On Monday, October 2, rock icon Tom Petty succumbed to cardiac arrest at Santa Monica’s UCLA Medical Center. The singer and songwriter was just sixty-six years old. Anyone familiar with the reedy-voiced troubadour and his work with backing band the Heartbreakers knew that Tom Petty was one in a million. As a writer, he was able to evoke complex emotions using a common vocabulary. As a guitarist, he spun new wave Americana that no other musician could quite repeat. There was no one like Tom Petty before and there never will be again. The world has lost one of the last remaining, great rockers. Yet, for a man who lived his life in the spotlight, Tom Petty was still something of a mystery to all but his closest friends and family. In celebration of the man’s work and life, here are some facts about Tom Petty that you may not have known.
1. Petty Was a Huge Fan of the King
In 1961, at the age of eleven, Petty’s uncle brought the boy to the Florida film set of Elvis Presley’s Follow That Dream. Though their meeting was brief, the impact was palpable. Petty immediately sold his slingshot for a collection of Elvis 45’s.
2. A Solo Career Wasn’t Tom Petty’s First Choice
As a young man watching the Beatles appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, Tom Petty fell in love with the idea of being in a band. When his first band, Mudcrutch, split up, Petty was pushed toward a solo career, which he pursued with reluctance. In fact, he languished in relative obscurity until he teamed up with the original lineup of the Heartbreakers and recorded their first self-titled album.
3. ‘American Idol’ Wasn’t His Thing
As the popularity of singing competitions grew around him, Petty was known to express his distaste for the format. At one point he told a reporter that anyone who’d gone to a record label trying to sell a performer who’d “won a game show” would have been dismissed with the utmost scorn.
4. His Name Has Become Hip-Hop Lingo
A few short years ago, Big Boi and a few of his buddies released the song “Thom Pettie.” When asked what the song meant, Big Boi defined it thusly: to “Tom Petty” is to embark on a journey that can take you to unexpected and wonderful places. Pretty fitting, actually.
5. Petty Was a Big Basketball Fan
Though he openly admits to being something of a spindly nerd when he was a kid, as an adult, Tom Petty grew to appreciate professional basketball. In 2006, he even supplied the opening music for the broadcast of the NBA Playoffs.
6. He Only Released One Number One Album in His Entire Career
As many classics as Tom Petty released over his career, it’s surprising to find that Petty didn’t release a number one album until 2014. His last collaboration with the Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye, released at number one and sold 131,000 copies in its first week.
7. He Hated Adding a ‘Bonus Track’ to His 1993 Greatest Hits Album
In 1993, Tom Petty was about to put out a greatest hits album. His record label, however, wanted Petty to add a new song in order to stir up record sales. Petty wasn’t a fan of the idea, because he didn’t think it was fair to his fans to whip up an album of hits and then tag on some random song. Of course, he went along with it, and that song turned out to be “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a work that turned out to be one of his most recognizable hits.
8. He Was Part of One of the Best Super Groups in Music History
In case you’re on the hunt for more of Petty’s best music, check out the Traveling Wilburys, a group that he formed with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. The group recorded one (amazing) album before Orbison passed away. At the time of his death, however, Orbison proclaimed that his work with the Wilburys was the best stuff he’d ever done. The Wilburys got together once more in 1990 to record a second album, as well.
9. He Didn’t Get DJ’s or Electronica
It’s fair to say that Petty was a very classically-oriented rocker. He once turned down the award-wining single “The Boys of Summer” because he didn’t like its use of synthesizers. He also repeatedly implied that most DJs were people who didn’t have the patience or the talent to learn traditional instruments. In one instance he went on to say that the only reason people like DJ concerts is the drugs that go along with the event. Tom Petty called them “drug parties.”
10. He Took on MCA Over Record Prices, and Won
In 1981, Tom Petty got word that his latest album, Hard Promises, would be released for a higher sticker price than most other albums at the time. Petty felt that his fans didn’t deserve to pay extra for his music, so he refused to release Hard Promises until his record label, MCA, lowered the selling point.
11. Debate Rages Over His ‘SNL’ Legacy
Anyone who has hosted SNL five times is inducted into the “Five-Timer’s Club”. While Petty hasn’t technically hosted the show, he’s appeared in several skits and he’s performed as the musical guest a whopping eight times. Saturday Night Live has even paired the rock icon with its most popular guest hosts like Tom Hanks, John Goodman, and Alec Baldwin.
12. He Once Played Himself in a Sci-Fi Movie
In 1997’s The Postman, a moderately forgettable post-apocalyptic epic starring Kevin Costner, Tom Petty pops up as the leader of a small city. On seeing him, Costner exclaims that he recognizes Petty, asserting that the man was once very famous. Petty simply responds that he used to be and moves on to business. Ever the man with his eye on the prize.
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