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#ThrowbackThursday: Remembering Tom Petty-The Impact Of “Free Fallin'”

Image via MCA Records
  – Image via MCA Records

By Matt Clizbe And Craig Clizbe 

In the midst of an overwhelming week of tragedy, strife, and turmoil, associated with the deadliest mass shooting in US history at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, the music community also had to endure the sudden passing of rock singer Tom Petty, who died of a  heart attack on Monday October 2, 2017. Long time manager Tony Dimitriades released  an official statement saying that he was  taken to the U.C.L.A. Medical Center, where he couldn’t be revived. Tom Petty was pronounced dead at 8:40 pm with family, friends and bandmates present.  He was 66 years old.  In reflection of his passing, this week’s #ThrowbackThursday remembers the music and career of Tom Petty.

Originally from Gainesville Florida, Tom Petty began his journey in the world music with a boost of inspiration from the king of Rock And Roll. His uncle was working on the set of Follow That Dream, an Elvis Presley film being shot in a nearby town.  It was then, when he saw celebrity up close in the form of Elvis Presley at the age of 10 in 1961 that the music of the 60’s would inspire a love for rock music that would define his life.  From then on, although fans would often see him as very easy going and laidback, this was the beginning of a rather intense vision and drive for himself that lasted 4 decades, and delivered 16 albums that were under his name as a solo artist or with the heartbreakers.

Elvis served as his first real example of star power, but it was after he saw The Beatles’ famed Ed Sullivan performance in 1964, and became acquainted with The Rolling Stones’ more approachable and gritty image shortly thereafter, that Tom saw a way for him to take his Elvis inspired interest in music and strategize it into the career and legacy we now know him for.  Even on a grass roots level, the music community was interwoven into his personal foundation.Tom began playing in bands while in junior high and high school, and  it quickly took priority in his life.  Eventually hooking up with fellow Gainesville native and future Eagles member Don Felder, who served as an early guitar teacher.  After his unwavering dedication and intense local giging resulted in 42 days away from school with his pre-Heartbreakers band  Mudcrutch, Tom knew that dropping out of college to pursue a record deal was the post high school move for him in 1974.

Under Tom’s leadership, Mudcrutch released “Depot Street” for Shelter Records. It served as a great example of work, but the label’s preference for Tom’s songwriting created a division, that ultimately ended Mudcrutch by 1975.   This left Tom Petty working on solo material for the first time, but struggling in the studio resulted in him reconnecting with Gainesville friends who were also in LA Chasing a dream. These friends helped him fill in gaps that he couldn’t do with session players, and The Heartbreakers were born. By 1976 the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, released their highly praised self titled debut album.  This first effort, which was produced by Shelter label head Dan Cordell, was initially ignored in America.  Even though it features now considered classics like “Breakdown” and ”American Girl.”  It took interest from the UK  to spark the necessary curiosity at home, and by the time “Breakdown” was finally becoming the band’s first Top 40 hit  2 years after it’s release, things shifted for the band’s shelter within Shelter, and Shelter Records was absorbed by MCA Records.

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Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

“Breakdown”

From Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

Shelter Records

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

“American Girl”

From Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

Shelter Records

Following MCA’s purchase of Shelter and his contract, Tom Petty chose to sue them just as things were ramping up for their second album Prior to it’s release, Tom was able to successfully argue that the royalty rate associated with the band’s deal was unreasonable because they wouldn’t be able to pay what they owe to MCA, and just before their sophomore release, You’re Gonna Get It, Tom set a precedent by filing for bankruptcy as a way of advocating for fair rates.  Rather than set a trend, MCA relented in 1979 to avoid a trend of mass bankruptcies.

Newly fortified as the official leader of The Heartbreakers, Tom earned a favorable deal for what would become their commercial breakthrough Damn The Torpedoes.  Now serving as a standout act for MCA subsidiary, Backstreet Records, Shelter’s Dan Cordell was replaced by a hungry young producer named Jimmy Iovine.  Fresh off of working with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, Iovine helped the newly empowered Tom Petty stear Damn the Torpedoes to a peak triple platinum status.  Iovine’s impact was felt immediately by convincing Petty to keep  “Don’t Do Me Like That” for himself and not give it to J Geils Band.  It became Tom Petty And The Heartbreaker’s first Top 10 hit in November of 1979.  By the dawn of the 80s, the Iovine produced “Refugee” rose Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to a peak success, allowing them all, especially Tom to enjoy a newly earned celebrity status.

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Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

“Don’t Do Me Like That”

From Damn The Torpedoes

Backstreet/MCA Records

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

“Refugee”

From Damn The Torpedoes

Backstreet/MCA Records

Fame brought internal band and label tensions, but album number 4 Hard Promises was able to debut at number 5 thanks to standouts like “The Waiting”, so Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers enjoyed the momentum of a previously unimaginable excess for years. That is, until personal tragedy inspired the need for Tom Petty to do the solo music that would define his career in a whole new way.  

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Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

“The Waiting”

From Hard Promises

Backstreet/MCA Records

On May 17th 1987, Tom Petty and his family were victims of arson, as an unknown person set their Encino home was lit a flame with him, his family, and their housekeeper still inside, as an apparent attempt to kill him.  Despite some minor burns to their housekeeper, the entire family escaped unharmed. However, he ended up living without a permanent home for sometime thereafter.  This lacking in personal roots resulted in a urning to do solo work for the first time in 10 years. To do so, Tom connected with ELO founder, Jeff Lynne who he was inspired to collaborate with after hearing Jeff’s production on George Harrison’s 1987 album, Cloud 9.  Jeff would help Tom co-write the career defining tune “Free Fallin'” while Tom was aimlessly strumming his guitar.  Lynne heard Petty play the iconic cords and helped him massage it through.  What followed was pure Americana in song form.

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“Got My Mind Set On You”

(Produced By Jeff Lynne And George Harrison)

From Cloud 9 

Dark Horse/Warner Bros. Records

It was included on Tom’s debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, which was released on April 24, 1989 by MCA Records. In addition to his work with Jeff Lynne Full Moon Fever  featured contributions from the likes of Heartbreakers member, Mike Campbell, as well as Roy Orbison,and George Harrison who were members of the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys with Petty and Lynne prior to Roy Orbison’s passing in 1988.   “Free Fallin’” was released as the third single from Full Moon Fever  on October 27, 1989. As one of 5 hit singles from the album “Free Fallin'” was among other Tom Petty classic hits  like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” As a close collaboration with  Jeff Lynne, Full Moon Fever allowed Petty to explore his musical roots with nods to his influences in a personal way .The album became a commercial and critical success peaking at number  3 on the Billboard 200 and was certified 5× platinum in the United States and 6× platinum in Canada. When looking back at such a groundbreaking album in Tom’s life and career “Free Fallin'” continues to be what the album is remembered for. It became Tom’s longest charting song ever, peaking a number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and ultimately becoming song the 177th song on Rolling Stones’ 500 greatest Songs Of All Time.  So just as tragedy eventually lead to one of the greatest songs in rock histroy, we hope that maybe, just maybe, music fans can put this song on and find some moments of happiness too.  So in remembrance of Tom Petty after his unexpected death on Monday October 2, 2017, This week’s TBT is his classic  “Free Fallin.’” Enjoy!

Tom Petty

“Free Fallin'”

From Full Moon Fever 

MCA Records

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Tom Petty

“I Won’t Back Down'”

From Full Moon Fever 

MCA Records

Tom Petty

“Running Down A Dream”

From Full Moon Fever 

MCA Records