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Profile of Rocker & Singer-Songwriter Tom Petty

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Profile of Rocker & Singer-Songwriter Tom Petty Album Cover Image Courtesy of MCA Records

Born:

Thomas Earl Petty on October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida

Overview:

For more than 30 years, singer-songwriter Tom Petty has been one of the most consistent staple artists in classic rock, releasing significant, well-received albums throughout all four decades during which he's been active as a professional musician. Ultimately, of course, he's far more than just a hitmaker and popular artist, carrying the singer-songwriter banner high through the form's lean years, as well as contributing abundantly to one of rock's all-time most respected supergroups, the Traveling Wilburys. With his backing band, the Heartbreakers, Petty is an '80s artist who has straddled various boundaries.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Core '80s Lineup:

  • Tom Petty - Chief songwriter, lead vocals, guitar
  • Mike Campbell (born Michael Wayne Campbell on February 1, 1950 in Panama City, Florida) - Lead guitar, songwriter
  • Benmont Tench (born Benjamin Montmorency Tench III on September 7, 1953 in Gainesville, Florida) - Organ, piano, background vocals
  • Howie Epstein (born Howard Norman Epstein on July 21, 1955, died February 23, 2003) - Bass guitar, background vocals
  • Stan Lynch (born May 21, 1955 in Cincinnati, Ohio) - Drums

Early Years:

Growing up in Gainesville, Petty may not have gravitated immediately to a music career, but nonetheless began playing music in the late '60s as a high-schooler. After laboring through most of the '70s in several bands, Petty & the Heartbreakers emerged gradually onto the pop music scene with their eponymously titled debut, which was released in 1976 but didn't really gain American attention until the following year. The strong singles "American Girl" and "Breakdown" quickly put the band on the late-'70s rock map, even gaining some favor for the group amidst the punk rock movement.

A Nice Start to the New Decade:

Following the band's second album, Petty became embroiled in a legal battle with his record label, which caused the next album, the highly revered rock classic Damn the Torpedoes, to remain unreleased until the tail end of 1979. However, the delay did not hurt the album's performance in the least, as it achieved platinum status quickly and held wide appeal in new wave as well as rock circles. Featuring the now-familiar singles "Don't Do Me Like That" and "Refugee," the record launched Petty into superstar territory. This momentum carried over nicely into the equally successful 1981 release, Hard Promises.

Petty Takes a Breath, Then Chugs Into the Late '80s:

Following 1982's Long After Dark and having achieved a tremendous amount of success in a whirlwind couple of years, Petty took some time off during the rest of the decade's first half, not emerging with a new album until 1985's Southern Accents. By this time the band had perhaps lost some momentum, failing to generate as much attention as on previous records. The same can be said of 1987's Let Me Up, I've Had Enough, although it did feature some strong tracks in "Runaway Trains" and "Think About Me." Still, as the decade neared its end, Petty prepared a solid revival, as part of a supergroup and as a solo artist.

A Strong Finish to the Decade:

In 1988, Petty showed up as one-fifth of the playfully organic, often acoustic supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Along with fellow rock legends George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison, Petty seemed to be playing music just for the fun and camaraderie of it. Nonetheless, the group generated some considerable pop success, enjoying a Top 10 album in its Vol. I. Petty stayed very busy during this time, preparing his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, which became ubiquitous in 1989 on the strength of singles like "Free Fallin'" and "I Won't Back Down."

Consistent, Ongoing Critical & Popular Success:

Petty entered the '90s in full stride, enjoying his greatest success so far on MTV with 1991's Into the Great Wide Open. Even a record label jump from MCA to Warner Bros. didn't slow Petty down, as he continued to alternate between nominal solo albums on which many of the Heartbreakers played (1994's Wildflowers) and records done entirely with his backing band (1999's Echo). Well into the 21st Century, Petty remains a vital and respected rock and roll artist, fighting corporate influence within the music business even as he pumps out Top 10 records with the Heartbreakers, an impressive longevity indeed.
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