudcrutch that was to issue only a single back in the ‘70s (the band would reunite in 2008 to do a proper record), Petty launched a solo career with the assistance of two of his Mudcrutch bandmates, Mike Campbell (lead guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards). They were to be joined immediately by Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums), and that was the birth of Petty’s legendary backing unit, The Heartbreakers. Both Campbell and Tench are with Petty to this day, and Campbell in particular has had a big input on Mr. Integrity’s music both in terms of compositions (they often share writing credits) and production-wise.
Mr. Integrity. That is one of Tom Petty’s most recurrent nicknames, specially among punters. He has been known to stand against music industry abuses, and to side with fans time after time regarding decisions that would affect them like the marking up of albums. Tom’s first direct attack came with the title of his third record, “Damn The Torpedoes” (1979). It was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ fist platinum album after the previous one (“You’re Gonna Get It”, 1978) had cracked the Top 40. It included the radio hits “Refugee”, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Here Comes My Girl”.
The following records were to be even more successful, and with the exception of “Southern Accents” (a conceptual album about the South), they met both with strong critics and sales. Some of Petty’s biggest hits of the ‘80s were to include “The Waiting” “Change Of Heart” and “You Got Lucky”.
As the ‘80s drew to a close Petty became a Traveling Wilbury and issued his first solo record (in that order). His solo album “Full Moon Fever” is deemed by many as another Travelin’ Wilburies record since everybody but Dylan had a cameo or a role. After that, he was to issue both albums with the Heartbreakers (and solid ones at that) and as a solo artist (and solid ones at that). Of special note was his 2002 album “The Last DJ”, a virulent take on the music industry.
At the end of the day, it will be impossible to veto Petty’s work on grounds of integrity. As a rule, his early sketches were always lovable, dealing with people who were out of fortune but never out of luck, and who always seemed to have a second chance. At the same time, he always kept an eye on the industry and spoke out for fans. He always did that naturally, for the mere reason that the guy will always be one of the biggest fans around. His personal story involved an abusive father who strongly objected his son pursuing an artistic career. In the end, someone who could heal his life with music could but heal the lives of others in the process. You don’t need wings to learn to fly. The simple resolve to learn is enough, and if you don’t even get off the ground then it might not even matter at all. You will look back and realize that you had advanced a lot when you were trying to gain impulse.
So, Mr. Tom Petty. Mr. Integrity. A rocker at heart. And a person whose heart is clearly in the right place, both onstage and offstage.