Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, October 20, 1950. After being inspired by Elvis Presley and the Beatles he began playing guitar to cope with an abusive home life. When he was 17 he quit school to join Mudcrutch and ended up being the front man and songwriter. After Mudcrutch disbanded, Petty was offered a solo recording contract and recruited former band members Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards). The duo was in a band with Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums) at the time which they named Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and released their self-titled debut album in 1976. It was during the disco craze when rock was being reinvented by the popularity of punk. Inspired by 1960s artists ranging from the Beatles to the Byrds, the band played hard-edged rock & roll with infectious hooks. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released 13 studio albums along with 3 solo albums and additional albums with the Traveling Wilbury’s and Mudcrutch before his untimely death in 2017 at the age of 66. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
10. “Here Comes My Girl”
Damn the Torpedoes was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ third album but it was the first to be released on a major record label. Mike Campbell wrote and recorded the demo for both “Refuge” and “Here Comes My Girl” the same week and gave the tape to Petty. Tom easily came up with the chorus which was inspired by the Byrds but it was a painstaking effort trying to make the verses work until he began to half talk like the “Shangri-Las” doing “Leader of the Pack.”
9. “American Girl”
“American Girl was on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ first album that was released in 1976. It was the last song that he performed at the Hollywood Bowl concluding his final concert on September 25, 2017. Interpretations of the song’s lyrics vary from a suicide at the University of Florida. According to Petty, the story of a girl that “was looking for the strength to move on, and she found it.” The song was never a hit but it became one of his most popular songs and was used in films and TV programs as well as performed by other artists.
8. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”
In 1980 when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were recording their Hard Promises album, Stevie Nicks, who was a member of Fleetwood Mac, recorded her first solo album. She was a huge fan of the band and even wanted to join them but settled for Tom Petty writing a song for her. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was a composition that Petty co-wrote with guitarist Mike Campbell which became the hit song that appeared on Nicks’s solo album Bella Donna. The song was recorded with Petty and Nicks co-singing the song with the Heartbreakers as the backup band.
7. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
Everyone assumes that Mary Jane is a euphemism for marijuana but in an interview, Mike Campbell explained that there are multiple interpretations. The song itself evolved over a period of time and was first written in its seminal form in Campbell’s garage. The title was “Indiana Girl” but the lyrics wouldn’t gel and it took time before it took on a “deeper meaning.” Since Petty’s divorce proceedings from his wife Jane were going on at the time it could be a goodbye song about that or it could be about the pain numbing effect that smoking pot can have. The choice is left with the listener.
“Refugee” was a hit from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ third album Damn the Torpedoes which was released in 1979. Guitarist Mike Campbell came up with the original song idea after being inspired through listening to Mick Taylor playing guitar in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He gave Petty the tape that he made and Tom wrote the lyrics in 10 minutes and then the rest of the band hashed it out in over 100 studio takes before they got it right and even then questioned it.
5. “The Waiting”
“The Waiting” came from 1981’s Hard Promises the band’s 4th studio album. Tom Petty said that he wrote the song based on something that Janis Joplin said on TV about loving to be on stage but that waiting for the next performance was the hard part. Roger McGuinn also claims to have inspired the line but whatever the case it’s about that period of anticipation before the fulfillment of your expectations being defined as the hard part.
4. “Southern Accents”
“Southern Accents” is the title song of the Southern Accents album released in 1985. Tom Petty wrote it during a flash of inspiration when he was alone in the studio one morning at 4:00 AM. He was sitting at the piano and recorded it on his cassette player and then the next day it was recorded in the studio with just piano, bass and “side-stick on the drums.” It was the first time that Petty used strings on an album and in 1996 Johnny Cash did an amazing version of the song on his American II: Unchained album.
3. “Runnin’ Down a Dream”
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” appeared on Full Moon Fever in 1989 and was written as a collaboration between Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne & Mike Campbell. The song itself is based on a sort of open-road motif and the destination of the never ending trip is the fulfillment of his dream. The principle has a universal application since everyone is “Runnin’ Down a Dream” at one time or another in their lives. The song not only has great lyrics but Campbell’s killer guitar makes the song soar sonically.
2. “Free Fallin’”
“Free Fallin’” is from 1989’s Full Moon Fever album which was Tom Petty’s first solo album apart from the Heartbreakers. The song was written by a collaboration between Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. After Lynne disbanded the Electric Light Orchestra in 1986 he began collaborating with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Tom Petty in the Traveling Wilbury’s. It’s a simple three chord song with a title that contains a double meaning which could be interpreted as either positive or negative.
1. “I Won’t Back Down”
“I Won’t Back Down” was a radio hit from Tom Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever released in 1989. The song was written by Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne who were both members of the Traveling Wilbury’s at the time. The song was about not letting circumstances diminish your resolve in the face of adversity. Petty wrote the lyrics as “self therapy…after an arsonist tried to murder him and his family by setting their house on fire.” Originally Petty thought that the song was too personal for people to relate too but it proved to be the opposite case since the application is a universal human experience. The band on the album was comprised of Petty, Lynne, Campbell and Phil Jones on drums but in the video Ringo is on drums along with George Harrison on acoustic guitar.