“It’s good to be king, if just for a while
To be there in velvet, yeah, to give ’em a smile”
– It’s Good To Be King (Wildflowers 1994)
Discovering the greats who came before him (namely The Beatles and Elvis Presley) a young Tom Petty growing up in Florida, was inspired to learn to play guitar and join a band of his own. By 1976 the band he would become most known for, the Heartbreakers, was ready to take their Gainesville brand of heartland rock to the studio. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers continued to record music and release albums every decade thereafter. Petty eventually would even record music with some of his own childhood idols including former Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison. In the nineties Petty would soar to popular heights with teenage audiences with honest songwriting and avant garde music videos.
Petty’s vocals have always been unmistakable, and despite having a shorter range than many vocalists the harmonic songs in his repertoire beautifully demonstrate his capabilities as a singer. As a lyricist, Petty was second to none. Witty, playful, insightful – Petty knew how to communicate a story in every song that he wrote. Evocative, a Tom Petty song creates a distinct mood every time, here are a few examples:
“Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon
Honey, it don’t make no difference to me baby
Everybody has to fight to be free…”
– Refugee (Damn The Torpedoes 1979)
“I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine…”
– Runnin Down A Dream (Full Moon Fever 1989)
“The papers siaid Ed always played from the heart
He got an agent and a roadie named Bart
They made a record and it went in the chart
The sky was the limit…”
– Into The Great Wide Open (ITGWO 1991)
Petty’s debut solo album Full Moon Fever (1989), made it to number 3 on the US Billboard Charts. Songs from this album received considerable radio play in North America and produced a few memorable music videos that exposed Petty to a generation of many new fans. Into The Great Wide Open (1991) continued in this vein and in 1993 Mary Jane’s Last Dance was released with the Heartbreakers greatest hits and soared to popularity with its dark storytelling and enigmatic music video starring Kim Basinger.
Looking back on Petty’s career, his trials and tribulations with the music industry, his time with the Travelling Wilburys, and his remarkable early nineties popularity amidst a plethora of angst-filled alt rock — his contribution to the soundscape of modern rock and storytelling will certainly be missed in the wake of his passing at just 66 years old.
“I wanna glide down over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile”
– Free Fallin’ (Full Moon Fever 1989)
Perhaps it was just great songwriting, or maybe Tom simply found his finger on the pulse of a generation born 20-30 years after he was; regardless, his breakthrough popularity in the nineties earned Tom Petty songs regular jukebox rotation with the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. For the generation that experienced this, he will always be regarded as rock royalty.