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Tom Petty Biography

Last updated: 05/23/2012 12:00:00 PM

BORN: October 20, 1950, Gainesville, FL

ECHO opens up another new chapter for a group whose body of work spans three decades. Not many artists can match Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers' record of 23 years of commercial success along with a simultaneous period of creative growth and critical acclaim.

Beyond the recent boxed set Playback, the band's previous recordings also continue to resonate with Greatest Hits, a quadruple-platinum album which hasn't left the Billboard charts once since its release in late 1993. One of the two newly recorded tracks for the album was the hit song and video "Mary Jane's Last Dance," which won Best Male Video at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards. At the ceremony, Petty was also presented with the Video Vanguard Award, citing his longtime contributions to the field.

As a songwriter, Tom Petty was acknowledged in May 1996 with the prestigious Golden Note Award from ASCAP. Writing in the New York Times in 1995, Jon Pareles noted about Petty's songs: "They are tales of characters whose hopes are shrinking and who don't know what went wrong. Although he has been a rock hit-maker since the 1970s, Mr. Petty hasn't lost touch with the small-time life; his characters are sullen and bewildered, stubborn as well as restless. He gives them anthems like 'I Won't Back Down'; he also captures their doggedness in the face of set-backs. 'I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings/Coming down is the hardest thing.' And he knows that his narrators are not always nice guys; they can be selfish and oblivious, proclaiming, 'You don't know how it feels to be me.'"

In April 1996, Petty received UCLA's George And Ira Gershwin Award For Lifetime Musical Achievement. Previous recipients of the university's award include Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. Petty was the first artist of the rock era to earn this distinction. "I may not own any George and Ira Gershwin records," said Petty at the ceremony, "but I'm honored to be here and I want to thank my fans for showing up at my concerts from time to time."

In 1999, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers received their own star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, an honor that acknowledges both their musical achievements and their humanitarian involvement with such organizations as Greenpeace, the National Veteran's Foundation, USA Harvest, Rock And Wrap It Up, and AmFAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research).

Petty released his first album for Warner Bros. Records in late 1994. Titled Wildflowers, it went on to sell over three million copies and produced the hits "You Don't Know How It Feels," "You Wreck Me" and "It's Good To Be King." In 1996, Wildflowers earned two Grammy Awards: Best Male Rock Vocal Performance ("You Don't Know How It Feels") and Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical). The album also garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album. Other Wildflowers achievements included Tom's Best Male Video award for "You Don't Know How It Feels" at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards.

The tour for Wildflowers marked the biggest and most successful concert trek in the history of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. As part of the tour, the group performed two sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl, producing a record gross figure for a multi-night engagement by a single artist at the venue. According to Pollstar, the group's trek was one of the Top Ten biggest grossing tours of 1995. The group set a precedent in January 1995 when VH-1 made a limited number of the group's concert tickets available to its viewing audience before going on sale to the general public. It marked the first time concert tickets were ever made available by television, and the response was overwhelming, as viewers responded with an unprecedented 500,000 phone calls in the first fifteen minutes alone to Ticketmaster's phone lines. The headline on Tom Petty's most recent Rolling Stone cover story in 1995 noted: "Tom Petty, King Of The Road."

Significant critical acclaim greeted the release of Wildflowers. From Newsweek's Karen Schoemer: "Wildflowers contains some of his strongest songwriting ever." Rolling Stone's Elysa Gardner: "Petty offers 15 songs that focus on the conflicting emotions of adulthood, from rueful nostalgia to cynical self-doubt to hope and yearning. (It's) evidence that this American boy is moving through middle age with all the gusto and poise that his admirers have come to expect." New York Daily News' Jim Farber: "Wildflowers finds Petty sharing more tender intimacies, and arriving at more mature conclusions, than in any work of his career." Mojo (UK)'s Bill Flanagan: "The record is the purest work Petty has ever done." USA Today's Edna Gundersen: "Wildflowers, Tom Petty's second solo album, brims with relaxed rock 'n' roll, warm humor and the wise insights of a superb songwriter who has escaped pop's teen trappings without losing his youthful zest."

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers-hailing from Gainesville, Florida before officially forming in Los Angeles-kicked the musical doldrums of the mid-'70s in the face with their 1976 self-titled debut album. It featured a stripped-down-but-accomplished brand of rock that blended jumpy rhythm & blues rhythms, ringing guitars and keyboards, over which Petty grabbed listeners by their throats with his disarmingly blunt lyrics and extremely direct vocal style. Still, it took America a full year to catch up to the album. "Breakdown" was re-released to radio and became a Top 40 hit in 1977 after word filtered back the band was creating a firestorm over in England. By the end of the pivotal UK trek, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers were headlining the very same venues they played as an opening act weeks earlier.

1978's follow up, You're Gonna Get It!, proved the debut album's intensity was no fluke. Marking the band's first gold album, it featured the singles "Listen To Her Heart" and "I Need To Know."

Next, in 1979, came the triple-platinum Damn The Torpedoes album-which brought Petty And The Heartbreakers superstardom and arena headlining status. This was followed by the successful and critically acclaimed Hard Promises (1981), Long After Dark (1982), Southern Accents (1985), Pack Up The Plantation-Live! (a 1985 double live set, which had a companion long form video) and 1987's Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), featuring "Jammin' Me," co-written by Bob Dylan, with whom they teamed up for a historical world tour in 1986 and 1987.

Throughout this period of success, there were unusual twists and turns, among them disputes with MCA, his former record company. The first of these occurred as Petty tried to re-negotiate his contract when MCA purchased ABC Records (for which Petty recorded). He refused to be simply transferred to another record label without his consent. At the same time he was in litigation with MCA Records, Petty fought with his publishing company as he believed artists should own their own songwriting copyrights. Petty held fast to his principles for a long nine months and it drove him to bankruptcy; he ultimately triumphed, calling his next album Damn The Torpedoes. Petty's struggle with his publishing company earned much attention, helping other artists in their own battles to hold onto their copyrights.

Next came the dispute with MCA when Petty And The Heartbreakers resisted having their Hard Promises album released at a higher "superstar product" price for customers. After threatening to withhold the LP, MCA released the album at the lower price the band wanted. A few years later another roadblock surfaced: Petty injured himself during the making of Southern Accents. Frustrated during the mixing process, he broke his left hand after punching it through a wall. In 1987, Petty tussled with a tire company which ultimately withdrew a Petty soundalike song from a TV commercial. In 1989, he threatened not to play at a concert in New Jersey when authorities refused to allow Greenpeace to set up information booths in the lobby. Petty didn't back down, but the authorities did, and the gig went on.

In 1989, Tom Petty released his debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, produced by Jeff Lynne (his partner in the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison) with Petty and Mike Campbell. It was in the Billboard Top Ten chart for over 34 weeks and earned triple-platinum status, along the way spawning such hits as "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'" and "Runnin' Down A Dream."

The Traveling Wilburys released two platinum albums, The Traveling Wilburys (1988) and Volume Three (1990).

Platinum success returned in 1991 when Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers released Into The Great Wide Open (again with the Lynne/Petty/Campbell production team), from which came the singles "Learning To Fly" (some of whose bleak imagery was inspired by the Persian Gulf War) and "Into The Great Wide Open," a song that looked at the hollow core of the music biz' star-making machinery.

1991 also saw the release of the long-form home video Take The Highway, shot at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, CA and the Lawlor Events Center in Reno, NV.

A Greatest Hits album followed in 1993, featuring the successful track "Mary Jane's Last Dance"-followed by an hour-long documentary, Tom Petty: Going Home, which aired in late 1994 on the Disney Channel.

Tom Petty also earned a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Rock Performance By A Duo or Group With Vocal for his work with the Traveling Wilburys. He also has been honored with 10 nominations since 1981 when he received his first nomination for his song "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" in the category of Best Rock Performance By A Duo or Group With Vocal.

In the liner notes to Playback, Petty observed that those who know the Heartbreakers only from their hit singles may not be familiar with the range of styles they have covered, from the Beach Boys influences of tracks like "You Can Still Change Your Mind" to the Nirvana-inspired hard rock of "Come On Down To My House" to various side trips into country, blues, psychedelic and surf music. "People had a mental picture of what we should sound like and if you played them something that didn't sound like 'Refugee' or 'American Girl' or 'Even The Losers' they were puzzled," Petty reflected in the album notes. "I still go through that."

In tandem with the release of Playback was a long-form home video of the same name that contains all of the videos by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. There are 17 videos here, from "Refugee" and "Here Comes My Girl" in 1979 (both created before there was MTV or any regular outlet for them) to the award-winning favorites "Don't Come Around Here No More," "Free Fallin'," "Into The Great Wide Open" (with Faye Dunaway and Johnny Depp) and "Mary Jane's Last Dance" (with Kim Basinger).

In the Playback liner notes, Bill Flanagan noted: "Yet for all the respect and affection that comes his way, Petty has never been granted a free pass, he has never seemed to quite reach the place where his eccentricities will be automatically indulged. He has had to work very hard to stay on top. Along the way, he has built a body of work that seems more impressive with each new addition to it. He is the tortoise who finally wins the race while the hares are all relaxing and reading their press clippings."