In 1961, an 11-year-old Tom Petty met Elvis Presley on the film set for Follow That Dream, in which Petty’s uncle had a small role. That meeting changed Petty’s life. “I caught the fever that day, and I never got rid of it,” he said in the 2005 book Conversations with Tom Petty. “That’s what kicked off my love of music, And I’d never thought much about rock ‘n’ roll until that moment.”
After forming Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the band went to L.A. and began their search for a recording contract. Petty cold-called record companies using “a list of names and phone numbers Petty had happened to find in a phone booth,” according to Vulture.
The band released their first album in 1976, but it was 18 months before the song “Breakdown” cracked the Top 40. Even then, it spent just one week on the charts. It wasn’t until the release of 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes that the band gained recognition with hits like “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee.” The album hit number two on the charts and has since gone triple-platinum.
In the 1980s, Petty helped found supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, whose members included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. Petty was the Wilburys’ youngest member.
After 22 years of marriage, Tom Petty and his wife Jane separated in 1996. Petty turned to heroin to deal with the pain as his life seemed to spiral out of his control. “You start losing your soul,” he told biographer Warren Zanes. “You realize one day, ‘Shit, I’ve lost myself. I’m hanging out with people I wouldn’t be seen with in a million years, and I have to get out of this.” After a therapist convinced him to enter rehab, Petty got clean and released the 1999 album Echo, the darkest of his career.
The band ended their 40th anniversary tour in September 2017, their first in three years. Petty told Rolling Stone it was likely the “last big one” of his career. “We’re all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can,” he said. He died just weeks later, at the age of 66.
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