Tom Petty, the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the performer behind classic songs such as Free Fallin’, has died, his longtime manager confirmed on Monday night.
A statement from Tony Dimitriades said that Petty died at 8:40 p.m. PT, “surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.”
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Petty was hospitalized on Sunday night after being discovered unconscious in full cardiac arrest.
Medical personnel who rushed to the scene were able to restart Petty’s pulse and he was put on life support at UCLA Santa Monica Hospital.
Best known as the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, he is also a co-founding member of the late ’80s group the Traveling Wilburys.
Petty had earlier been the subject of false reports of his death after it was initially reported by CBS News, citing the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Petty and his longtime band the Heartbreakers just completed a 40th anniversary tour, ending at the Hollywood Bowl last Monday night.
“I’m thinking it may be the last trip around the country,” Petty told Rolling Stone last year. “We’re all on the backside of our 60s. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road. This tour will take me away for four months. With a little kid, that’s a lot of time.”
Usually backed by the Heartbreakers, Petty broke through in the 1970s and went on to sell more than 80 million records. The Gainesville, Florida, native with the shaggy blond hair and gaunt features was loved for his melodic hard rock, nasally vocals and down-to-earth style. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Petty and the Heartbreakers in 2002, praised them as “durable, resourceful, hard-working, likeable and unpretentious.”
“I’m shocked and saddened by the news of Tom’s passing, he’s such a huge part of our musical history, there’ll never be another like him.” Eric Clapton wrote in a statement.
Petty’s albums included Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises and Full Moon Fever, although his first No. 1 did not come until 2014 and Hypnotic Eye. As a songwriter, he focused often on daily struggles and the will to overcome them, most memorably on Refugee, Even the Losers and I Won’t Back Down.
“It’s sort of the classic theme of a lot of the work I’ve done,” he told The Associated Press in 1989. “I think faith is very important just to get through life. I think it’s really important that you believe in yourself, first of all. It’s a very hard to thing to come by. But when you get it, it’s invaluable.”
Petty didn’t just sing about not backing down, he lived it. In 1979, he was enraged when his record label was sold and his contract transferred. Stating that he would not be “bought and sold like a piece of meat,” he self-financed what became “Damn the Torpedoes” and declared bankruptcy rather than allowing his label, MCA, to release it. He eventually reached a new deal with MCA, for better terms. In the early 1980s, he was again at war with MCA, this time over the label’s plans to charge extra money, a dollar higher than the standard $8.98, for his album Hard Promises. He again prevailed.
Petty was both a musician and obsessive fan, one who met his childhood heroes and lived out the fantasies of countless young rock lovers. He befriended Byrds leader Roger McGuinn and became close to George Harrison, who performed on I Won’t Back Down and joined Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the impromptu super group the Traveling Wilburys. Petty inducted Harrison into the Rock Hall in 2004; two years earlier Dylan’s son Jakob inducted Petty. In the 1980s, Petty and the Heartbreakers supported Bob Dylan on a nationwide tour.
He would speak of being consumed by rock music since childhood, to the point where his father, whom Petty would later say beat him savagely, thought he was “mental.” Awed by the chiming guitars of the Byrds, the melodic genius of the Beatles and the snarling lyrics of Dylan, he was amazed to find that other kids were feeling the same way.
“You’d go and see some other kid whose hair was long, this was around ’65, and go, ‘Wow, there’s one like me,”‘ he told The Associated Press in 1989. “You’d go over and talk and he’d say, ‘I’ve got a drum set.’ ‘You do? Great!’ That was my whole life.”
By his early 20s, Petty had formed the group Mudcrutch with fellow Gainesville natives and future Heartbreakers (guitarist) Mike Campbell and (keyboardist) Benmont Tench. They soon broke up, but reunited in Los Angeles as the Heartbreakers, joined by bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. Their eponymous debut album came out in 1976 and they soon built a wide following, fitting easily into the New Wave sounds of the time.
The world changed more than Petty did over the past few decades. In 2014, around the time he received an ASCAP Founders Award, he told The Associated Press that he thought of himself as “kind of a music historian.”
“I’m always interested in the older music, and I’m still always discovering things that I didn’t know about,” he said. “To be honest, I really probably spend more time listening to the old stuff than I do the new stuff.”Follow @CJancelewicz
- With files from The Associated Press and Katie Scott
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