Tom Petty Remembered: A Look at His Three Best Songs
The legendary musician was only 66 — his music and countless hits entertained and influenced scores of professionals and fans
Few musicians ever accomplish what Tom Petty did. His unique sound and voice made him hard to mimic, but he was an influence over countless musicians and fans who grew up playing tunes like “American Girl” and “The Waiting.”
Petty’s music is still popular today, of course; generation after generation has been blessed with his spirit-filled music and honest lyrics.
Unfortunately, the 66-year-old musician passed away of a heart attack, after being rushed to the UCLA Santa Monica Hospital on Sunday night.
Petty's death was confirmed by Tony Dimitriades, the longtime manager of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. "On behalf of the Tom Petty family, we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends," wrote Dimitriades in a statement.
"It's shocking, crushing news," Petty's friend Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. "I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I'll never forget him."
After a day in which the world and the music industry were already shaken by the tragic news of a mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival, the death of a music legend is the opposite of the sort of news people want or need.
Petty, a Florida native, is survived by his wife and two daughters.
His music will truly live forever. Here is a look at his three best tunes.
1.) "The End of the Line" (1988). The Traveling Wilburys was a great experiment in music history. Though responsible for just two albums, the group brought together some of the most talented musicians ever: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Ray Orbison.
"The End of the Line" was on the group's Grammy-winning debut album, and it's nothing but a delight. It feels as if you're peeking in on a jam session among the world's coolest musicians — and they haven't yet caught you and asked you to leave.
"It was a wonderful time. I think the one thing I remember is, there was never a negative moment doing that. We really enjoyed that. I think we made that record for us, really.We just enjoyed it," Petty told HazyRock about his memories of the Traveling Wilburys and their first album.
2.) "Free Fallin'" (1989). Like many of Petty's biggest hits, "Free Fallin'" has been sometimes overplayed throughout the years, but that doesn't take away from its energy and electricity.
Petty's simple but compelling guitar chords mixed with his relatable and brilliant lyrics are part of the reason this song can be heard on a near-constant rotation on the radio and in movie trailers. It also has some very good covers by Petty admirers such as John Mayer.
Petty revealed to Billboard last year (in honor of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002) that he wrote "Free Fallin'" just to make fellow musician Jeff Lynne laugh.
Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song, and I think Jeff said something like, "That's a really good riff but there's one chord too many," so I think I cut it back a chord and then, really just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing. Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, "Freefalling." And I went to sing that and he said, "No, take your voice up and see how that feels." So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn't get the whole word in.
So I sang "freeee," then, "free falling." And we both knew at that moment that I'd hit on something pretty good. It was that fast. He had to go somewhere, and I wrote the last verse and kind of just polished the rest of the song and when I saw him the next day I played him the song and he was like, "Wow, you did that last night?" And I was like, "Yeah." And he said. ‘We've got to go cut this,' and we just took off to Mike Campbell's studio where we knew we could get in and get it done that day. So we went in and made the record that day.
3.) "Learning to Fly" (1991). Sure, "Learning to Fly" is another one of Petty's biggest hits and can also suffer at times from being overplayed, but these tunes are monumental hits for good reason.
Tom Petty's biggest hits, including this one, feel like humble Americana. They speak to the experience of growing up, growing old and dealing with the blows that life and relationships can dish out. The upbeat yet challenging nature of songs like "Learning to Fly" can bring a smile even in the worst of times.
Petty revealed to Billboard that the first inspiration for "Learning to Fly" came from seeing images of the Gulf War on television.
He said, "That was inspired by the Gulf War. I remember that line about the rocks melting and the sea burning being directly inspired by seeing this whole thing on TV. I think that was the jumping off point. It became something a little more substantial than that, but that is how it started."
(photo credit, homepage image: Ирина Лепнёва, Wikimedia; photo credit, article image: Daniel Spiess, Flickr)