Tom Petty is dead but his legacy lives on


A heartbreaker inspired by heartbreakers

Tom Petty knew about career plans at an early age already: as a 10-year-old boy from Florida, he had met Elvis Presley, leaving a lasting impression for life. Growing up with the Beatles playing on the TV, he realized that he, too, wanted to be a musician on stage.


Early success in Europe

His band "Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers" captured the spirit of the times, celebrating its initial success in Europe in the 1970s. In the US, Petty and his band members only started to enjoy rockstar treatment in the 1980s. The band shared the stage with numerous other legends of rock, such as "The Grateful Dead."


A music lover in more ways than one

His initial records stood out for their brevity. "Damn the Torpedoes" released in 1979 only contained 36 minutes of music but still went onto score triple platinum sales in the US, serving as the US launchpad for "Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers." Part of his success was the fact that he felt free to experiment and reference other musical styles.


Reaching out to his contemporaries

The 1980s saw major successes for his band, with high-scoring tracks like "You Got Lucky" and "Change of Heart." Tom Petty also went on to perform with Stevie Nicks and Bob Dylan. He even started another band with Dylan, which Roy Orbison and George Harrison were also part of: "The Traveling Wilburys."


"Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" welcomes Petty

In 2002, "Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers" were inducted into the "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," which praised their music as the "quintessence of American individualism." Hearing of his passing, Rock Hall CEO Greg Harris said that "his vocals captured our soul with songs that sounded like hits the first time we heard them. He made his mark on music and our lives."


Bob Dylan in mourning

Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine that hearing of Tom Petty's death was "shocking, crushing news" for him: "I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I'll never forget him."


Timeless words

Critics and fans alike celebrated Tom Petty as an insightful songwriter. Many felt that his lyrics were intelligent, sensitive and yet full of pure rock spirit. In his song "I Won't Back Down," Petty says: "Well I know what's right, I got just one life in a world that keeps on pushing me around, but I'll stand my ground and I won't back down."

His death was unexpected, but the outpouring of reactions shows that Tom Petty embodied a special place in rock 'n' roll history. Petty's intelligent lyrics and simple melodies moved people around the globe.

The premature news saying that he had died caused a massive shockwave. But when hisactual death was confirmed, Tom Petty broke hearts across the world - one last time. 

Society | 02.10.2017

There was an outpouring of grief on social media and down the ages of rock. Mick Jagger praised Petty's songwriting on Twitter, saying it felt "sad about Tom Petty, he made some great music."

The Strokes' guitarist Albert Hammond Jr also paid homage to the man to whom he clearly owed a lot: "I grew up with your music," he tweeted. "I'm going to miss you."

Influenced by some of his greatest contemporaries

These tributes are not at all surprising. Tom Petty had a knack of spitting out hits as a solo artist as well as with his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: "Free Fallin'," "Learning to Fly," "I Won't Back Down," "American Girl" and many more.

Music | 03.10.2017
Sänger Tom Petty

Tom Petty was respected for his collaborative efforts with other musicians

Born in 1950, Petty was part of the teenage scream that woke up America with the opening chords of "She Loves You" when the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Like millions of others across the US those "yeah yeah yeahs" in the chorus inspired him to pick up a guitar and make his own music.

But it wasn't just the fab four who helped him in shaping his rich signature sound. The raw energy of the Rolling Stones and the jangly guitar sound of the Byrds were key strands in the rich melodic tapestry that became his trademark style, as were a number of country music influences.

The embodiment of rock 'n' roll

Tom Petty's skill was in being able to fashion simple melodic lines, back them up with sharp chords and then infuse the line with lyrics that appealed to both a sense of nostalgia and defiance. "I Won't Back Down" is an anthem written for stubborn youth - or in fact for anyone who might feel a need to rally or rail against the world: 

"I know what's right/I've got just one life/In a world that keeps on pushing me around/But I stand my ground/I won't back down." This is a true rock 'n' roll sentiment.

His songs have a timeless quality too, with a feeling of freshness while appearing as if they have already existed forever all the same. Perhaps that was why they accidentally appeared in other artists' work:

"Last Nite" by The Strokes is a dead ringer for "American Girl;" the band did admit that they stole the opening off Petty. Furthermore, the similarity of Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" to "I Won't Back Down" led to Petty getting a share of the royalties and a songwriting credit on Smith's hit. 

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He was pretty sanguine about the theft, if theft it was, saying that he laughed when he heard the Strokes had admitted to borrowing the riff, and also stressed that he cast no blame on Smith for the seeming plagiarism. Perhaps it's because he understood the process of how songs and music come to a musician.

A collaborative genius

Tom Petty described music as a magical thing that can transform you, whether playing in a band on a stage in front of an audience, or writing a song. He described once how he didn't know how his songs arrived; he would just play his guitar and the shapes would come. He thought it best not to analyze it too deeply.

Sänger Tom Petty

Stevie Nicks was one of many musicians that Tom Petty worked with

His openness to music and the process of making it also explains why he collaborated with so many people. He opened for Bob Dylan on one of his tour. That connection later brought the two together as songwriters for "Jammin Me," a great example of spat out lyrics punctuated by powerful chords. He also worked with Stevie Nicks, and Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics later produced his music too, co-writing the hit "Don't Come Around Here No More" with Petty.

But surely the greatest partnership for him must have been with George Harrison’s troupe, The Traveling Wilburys. The supergroup of Harrison, Petty, ELO's Jeff Lyne and Roy Orbison must have been something of a dream for the boy in the man whose musical talent had once been awoken by the Beatles.

Regardless of that, Tom Petty's own unique sound will resonate long after he's gone - and surely inspire many more musicians to come.

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