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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Tom Petty: An appreciation

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "American Girl"

While Tom Petty’s death last night at 66 was unexpected, the reaction among fellow artists and music business luminaries was not at all surprising.

“Tom Petty was one of the most prolific songwriters of our generation,” says Linda Moran, president and CEO of the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF), which inducted him in 2016.

“It is mind-blowing when you go through his staggering number of hits--all written or co-written by him. He was a most worthy SHOF inductee--and the only inductee to date to perform two songs instead of the usual one. At rehearsal a couple of hours before the gala started, he announced and insisted that he was doing two songs, one of them being from his new album. Of course it threw the timing of the show off, but how could you turn an offer like that down?”

Moran notes that Petty personally asked Roger McGuinn to induct him, “which made his induction even more special as the mutual admiration, respect and fondness they felt for each other was clearly evident.”

McGuinn, of course, was a founding member of The Byrds, a group that was a major influence on fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Petty. As a solo artist, McGuinn recorded a version of Petty’s “American Girl,” a classic cut from his1976 debut album with his band The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Countless young musicians were influenced by that first album and Petty’s ensuing releases.

“In 1979, I had just barely graduated high school,” recalls acclaimed singer-songwriter/author Peter Himmelman.

“Hanging out in Minneapolis with my musician friends felt like I was living in a musical version of 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears.' The drummer was into arena rockers like Def Leppard, the bass player was into Stanley Clarke, and the keyboard player spent his time listening to Southern rock bands like Little Feat and the Allman Brothers. While I respected those groups, none of them grabbed me fully.”

Rather, continues Himmelman, “My perfect bowl of porridge was served when I first heard the song ‘Refugee’ off Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s album Damn The Torpedoes [1979]. The guitars snarled, but they weren’t blurred with distortion. There was intensity, but the track was delivered with a reserved cool. And though there was plenty of rootsy-ness, somehow, it still felt thoroughly modern.”

And then “there was Tom Petty himself,” Himmelman notes.

“He was a new kind of frontman--self-effacing even as he led you into his ‘Rock Star’ universe of hope and jubilance. His was a world where a backbeat and a chiming Rickenbacker twelve-string let you know that your dreams were possible--even if you sometimes felt like you were nothing special at all.”

Wesley, Alex and Roy Orbison, Jr.—the sons of Petty’s late Traveling Wilburys band collaborator Roy Orbison—invoked their father’s 1989 hit, which was written and recorded with Wilburys’ band mates Petty and Jeff Lynne: “To Tom, our dad’s neighbor, collaborator and fellow Wilbury, a fantastic songwriter, performer, human being but, most of all, a great friend: ‘You Got It.’”

Another Traveling Wilbury, Bob Dylan, said in a statement: “It’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”

A three-time Grammy Award-winner, Petty was “a true rock ‘n’ roll purist, both in his music and his defiant spirit,” said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow. “With the Heartbreakers, his infectious riffs, rebellious personality, and inventive songwriting brought a new urgency to rock traditions and fueled a now legendary career and some of the most memorable music of the last four decades. In retrospect, we were so fortunate and privileged to pay tribute to Tom as the Recording Academy’s 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year, and honor his significant creative achievements, philanthropic efforts, and passion for defending musicians’ rights. Tom will be remembered as much for his humanity as his music.”

And according to veteran classic rock DJ at New York’s Q104.3 Maria Milito, “Tom Petty gave us 40 years of catchy hooks, punchy lyrics, and good-natured sarcasm and wittiness. I don’t believe he ever gave a bad show--I don't recall anyone I know ever seeing him and saying he was ‘off.’”

And even though she herself has seen Petty “so many times,” Milito says, “every time it was like a new experience. He wasn’t worn out or tired yet, and it wasn’t his time to go.”

“The music world lost a little bit of its soul last night,” concludes Milito.



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